The Year of the Brain: 10 Things I learned and Why You Should Too

UPDATE NOTE: A version of this article has also been published at my Huffington Post blog. See it here! 

T’is the season for lists! A year in review of ____(fill in the blank); the top 10 list of __ (fill in the blank). There’s a list for everything and I’ve got several of my own. One of them happens to be about my brain. Actually, it’s about your brain too.

Brain (microsoft)

Indeed this was the year of the brain. Neuroscience is now the ‘it’  topic and this hot (and really cool) area of science is no longer the exclusive domain of neuroscientists,  brainiacs, and academics.. We are all getting in on the action and that’s a good thing.

A little neuroscience savvy gives us all power to understand ourselves, manage ourselves and adapt  behaviours to work with our brain not against it.

I’ve taken a number of courses this year specially designed for coaches and related professionals to learn about some key neuroscience principles and, more importantly —  to apply them in every day work and life.  Let’s face it, times are indeed ‘crazy busy’ for many of us so learning how to keep ourselves sharp, hearty, resilient and effective with some brain savvy can’t hurt.

Many of these insights are highlighted in my book, Ease –Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy”.  I’d like to pay a year-end tribute to the brain with my list:  “10 Things I Learned About the Brain and Why You Should Too.”

*Please note that in this list, I use the term ‘brain’ very loosely here, recognizing that the brain is a highly complex, embodied organ with many different parts, functions, relationships in our bodies.

1)      Too much stress compromises our higher thinking brain’s capacity.

The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain that drives much of our higher-thinking brain functions such as problem solving, analyzing, prioritizing, distinguishing and reflecting.   When we feel overly stressed, this part of the brain ‘gears down’ and lets the stress brain (amygdala) take precedence.  No time for reflective thought; it’s time for flight or fight!

Just when we need it most we lose our ‘thinking ability’! So learn to manage that stress response so you can properly think your way through those ‘crazy busy’ times.

2)      Our brains love it when we get organized and make plans:

When I’m totally stressed out I take a moment to pause, park and reflect. I write out a list, prioritize and make plans. Turns out thinking activities such as reflecting, prioritizing, planning, not only use the prefrontal cortex, they also stimulate it and bring it back online. So taking just a few moments to get a bit more organized will not only bring our higher thinking brain back online, you will also be rewarded with a dose of GABA, the hormone that brings a feeling of calm. Two orders of that please!

3)      Our brains have a sweet spot of optimal stress for its best functioning:

Goldilocks was so finicky. She needed everything just right. Turns out our brains do too. While too much stress can compromise the prefrontal cortex and ‘shut down’ our brain’s capacity for higher functioning, too little stress can do the same. Neuroscientist Amy Arnsten, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at Yale University, says the prefrontal cortex is the “Goldilocks” part of the brain – it needs everything to be “just right” for optimal performance.

So become aware of your sweet spot. Learn to ramp it up when under-stressed  (see here for tips) and how to tame the stress when overloaded ( See here for tips on taming your brain) and note that my book, Ease is loaded with guidance to help you do just that.

4)      Our higher thinking brains are not meant to store large loads of information:

Our PFC is meant to perform critical thinking activity but isn’t meant to be a storage bin for all of our ‘to-do’s.  Yet, all too often, we try to load up our ‘to-do’s in our head which is a first class ticket to ‘Mind Full” syndrome.

I’ve learned that it is important to get too much of my ‘stuff’ out of my head but keep it appropriately top of mind. So ‘yay’ to structures like lists, plans, etc.  Those loads in your brain can be major distractions and prevent us from focusing. Speaking of which….see next point.

5)      Focus is ‘candy for the brain’ – and the body too:

Our higher thinking brains love to focus. When we focus, we are rewarded with better thinking, more clarity, a feeling of engagement, and sometimes, even a dose of GABA (hormone) which is like antacid for the brain and brings a feeling of calm.

Unfortunately, we tend not to give ourselves much focus time. Instead we juggle, multitask and exhaust our brains which are not built for multitasking attention. This can be a major energy drain compromises productivity, creativity and efficiency. So ditch the multitasking habit. Chunk down your priorities and bring more focus into your day — even if for only minutes at a time, start small and build up from there.  Read this excerpt from Ease to learn more.

6)      Our brains tend to hold on to ‘unfinished business’.

Long ago (1927), Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered that people tend to remember incomplete or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.  Known as the Ziegarnik effect, this can be a good thing – if you are a waiter and remembering food and drink orders. But not so much if you are dealing with a heavy workload when tasks are never quite finished.  The weight of unfinished business can burden us and contribute to the feeling of overwhelm.

So more proof for the merit of making plans for your unfinished business – e.g. schedule it or put it into a to-do list. This will give your brain a feeling of completion for the moment vs. letting it swirl around in your brain with menace — distracting and taunting you as you try to get through it all.  This strategy will also help you sleep better at night, another essential for maximizing your ‘brain-ability’.

7)      Positivity broadens and builds your brain (and life) capacity:

Positivity is not just a ‘nice-to-have’ attribute. It is truly an essential ingredient for success and well-being. Positivity scientist, Barbara Fredrickson, coined the term ‘broaden and build’ to capture this notion and years of hard scientific evidence that links positive emotions with better health, improved brain and cognitive function, greater personal efficacy, a heightened ability to connect and an overall boost to one’s potential to thrive with more fulfillment and success.

Learn to rein in the negativity and to boost your positivity. You don’t have to be permanently positive (that would not be real) but do aim for a minimum of 3:1 ratio of positive thoughts to negative. Go for the micro moments and get plenty into your daily diet. See here for an article I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the positivity advantage. And note, the last chapter in Ease, dives into this with plenty of tips.

8)      Connecting with others is good for the brain, body and spirit:  

Interacting with people positively can boost levels of the hormone oxytocin, which can have a calming effect. It’s also one of the best ways to boost your positivity ratio.

Don’t go it alone! Seek out positive connections. Even moments at a time will give you and your brain boost.

9)      A picture is worth a thousand words. 

While our left brain hemispheres  may like to organize and create lists, our right brains love metaphors and visuals. Sometimes focusing on an image or a mantra can bring the calm and open our minds more so than using our rationale brains. There is no such thing as being a left brain or right brain person. For maximum success, we all need to integrate and tap into both sides of our brains. So go ahead and give it a try: create a picture, image or a saying that will help you tap into a more positive, calmer state at a moment’s notice.

10)      You can teach an “old dog new tricks”!

Our brains may be the same model we inherited from our ancestors from early days but they are neuroplastic which means that with repetition and practice, we can create new neural paths and connections. That means we can create new habits, new ways of thinking and new ways of reacting and experiencing the ups and downs of work and life.

 We have the power to choose.  You can indeed change.  Practice, rinse, repeat. Then see what happens.

And there’s so much more! To learn more about how to apply some basic neuroscience savvy and positivity  to experience greater ease, well-being and success in work and life, check out my new book, Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy”. There are 17 tools and oodles of tips and strategies that are deceptively simple yet can be profoundly effective.

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