Napoleon was a neuroscientist
Napoleon used an understanding of neuroscience to develop the strategic insights that characterised his winning strategy.
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Napoleon was a neuroscientist
Napoleon was a Neuroscientist!
Dr Norman Chorn
We all know that Napoleon had magniﬁcent victories at Toulon, Rivoli (perhaps his
greatest of all time) and Austerlitz - but what’s the connection with neuroscience? What did
he know about neuroscience in 1797?
Well, it turns out that Napoleon unknowingly used an understanding of neuroscience to
craft his approach to strategic thinking. In essence he set up the optimum conditions for
his brain to create powerful strategic insights.
In 1926, the English psychologist Graham Wallas, described four key stages of the insight
process that were attributed to creativity. These are:
• Preparation: The conscious assembly of the facts and the study of any related
‘theory’ and history related to the situation
• Incubation: A non-conscious phase - where we deliberately move away from being
intently focused on the problem at hand - during which the facts and information are
combined in different ways to gain an overall picture or pattern of the situation
• Illumination: This is the sudden ‘knowing’ that occurs - much like the sudden
alignment of the cogs in a slot machine when you win the jackpot! And like a slot
machine, the occurrence cannot be forced. We can only create the conditions in
which it is likely to occur. This, too, is a non-conscious phase
• Veriﬁcation: This is the conscious phase during which we translate the insight into
an actionable solution.
From recent neuroscience research, we now understand the process of HOW the insight
process works. Let’s examine how Napoleon used this instinctive understanding to craft
his creative and insightful solutions to winning so many battles.
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NAPOLEON ‘AT WORK’
Let’s examine some of the key elements of Napoleon’s approach:
1. He was a diligent student: Napoleon began his military education at the age of
eight when he was awarded a scholarship to the military college at Brienne. At the
tender age of 15, he moved onto the Ecole Militaire (French Military Academy)
where he studied advanced military tactics and strategy. Upon graduating, he was
awarded a commission into the French Army.
At that stage, Napoleon had a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of
military strategy, and was able to recount numerous case studies and examples of
how battles had been won and lost in a variety of conditions, terrains and troop
combinations. He was able to call on this vast knowledge base in all his thinking
The brain regularly sifts through its memory centres to draw knowledge from the
past in order to formulate an insightful solution. You may know that a particular
approach has repeatedly failed in the past, so this option can potentially be
discounted. In addition, insight often comes from combining experiences or
knowledge that has not been previously combined.
2. He immersed himself in the battle: Napoleon was well know for spending time
with his troops during preparations as well as in the thick of the battle. Napoleon
was keen to smell the smells, taste the tastes and experience the emotions of his
troops. He believed that their insights were invaluable in building a rich and
comprehensive understanding of the battle.
When generating a creative solution to a problem, the brain searches for faint
signals of past successes and failures. This is a critical component of the insight
process, and the more areas of the brain that can be associated with these
experiences, the better the chance you have at sifting through these possible
options quickly and selecting a viable course of action.
3. He retired from the battle to reﬂect: Napoleon was also diligent in making time
for reﬂection and to clear his mind. The time in his quarters was spent thinking
about the ‘bigger picture’.
It’s not easy to ‘hurry up and relax’ as I’m sure many of you have found while taking
a well-deserved, but too-short holiday. Similarly, the brain needs the time to engage
in meditative, quiet time to process what has been happening and to make sense of
The trick is to recognise that there is an important distinction between working hard
and thinking hard. The former requires long hours and relentless effort, while the
latter needs rest and a break from the routine.
This period of ‘resting the brain’ is a critical condition for preparing the brain to
generate creative insights. It also allows for the important process of sensory gating
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whereby we minimise the external visual stimulus to the brain so as to preserve
neural space and energy for the higher brain to do its creative work. This occurs
when we deliberately de-focus from the task and all its data - and turn ‘inwards’ to
allow the brain to begin searching for new combinations of information that can
ultimately result in the creative insight.
4. He waited for a ﬂash of insight: Military historians often point to one idea as
being central to Napoleon’s success. The idea is expressed in French as ‘coup
d’oeil’ - the ﬂash of insight.
The ﬂash of insight - sometimes called strategic intuition - was Napoleon’s
approach of deconstructing a situation to look for different ways of understanding it.
This occurred during his time of quiet reﬂection. During these times of reﬂection,
Napoleon mulled over the information he had gathered from his research and ﬁrst-
hand experiences from the troops - and sought different ways of combining and
recombining this information. He made a point of not jumping to conclusions by
simply using approaches that had worked in similar situations in the past. This
approach allowed Napoleon to develop the creative solutions that most often
changed the course of the battle, and tipped the scales in his favour.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex - the part of the brain that signals the need for a
different way of thinking - prompts the brain to try a different approach when you
face a signiﬁcant challenge and conventional thinking is not wotking. The brain then
begins the process of combining previously unconnected ideas and information. At
the moment of insight, a new neural connection is created which produces the
sense of ‘knowing’ - the aha moment.
In terms of strategic thinking, creative insights are developed when we consider the
concrete facts and seek to group them in different ways. By trying different
combinations - by grouping and regrouping the data - we are looking for different
ways to combine the information so as to make sense of the situation.
5. He acted with conviction: The ﬁnal element in Napoleon’s approach was the
ability to resolve the challenge by acting on this strategic intuition - the decisive
insight that would alter the course of the battle and place him in a winning position.
In his earlier career as a more junior ofﬁcer, Napoleon’s strategic insights were
often treated with derision and resistance, but he had the courage to pursue them
The ﬂashes of insight carried with them the force of action that propelled him
forward. Because he was then able to see the situation with such clarity, he could
more readily muster the resolve to take decisive action.
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