A growing understanding of neuroscience is generating a lot of interest in meetings circles these days, with planners and facilities looking at how to make conference programs, meals, and room sets more brain-friendly.

It’s a promising trend, with some timely nods to a body of research that is already beginning to shift established practices in other professions. There’s a “déjà vu all over again” element to the conversation, to quote baseball legend Yogi Berra, but if interest in brain-friendly events really takes hold this time, it may be the industry’s chance to get it right.

There’s no shortage of industry speakers who focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of the average meeting room. With a few strong exceptions, their material is a mile wide and half an inch deep, with plenty of talk about helping participants feel happy and comfortable, but no reference to the underlying science or measurable results of the effort.

For many years, veteran educators like Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt Associates, Doug McPhee, CMP, CMM, of Coast to Coast Consultare Inc., and a few others have tried to push, pull, and prod the industry toward a more consistent approach to meeting design. The uptake has been unsteady at best.

Now, the research is falling into place to hone and substantiate their efforts. One of its new proponents, Andrea Sullivan of BrainStrength Systems, brings a complex topic down to concrete tips for meetings. During the IACC Thought Leaders’ Summit last month, she focused on

  • foods that are appropriate to serve at different times of day, depending on whether the program calls for participants to focus on tasks or relax into a round of teambuilding or networking,
  • the sensory experiences on-site that will help participants draw meaning from session content and retain it more effectively, and
  • the extent to which boredom “debilitates the brain” and stops people from retaining information.

That last point, in particular, throws down the gauntlet on an old industry argument about the relative importance of substance and style in a presenter’s approach. Meeting designers have to remember that different audiences define boredom in different ways and plan their programs accordingly.

It turns out that this is exactly the right time to connect with brain research: In late December, Wired magazine carried a report on the growing “insurgency” around the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known colloquially as DSM-5, the bible of the psychiatric profession. The article paints of a picture of a profession driven largely by Freudian supposition that is quickly being overtaken by hard science. “Molecular biology—neuroscience and genetics—has come to dominate inquiries into what makes us tick,” the article states.

This new knowledge creates an opportunity for meetings, but only if we can resist treating measures like brain-friendly food as the latest flavor of the month, to be embraced today and forgotten tomorrow. This isn’t the first time we’ve had the opportunity to improve this aspect of meeting practice. So it’s telling that so much of Sullivan’s material is being received as a new revelation, rather than an important step down a road that should be familiar.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.