Just as the heart is part of a system that moves blood around the body, in a similar way the nervous system which includes the brain, is part of a structure that moves and responds to information as it flows and moves around the body.
The brain itself takes a lot of energy to function well. That’s why as we get tired and run out of energy it gets harder to think clearly. It’s only 2 to 3 lbs in weight but uses a staggering 20% of all the glucose and oxygen that the body as a whole needs.
As mentioned in, "hard wired to connect” , the brain includes tiny switches called neurons which fire like spark plugs in a car. There’s about 800 billion of them at the last best count. Each individual neuron or switch is directly connected to approximately 5,000 others – like having 5,000 other neurons on speed dial. These 5,000 neurons are connected to another 5,000 and so on, like a chain of connectivity throughout the brain. Because neurons are connected in this way, they are only ever a few hops away from any other neuron in the whole brain.
Despite the following fact...
The potential number of possible connections that this setup provides is - and bear in mind we are talking about your brain right now -greater than all the measured elementary particles in the entire known universe.
The potential number of connections in your brain is greater than all the measured elementary particles in the entire known universe
So how do neurons speed dial and therefore communicate with each other and why is this important in terms of how well we work?
Imagine a couple of islands separated by some water. Each island has its own stranded inhabitant who communicates with the other islander by placing messenger bottles in the water and then waits for them to wash up on his neighbours’ shores.
In a similar way the neurons ‘talk’ to each other by sending little packets of chemical ‘bottles’ across tiny gaps that separate them from their neighbours. They move across these gaps in the tiniest fractions of a second. These chemicals either encourage or discourage neighbouring neurons to fire. The fancy name for these chemical bottles is a neurotransmitter and the gap or body of water is called a synapse.
Understanding what happens when we have too much or too little of these chemical bottles provides a big insight in how retraining attention and regulating emotions through mindfulness, meditation and compassion is crucial to being well at work and working effectively in teams.
Just behind the forehead is where our thoughts are drawn and erased – it’s called the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). It’s responsible for many crucial things we need including:
- Decision making
- Regulating emotions
- Reading the intentions of others
Unfortunately this area right behind the forehead is extremely sensitive to two main messenger bottles. Too few or too many of certain types of bottles basically causes this area to close down. The relationship between these chemical bottles and its performance is so connected that you can see the effect in a simple diagram.
Patricia Goldman-Rakic found if two particular bottles or neurotransmitters, called dopamine and norepinephrine were eliminated it was as though this part of the brain was physically removed. This is shown on the very left side of the picture, as we are fatigued, tired, disinterested or bored.
In the opposite way, too much of these neurochemicals (moving to the far right side of the picture) and the connections become dysfunctional, networks start disconnecting and firing shuts down altogether. This is what happens when we are chronically stressed or in moments of threat when massive amounts of norepinephrine and dopamine are released.
In each case at either end we have a PFC shut-down. The area we need to work well to perform well at work turns off.
A Goldilocks zone
There is, however, an optimum level. We need just the right amount of stress (eustress) and arousal – this is the middle of the picture, the top of the curve.
In general norepinephrine strengthens the circuits related to what we want to be alert or pay attention to. Dopamine keeps out distraction, it increases when we feel motivated, consequently guiding where we keep our focus. Dopamine is also essential to learning as it’s related to being open minded and curious.
So, for optimal performance of this part of brain we need a balance of alertness (norepinephrine) and interest (dopamine) whilst we are relaxed.
Alert, present and relaxed. Mindful, aware and spacious.
This area also works best when we are spaciously with one task at a time. This might be counter-intuitive especially in our cultural environment which readily encourages and celebrates its opposite.
Unfortunately we don’t multi-task we ‘task switch’. We may task switch quickly, very quickly in fact, but in terms of the prefrontal cortex we switch attention between tasks.
This actually leads to what Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention”. We are never able to bring our full resources to anything before we switch over to something else. This rapid task switching also causes an increasing stress response – we move toward the right of the curve.
One study also found “that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted (and) after an interruption….. (taking) 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all” (Your Brain at Work, David Rock) it becomes clear that managing attention, arousal and distraction levels is critical to working well.
And as Maureen mentioned in the post "Happiness is not found on automatic pilot" a recent Harvard study by Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, found that people’s minds wandered 47 per cent of the time during an average day and that this wandering leads to increasing unhappiness.
So it’s a lose/lose situation. We don’t bring all of our resources because we constantly task switch, due to lack of applied attention and this mind wandering is driven by a lack of applied attention and all this actually causes us unhappiness.
By retraining attention through practising mindfulness, meditation and compassion we become increasingly present, un-distracted to the tasks and world at hand. This process also regulates these two neurochemicals. Mindfulness, meditation and compassion activate the body’s relaxation response, reducing the amount of these neurotransmitters if we are stressed –therefore moving us from right to the left of the curve. But equally as the techniques involve a mindful, wakeful, curious, undistracted view of the present - it moves us from left to right in the picture.
We are alert yet relaxed, spaciously present to our tasks, work team and environment.
This is the sweet spot for this area of the brain and the sweet spot for working well.