Your Brain at Work

Summary Written by Carolyn B. Thompson
"It’s only by knowing your brain that you change it."

- Your Brain at Work, Introduction

The Big Idea

Prioritizing – one of the brain’s most energy hungry processes

"If Emily knew how energy-hungry her [Prefrontal Cortex] was, she would start her Monday morning prioritizing."- Your Brain at Work , Act 1, Scene 2

The Prefrontal Cortex runs conscious thought – understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, inhibiting. With all this, as you can imagine, it requires significant resources to operate. The resources are glucose and oxygen and the Prefrontal Cortex chews up a lot of them. A study was done that showed how much harder any task is after you complete a difficult one. After just a few mental activities you may not have enough energy to prioritize. But people who drank something sugary found a marked improvement in their performance.

Instead of the weight gain and dental bills that go with the sugar fix, I’ve already started doing the most energy intense thing first – prioritizing. Before I would just take the first task on the pile. In addition there are other easy to implement things that will reduce the amount of energy the Prefrontal Cortex takes to operate:

  • language takes more energy to hold information than visuals, so think in visuals instead of words
  • save your Prefrontal Cortex for the most important functions by writing things down instead of manipulating them only in your mind
  • plan recovery time by putting high energy consumption tasks together. Then when you move to the low energy tasks it’s a break for the brain (compared to mixing it up all day and never getting a substantial break).

Insight #1

You can really only process one thing well at a time

"While it is physically possible sometimes to do several mental tasks at once, accuracy and performance drop off quickly. The consequences can be harsh."- Your Brain at Work, Act 1, Scene 3

I so don’t want to believe this but the evidence and research is overwhelming. Yes, it depends on what you’re doing – if I’m cooking dinner I can do more than one thing at a time and not impact performance as much as if I’m doing complex math and talking to a staff member about his performance. Really? When I do several things t once the food is rarely cooked exactly right or looks exactly right compared to when I do one thing at a time.

Prefrontal Cortex processes, in addition to using an incredibly large amount of energy, also involve the complex manipulation of billions of neurological circuits. Many processes even use the exact same circuits! It’s like expecting a calculator to multiply and divide using the same keys at the same time.

But in today’s world people expect you to do more than one thing at a time – and you can if you take a lesson from ball jugglers. Jugglers throw the balls up and catch them over and over until it becomes “embedded” in the Basal Ganglia, instead of being managed by the Prefrontal Cortex. Driving is the perfect example: you embed holding the wheel, then embed using the accelerator and brake, then embed parking, etc. That’s why I can listen to a book on tape or the GPS or a passenger and answer their questions and still drive. I’ve started listing tasks that I do that are already embedded and planning to do them at the same time I do another embedded one. Thus saving energy for the new, not embedded tasks.

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Insight #2

Hot buttons

"'Minimize danger, maximize reward' is the organizing principle of the brain."- Your Brain at Work, Act 2, Scene 7

I would never have thought this section of the book would have been important to me based on its title – “Derailed by Drama” – but it helped me understand a response I’ve been having a lot lately that’s apparently controlled by my Limbic System. The Limbic System encompasses several parts of the brain and has as one of its main functions the responsibility to continuously make toward and away decisions – causing us to move away from things that threaten us and toward things that reward us.

The hot buttons that trigger my Limbic System away response right now are asking me to serve on a board, do something early in the morning (water ski time), do something social more than two nights a week, do something with people who whine and complain. The away response causes over arousal of the Limbic System and whether the threats are real or imagined, when it’s over aroused the resources available for Prefrontal Cortex functions are reduced. At the same time the Limbic System is pumping out increased amounts of hormones like Adrenaline and Cortisol. You can see the problem here – if you’re asking me to serve on a board I will forget the really good reasons to not be on the board, get flustered and just say “no” in a less than appropriate tone, then back-peddle as I hear the tone and make it worse and worse. That’s why after this happens to us we think later of all the things we should have said that would have made the other person feel better about our “no”.

What can we do? Trying not to feel the emotion doesn’t work because this action uses valuable Prefrontal Cortex resources causing us to make even more mistakes in what we’re doing or saying. Lucky for us it’s not just the Limbic System that gets aroused. Increasing arousal in the Prefrontal Cortex takes away resources from the Limbic System! We can increase arousal in the Prefrontal Cortex when we feel a strong emotion by stopping to put a word or two to describe how we feel – frustrated, overwhelmed, angry. This labeling is a Prefrontal Cortex function and it allows us to get control of our feelings because it stops the Limbic System away response. Even better is that over time and with practice labeling our emotions can become automatic i.e. no longer using the resources of the Prefrontal Cortex.

Everything boils down to the abilities and the limitations of the Prefrontal Cortex. This book will (I know you’ve heard this before, but this time it’s for real) really change the way you do everything if you work towards those abilities. I can already see a change in my completion of tasks. It’s very reinforcing!

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Get Your Brain at Work on Amazon.

David Rock

I have been interested in ‘what makes us tick’ since as early as I can remember, and my personal interest in brain research has been there since my teens.

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