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Moving On...Understanding Your Brain at Work

I just read the newest work of David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus and Working Smarter All Day Long, just published. I know it sounds pretty heavy, scientific and academic, but it is fabulous and kept me fully engaged and entertained. The basic premise is that when we understand our brains more fully, we then have a conscious choice over how to engage our brains and have the power to change our habits.

If you think of your prefrontal cortex as a stage and you imagine having two actors on that stage engaged in focused dialogue, you can follow the discussion, correct? What happens when you get 5 or 6 actors on the stage all vying for your attention or all speaking at once? Yes you got it, total overwhelm! The prefrontal cortex is where you prioritize, make decisions, plan, collaborate and create. Making complex decisions and solving new problems is difficult for any stretch of time, because of the biological limits on your brain. This explains why we're so wiped out by the end of a long meeting or the end of the day.

Here are some surprises about the brain:

  • The brain has very limited attention span. If you imagine the subconscious being equal to the US economy, then the conscious mind is more like the coins in your pocket. Every time you use your brain you decrease your brains blood glucose which reduces your ability. So ask yourself, what will I put my attention on? Since our working memory is small, we need to keep the other actors (distractions) off the stage and focus on one thing at a time.

  • Insights come to a quiet brain. We actually need to stop thinking to have insights. This is what happens in the shower, for example, or on a long drive.

  • Emotions decrease our ability to think. Your emotions are always effecting your decisions in the subconscious background. Rather than suppressing your emotions, which actually increases the threat response to your brain, just label the emotion to release the pressure.

  • The brain is extremely social. It organizes all messages based on threat and rewards. How to minimize threat and maximize rewards in the areas of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Keep this in mind when managing; for example, status can be threatened just by challenging someone's idea. Autonomy can be challenged when you don't allow others to make decisions. One of the most interesting examples given was this: You have two mice, one hits a lever and dispenses cocaine to himself, and the other is administered the same amount of cocaine. Both mice will die but the one pushing the lever will live longer. Why? Well, the mice aren't talking, but it's believed that the one pushing the lever has the illusion of control.

  • Changes in the brain can happen in seconds, it doesn't take years, months or weeks as we originally thought. If you want to change your brain patterns you can, and regular application is more important than intense application.

How do we increase our brain power? Get enough rest, reduce interruptions and distractions and realize that your best time is before noon and usually on Mondays and Tuesdays after your weekend. And by the way, people who leave their cell, IPhone or BlackBerry on all the time; studies show it actually reduces their IQ. Permission granted to turn it all off!

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