It’s like head office, barking orders about what to think, feel, say and do – or is it? Is your brain controlling you or can you control it? And can you harness your grey matter for better sleep, less stress, and greater sanity, or is it all just an elaborate illusion?
The brain is humans’ greatest asset – and biggest handicap. It can lift tall buildings in a single thought and come up with ingenious ways to graft a tomato plant to a broken fence. But instead, it often bobbles around considering the finer points of table decor on My Kitchen Rules, firing off arbitrary nonsense through a filter of fizzy alcohol and telling you you’ll die if you mess up a work presentation.
The problem with the engine upstairs is that it’s a bit like a hyperactive toddler, racing around in native chaos we accept without questions. “Many people live their daily life without making active decisions”. “Our good intentions and goals often get hijacked by automatic responding”. The fallout is that our adult wisdom is overshadowed. Despite knowing that we need to exercise and eat well to maintain a healthy weight, for instance, we do the opposite.
But the brain doesn’t need to be in the driver’s seat. “We need to recognize that as individuals we have much more autonomy and choice, It’s common for people to say I’d like to but I can’t, but we all have far more options than we appreciate”.
We do, however, use more than 10 percent of your brain a myth sometimes wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein. In fact, there’s a hell of a lot of action going on up there you may not be aware of.
“The brain is mind-boggling”. “One human brain has an average of 70,000 thoughts per day and generates more electrical impulses than all the telephones in the world combined.”
The brain contains millions of cells and synapses – the chemical ‘marriage’ or communication between brain cells – there are crucial for maintaining mental sharpness.
“Our brains have hundreds of trillions of synapses – 1,500 times the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy”.
Twenty years ago it was assumed that we didn’t make new brain cells as we age, but we know this is not the case. We do produce new brain cells but to keep the,, you’ve got to give them something new to do.
“The brain is far more plastic than once thought”. “We do make the new brain cells (neurons) for the memory system, but if we don’t use them by learning new things they die. If we challenge our brain those new brains cells get recruited and connected with other brain cells and remain.”
But how do you challenge your brain to perform how you want it to? How can you be more creative and avoid crumbling under deadlines? And how can you find our sunglasses when they’re on your head?
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Many of us are cursed with such appalling memories that it’s indeed fortunate we can’t really lose our heads because they haven’t been screwed on properly.
Short and long-term memory are very different. While short-term memory is limited by time and space, long-term memory is extensive with connections throughout the brain’s cortex. Intelligence plays a major role in determining the ability to recall events and information – both in the short and long term – but there is plenty you can do to dramatically improve what you’ve got.
“Making associations makes it much easier to retrieve information”. “One of the neuropsychological tests to measure memory is to try to remember 16 items. But the items actually collapse into four categories, and once you do that in your head it’s much easier to remember four categories of four rather than the 16 items. It’s this shuffling information into categories, or chunking information and making associations that helps us remember it.”
A clever trick of memory maestros is to create a visual scaffold to hold information and then to regularly visualize its contents. When you have to place a new memory in your mind, the structure is already in place. So when you put those keys down, imagine placing them on a hook in your brain.
“When we learn or do something new we’ve got to file it somewhere and it’s much better to do conscious filling than unconscious filing, that’s when you have the awareness that you know the information but don’t know where to find it”.
Not all stress is and. Like a good coffee, in the right quantity, it makes us alert and ready for action. But too much stress, or ongoing stress with not enough down tome, rattles our mental performance and makes everything feel like hard work.
“When we’re stressed a message goes down to the adrenal gland that releases adrenalin and cortisol”. This gets our heart racing and creates muscle tension and causes blood pressure to increase, and a number of other physiological changes.
“Chronic stress – long-term stress – can ultimately compromise brain function. We see that with people who have had chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, permanent memory problems occur.”
Stress is also a major risk factor for depression, anxiety, and dementia.
The secret to managing stress effectively is to balance high-pressure work and family activity with regular relaxation time. “It’s easy to miss lunch and work straight through when you’ve got so much work to do, but you’ll work far less effectively than if you just took the half-hour lunch break and then went back to work”.
Annual holidays are a great time to unwind but are not enough in themselves.
“It takes some people four to five days to start to feel that they’re relaxing, which means they need to consistently start taking more time out during their day and plan frequent short holiday breaks”.
“Time out, exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet are essential to lowering your stress response.”
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What do David Bowie and da Vinci have in common? The three traits of creative thinking that most of us can practice.
“People who are good at thinking creatively don’t necessarily have high IQs”. “Instead there are three particular personality characteristics that seem to be more important.”
The first is nonconformity – openness to experience, willingness to take risks or try new things, and lack of concern about conforming to accepted standards. Despite often leaning towards introspection, the great creative minds of art and literature were famous for seeking out new experiences, people, and knowledge, plying their pens and brushes in Parisian cafes and foreign lands. “Creative thinkers constantly question, inspect, seek, and probe”.
“This is partly because they are open to novelty but they are also more likely to notice new things, or to spot contradictions or flaws in accepted ways of doing things. When they do notice these, they don’t simply accept them, but feel compelled to investigate further.”
The third and perhaps the most valuable of all creative traits is persistence – that genius is 10 percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.
“Creative people worry at problems until they find the solution, and may even go further, being unwilling to accept the obvious or conventional solution”.
You know what you want to achieve, you’ve set the goals but still, your thoughts hold you back. What is it about your kind that doesn’t want to succeed?
“Your goal may be something that you think you should be doing but not something you inherently want”. “We’re much happier and ultimately more successful when we’re acting in a way that is consistent with our genuine self.”
Fear of failure can also get in the way. “You may also have self-esteem issues and you’re scared to try to reach your goal because you might not succeed, which would reinforce your perceptions of yourself as being capable. So it’s better not to try and not risk failure. It’s ego protective.”
You’re more likely to succeed if you visualize yourself achieving your goal.
“Visualise where you want to be before the event. What you’re doing is giving your brain a road map. Cells that fire together, wire together. By rehearsing something you’re already setting it in motion. Your goal then becomes more real and accessible.”
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From confidence flows success and from success flows self-empowerment, which in turn releases the feel-good chemical dopamine which creates even more confidence, setting about an enviable chain of events.
But how do you gain that confidence in the first place?
Confidence comes from action, not feeling, at least to begin with anyway.
“If we want to do anything with confidence – speak, paint, make love, play tennis, or socialize – then we have to do work”. We have to practice the necessary skills over and over until they come naturally.
“Each time you practice these skills, it is an action of confidence, an act of relying on yourself.
It is also important to assess the results of your efforts positively and make modifications.
“It is far easier to affect the way you feel by your deeds than through trying to change the way you feel”.
“Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy to control your feelings, and the further you go down the road, the more likely you are to feel disappointed, frustrated, or hopeless.”
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If our brains don’t get adequate sleep things to start to unravel fast. Our judgment becomes rash, decisions impaired, and problems become harder to solve.
In Australian workplaces, there are more than 9,500 fatigue-related injuries every year.
“Eighteen percent of adults regularly sleep less than six hours per night and 20 percent suffer chronically from poor sleep, half of these from a sleep disorder and the remainder from poor sleep habits”.
The sleep drive is regulated by two main processes: homeostatic drive, where the desire for sleep increases with increasing time spent awake, and the circadian sleep-wake rhythm, determined by an internal body, clock which increases the tendency to sleep at night and decreases it in the day.
“The body clock thrives in routine and chaotic hours of sleep, variable meal hours, too much alcohol and excessive stress or stimulation prior to attempts to sleep upset it”.
Even in sleep, the brain is around 80 percent active.
“On average, we dream for an hour and a half to two hours each night, with four or five distinct dreams”. “If we live out our allotted 75 years or so, that means we’ll spend about six years vividly dreaming, for a lifetime total of some 100,000 to 200,000 dreams.”