Part I “Neuroscience – Maximizing the Power of Your Brain for Excellence”

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The fascinating subject of neuroscience is the new hot topic in the world of HR due to neuroscientists discovering more than they have ever known before about the brain because of new technology such as fMRI scans. Neuroscientists can see what is actually going on in our brains when we think or take action. Having said that, the neuroscientists still only understand about 10% of how the brain works but they are certainly making progress.

Most of us are not aware of how our brains work. Our brains have evolved and a lot of our thinking and neural connections are automatic and done subconsciously without us having to think about it or even being aware of it

Your brain weighs approximately 3lbs and has amazing abilities but unfortunately it does not come with an instruction booklet and my aim is to share my knowledge through workshops and articles to help you understand how best to use your brain for excellence and to have a successful life and career to the best of your brain’s ability.

Neuroscience is a huge area and I cannot do it justice in one article so I will write several articles on neuroscience over the coming months. My first article will address how our brains are social brains and what that means for us, how to use a technique called anchoring to our advantage and how stress affects us and what we can do about it.

Our social brains

Neuroscientist, Matthew Lieberman, explains that through his research in social neuroscience he has found that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental than our need for food or shelter and that the social pain and pleasure we experience has just as much impact as physical pain and pleasure. In fact he goes further than that and states that social pain is the same as physical pain and pain killers can make the social pain go away as it would if you took a pill for a headache! If this is true, then Maslow’s much heralded theory of the hierarchy of needs stating that physiology is our first need followed by safety, and then social, then status and finally self-actualisation may no longer be true in that order.

Social separation causes pain in infants and the need for social connection is the pain that causes a parent to come to the infant to look after it. Feeling social pain is one of the fundamental achievements of the brain to get us to come together.

As an infant you cried when you were hungry, thirsty or cold but you also cried when you were simply separated from your parent/carer because social separation causes the same area in the brain to light up as actual physical pain does. My youngest daughter who is now 22 still remembers only too well (and still hates how it makes her feel) when her father took her to school on her first day and jokingly said to her at the school gates as he kissed her goodbye – “I’ll see you when you are 16 years old when you finish school” – at that young age she did not realise he was making a joke and she clung on to him crying and screaming and wouldn’t go with the teacher, She still feels that same social pain today when she thinks about it.

Anchoring

When we experience intense feelings (good and bad) those experiences become etched into our brains and we have the ability to bring back strong feelings whenever we think about it, which can be used to our advantage as we can also do this with good feelings. Much of what neuroscience says backs up a lot of what neurolinguistic programming teaches. You can voluntarily “anchor” the feelings you want to remember simply by remembering what you heard, what you saw, what you felt and using all your senses by really taking your brain back there as if it was now. At the pinnacle of the feeling you can “anchor” that feeling in some way, such as by pressing your thumb and finger together to act as a trigger. The type of feeling you may want to bring back could be a strong feeling of confidence for example so you can have confidence in any situation that you face. The more you repeat this exercise the easier it becomes to use the anchor trigger and have the feelings and attributes you need and want in order to do your job well and live the successful life you all deserve.

Neuroscience says that if you learn in order to teach someone else you learn better than if you learn in order take a test. When you are socially motivated to learn, the social brain can do the learning and it can do it better than the analytical part of the brain that is activated when you try to simply memorize.

This idea of learning for teaching was actually implemented in France as a national standard after the French revolution when there was a massive teacher shortage. Children were recruited to teach other children and it was wildly successful. For this reason it is useful to become coaches, mentors, buddies of your colleagues and teach them the areas you are the “expert” in – this could be in Microsoft office packages, induction matters, event management and any other area.

Due to the wiring of our social brains, when you praise a colleague’s performance you are doing the same to the colleague’s “reward system” that receiving a salary raise would do. Whenever I am taking workshops about working with difficult people – especially the “commander” type boss – I always tell delegates to praise bosses when they deserve it. It will make them feel better about themselves and their situation, plus they will feel better towards you and it will raise their mood.

Our happiness

Neuroscientists know that social connection and our social wellbeing is the real route to happiness. However, we often value the pursuit of wealth more, and often at the expense of our social wellbeing, that is, we spend more time at the office rather than socially with family and friends. Our brains are happier when we have a really good work-life balance and this includes the workaholics (if they only knew it!). So make sure you know what the social calendar is of your boss including their evening appointments (and this may mean liaising with their other half). Make sure their social appointments are in their diaries whether it is a squash match with a friend, an anniversary celebration, a child’s birthday party, a parent-teacher meeting etc and make sure they make those appointments by not putting anything into their diaries before these meetings that may overrun and encroach on their social time. I believe I have saved marriages over the years as I have made sure my bosses have met their social calendar appointments.

Our social brains and the wish to avoid social pain and gain the lighting up of our brains are the reasons why social media has taken off so successfully and is part of our everyday life from children to old age. We simply love and enjoy connecting with other people whether they are our friends, family, colleagues or strangers because the social parts and feelgood factors of our brains light up and simply make us feel good. This especially happens when people like your posts, the photographs you post and are interested in what you have to say, what you are doing and especially when they comment favourably on your statements.

Neuroscientist, Matthew Lieberman said “Not knowing the real literal value of social could be our greatest mistake. We need to teach others about their social superpowers if they want to be smarter, happier and more productive.”

Stress

We all know we need to keep stress, pressure and anxiety to the minimum and the biological reason for this is that when we suffer from stress, we produce cortisol and adrenalin, which can be good in small quantities but extremely harmful in larger quantities. Stress actually reduces the good neurotransmitters of dopamine levels in our brain and then we have less ability to think and act properly. Cortisol is released in response to fear as well as stress as part of the fight or flight mechanism.

It is important to understand when your cortisol levels are too high, it interferes with learning, memory, blood pressure, cholesterol, increases weight gain, heart disease and even depression, mental illness and possibly results in a lower life expectancy.

Also the thinking part of our brain that makes reason and thinks logically is the prefrontal cortex (the part behind the forehead) and this is impaired when we are under stress, or the fight/flight mechanism is reacting and we can no longer think properly or sensibly.

One of the great gifts we have is the ability to learn new things every day as one of the exciting developments that neuroscientists have discovered is the neuroplasticity of our brain (“plastic” meaning pliable) and its ability to form new neural pathways and connections, which means we can change our habits and the brain can grow and change even into old age. So we now know we can rewire our brains for success and excellence. We do this by rebuilding the neural pathways in our brain, and this means we need to repeat new ways until it becomes automatic and a welcome habit.

The more you repeat something or solve a problem and then solve the problem again the more your neural pathways will strengthen.

Our brains like to take a rest for five minutes at least five times a day as well as an hour for lunch. When you are learning something new or focusing on something difficult, you should work and study hard without interruption and practice intently and then take a break or at least change your focus to something different for a while. During the times of relaxation, your brain’s subconscious has a chance to work away in the background and help you with your understanding. Ideas will pop into your head as they bubble up to the surface from your subconscious mind when you least expect it like when in the shower or taking the dog for a walk or, as happens to me, when I’m driving.

What happens in your brain can depend on you to a certain extent. There are things you can do and think to help you be your outstanding self such as exercise your body whether it is attending a gym or going for walks, runs and cycling. With one of my bosses I knew he needed to go to the gym at least three times a week for self preservation (for him and me!), helping him think better, helping him consolidate and understand concepts and whatever problem he was working on, and simply to put him in a good mood. Therefore I made sure that the gym was in his diary at least three times a week over lunchtime and was a “meeting” not to be moved and as set in stone as if it was an important client meeting. In fact I was more inclined to develop more gym sessions for him than allow him not to go to one – or at least the threat of creating another gym session reminded him that perhaps he was not in a very good mood! I still meet him today for lunch/coffee and a catch up (15 years after I stopped working for him) and he still goes to the gym three times a week even though he is semi-retired.

You can also exercise your brain intellectually by doing puzzles, playing board games such as chess, scrabble, learning something new like a language or simply taking an interest in everything around you especially when travelling somewhere new. Neuroscientists also believe that meditation and mindfulness are extremely good for the brain – being aware of what is happening right now and what you are thinking and doing rather than acting automatically which is our brain’s natural default system. Simply being in the moment gives you the ability to choose and respond rather than react. Exercising your mind and body helps to improve blood flow into the brain, helps decrease blood pressure and it also improves mood and brainpower by raising dopamine and endorphin levels and, importantly, decreasing cortisol levels. Understanding how our brains work and knowing what they need is imperative for a happy, healthy and successful life for ourselves and for us to help others.

Next time I will write about neuroscience and sleep, how best to use our brains for memory and the tricks our brains play. In the meantime remember how important our social brain and connections are, how important it is to take breaks and exercise our mind as well as our body and how important it is to practice mindfulness meditation.

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About Author

Sue France

Sue France FCIPD FInstAM INLPTA Trainer, coach and conference Chairperson, Neuroscience enthusiast. Creator of the ‘Workation’ training. Author of award winning “The Definitive Executive Assistant & Managerial Handbook” and “The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook 3rd edition. Qualified FCIPD Learning & Development Practitioner and coach, Certified Neuro Linguistic Programming Master Practitioner, The UK Times Crème/DHL PA of the Year 2006, Certified TetraMap® Facilitator, Editorial board member of ‘Executive Secretary’ magazine. Contact Sue at [email protected] or call +44 (0) 7747 118914

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