Neuroscience and Self Care

ibrain41I have excitedly commenced a qualification in Neuroscience for Leadership recently. It’s such a wonderful feeling to learn new information, incorporiate it into the work I do and to take on board the principles and research so kindly undertaken by experts in this field.

There is so much information around about Neuroscience yet as I commence this study I have been amazed at how little we know about how our brain impacts on our lives and in our work, how we operate in our daily lives, respond to conflict, interact in relationships, the workplace and importantly understand ourselves.

It also tells us much more about the concept of human resilience and bounceability.

So what is Neuroscience?

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system. This includes regions of the brain, neurons and connections throughout the nervous system. Neuroscience assists us to understand human thoughts, behavious and emotions. This field of study assists us to understand how our brain operates under certain circumstances, how and what happens when we are under stress, the impact of self talk and how the brain can change itself.

By understanding neuroscience, we gain a better understanding of what occurs when different emotions are at play, the mysteries that surround neurological and psychiatric disorders and how our nervous system plays a vital role in our health and well being. We can learn how to engage the brain’s braking system when under stress and activate higher intelligence through the reduction in multitasking.

With the increasing complexities that we deal with in our busy lives, liviing in an instant and reactive society, 75% of professionals experience burnout at least once during their working life (Brown 2008) and 39% of professionals suggest they feel symptoms of burnout on a contnual basis. Further, 82% report high levels of psychological stress on a regular basis and 33% experience emotional exhaustion regularly (Oyefeso et al 2008).

Even though research has been progressing for decades in the area of neuroscience,  it is only more recently that we are seeing neuroscience transcend across science and into human services, organisational change and leadership. It is also viewed as a recognised discipline and with some vigour is making its entrance from biology, chemistry and science to include studies in human behaviour and cognition.

Lets think about some brain facts:

  • Whilst our brain is a highly complex organ and structure, we ony use about 10% at any one time (Brainfacts 2012)
  • There are about 50,000 thoughts that occupy our attention each day (Ray 2012)
  • Our prefrontal cortex, the conscious part of our brain reflects 17% of our total brain mass
  • Our brain’s braking system has a unique role in understanding how to reduce stress and maximise positive responses and inform decision making
  • Whilst we can task switch it is not possible to multitask effectively
  • If we live in a high stress zone for a period of time without reduction, our emotional centre the Amygdala grows and our short term memory is affectied and we have less ability to respond appropriately in a given situation
  • We can trick our brain to think we are smiling and increase the level of dopamine in our body – which links to reward and pleasure.
  • We need dopamine to be present in the body to engage in learning

With the different pressures that come with living in a post modern society, it is worth considering what impact multitasking has on the brain, how we endeavour to undertake multipe tasks at the one time, walk and text, talk on the phone, operate the computer whilst watching a movie, tv, etc etc etc, we don’t yet fully understand how this is impacting on the brain.

Historically. we have thought that we are easily able to multitask and often as a senior manager I have myself and with my own teams encouraged multitasking to meet the demands of the role and work performance of the team thinking we were engaging in high performance outcomes.

We now know this is not conducive to a healthy brain or for sound health and well being. Whilst we can task swich successfully, this does not mean it contributes to high performance in our work or personal life. The brain is wired to only be able to respond/concentrate on one task/thing at a time. When we task swich we only filter parts of information received in the prefrontal cortex and valuable information is lost that may be required for retrieval at a later time.

If we think about this for a moment. Have you ever been speaking on the phone and sitting with your laptop or at the computer repsonding to emails at the same time? Have you been having a conversation with someone and thinking of something else at the same time not concentrating on the conversation. When we multitask we filter small pieces of information and this impacts on the prefrontal cortex and how we the relay station in the brain called that thalamas. When we endeavour recall at a later time, we can only retrieve parts of information from the conversation and interpreation of teh meaning may be impacted.

So often today we switch between multiple tasks during the day in the workplace. We repsond immediately to emails rather than putting aside blocks of time to undertake this task. We are continually interrupted in our thinking by phone calls, open door policy and immediate conversations.

If we better understood the impacts on this on our brain, we would be better abled in our performance and health and well being. Neuroscience tells us taht multitasking is not conducive to high performance and can increase stress responses, increases the brain’s propensity to a threat response and reduce resilience over time. Understanding how emotion also links to multitasking and impact on the brain assists us to engage better self care.

As the most complex organ in our body, the brain understands a range of emotions. By labelling the emotion and the impact it may hold means we can then assist to control an emotion through our response or reaction. This is quite revealing if we think of this in the context of  how we operate under stress, how teams operate under stress in the work context. When under stress, it is often difficult to bring information with clarity into our prefrontal cortrex that assists to problem solve, provide reasoning which assists to make sound judgments, plan and prioritise. Understanding how to engage the brain’s braking system assists to re-align thoughts and emotions. The brain is always on the look out for threats more than the positives so understanding how to minimise threats assists also to support our health and well being.

Brain’s Braking System

Our emotions can highjack us, be controlling and bossy, create unhelpful and unhealthy thought patterns and impact on whether we see things in life as a threat or positive. 

Often under stress it is difficult to think straight, filter information to make an informed decision and difficult to ‘see the wood for the trees’. Amazingly though it only takes 1/3 second to activate the brain’s braking system and therefore understanding the role of mindfulness is vital for optimum health and well being, increase resilience and feel positive.

Having an encoded message that you send to the brain when under stress, not feeling positive or engaging in negative emotions assists to activate the brain’s braking system and self regulate to increase a resilience response. By engaging curiousity and have an intentional language framework, you can re-align negative thoughts and recalibrate to minimise the impact of a stress response. This can be particularly useful when in particular situations such in conflict or in times of stress. It can also be impactful when having experienced a traumatic or vicariously traumatic experience. Just think for a moment how this changes the impact of negative conversations, managing fear and threat performance mangaement frameworks and change management processes. It provides the opportunity to deal with stress at the moment it has impact rather than over time cumulate stress that then impacts on health and well being, depression and anxiety.

The art of knowing what strategies assist the brain to regulate emotions and therefore repsonses to different situations is another effective way of supporting health and well being, increase resilience and reduce the threat.

Stratgies like getting the brain ready or priming it for a response, labelling an emotion, reappraising what the emotion looks like, being more conscious of what and how the emotion is impacting and engaging in mindfullness techniques all

Decision Makiing & Feedback

As we have been exploring, our brain is on the look out for threats and we pay more attention to threats around us rather than the positives. Our brains look out for patterns of certainty and having strategies to maximise certainty is important. This has particular relevance to the workplace and performance frameworks.

Automatically when managers engage staff in feedback processes,  we can assume that the employee primes the brain for this situation and scans for what feedback may be provided and of course this includes constructive or negative feedback.

With the brain paying more attention to looking for the threat and what impact this might have, engaging in the feedback process with particular strategies in mind will provide the brain with a reward or more positive response, therefore the feedback process will be conducive to higher impact.

If managers can assist staff by keeping them in a positive space, allow the employee to find meaning, connect with the feedback appropriately, allow the employee to make assessment and patterns of certainty, feedback will becoming more dynamic and abetter outcomes/performance will ensue. We need to near a message 30 times before it is embedded in our basal gamglic and 1000 times for it to embed beyond into the unconsciousness. This provides a unique understanding about how we interpret feedback and if employees hear the same message from managers particularly given the brain is always on the lookout for the threat thiis becomes the pattern that is expected.If the brain recalls memory of the negative message and this has been the pattern, this is what is expected in the pattern of feedback.

If feedback is more dyamic, it has an intentional language framework and is insightful. When we are in a more relaxed state, we take in information that provides clarity and assists with attaching meaning to the message, decision making comes more easily. When we receive negative messages on a regular basis, we attach this pattern, it embeds in the basal ganglia and poorer performance follows.

When ever we endeavour to make a decision cognitive dissonance is present and we try to marry our beliefs and thoughts during this process. Remembering the brain needs patterns of certainty and therefore reduce the uncertainty where possible. It is only when we are able to attach meaning, the perspective of the dissonance and reframe or reappaise then we can make a different decision.

Understanding the role and impact of brain friendly questions in providing feedback assists employees to provide certainty the brain and therefore take on the feedback and make sound judgement.

In summary, neuroscience is providing new context and meaning to how teams operate, how we understand the role of multitasking and performance. It provides us as professionals with a new way of supporting teams and outcomes.

Until my next blog on this amazing area.