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4 Scientifically Proven Ways To Boost Your Brain Productivity

4 Scientifically Proven Ways To Boost Your Brain Productivity

The complex machine that resides inside us, the human brain, is responsible for everything in our lives. Our actions and reactions are largely triggered by this super computer in our heads.

In recent times, this super computer along with the body in which it is housed, has, for most people, become overworked and fatigued. Culturally we have also latched on to the word productivity.

This is a word that conjures up visions of getting more things done in less time and doing it efficiently. There are numerous tips and hacks to help us be more productive as well. But how can this productivity be sustained? Getting motivated once in a while and getting a task done is not enough. We want to sustain productivity for long amounts of time.

In order to achieve our desired productivity levels, let us understand how our brain works and how we can subsequently create long, sustained periods of productivity in our lives.

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Activate the Neocortex:

Our brain is comprised of three interrelated brains:
1. The Reptilian brain is the oldest brain in terms of evolution.

It is that part of the brain that produces an instinctive, non-thinking reaction. It is the part of the brain that makes a deer look up at the slightest of sounds. It is our natural survival instinct.
2. The Limbic brain is responsible for our emotions and motivations.

As a part of the limbic system called the amygdala, this brain also plays a part in determining what events get stored in our memory.
3. The Neo-cortex is also called the ‘New Brain’.

It is responsible for higher level functions such as sensory perception, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and creative thinking.

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Any threat or fear in our lives invokes our primitive brain structures.This causes us to resort to the flight, fight or freeze response. When our brain operates primarily from the limbic and the reptilian side, we inhibit our reasoning and creative thinking abilities.
For example, when people at work feel threatened– either from the fear of losing their job, losing the promotion, not being recognized, or any other fear, the stress hormone cortisol is released. When people operate with inhibited neocortex functions, they are not able to think and produce creatively and in an innovative manner.
Simon Sinek makes an excellent point in his presentation on work induced stress. Simon illustrates the effect of stress on our work abilities. He goes on to tell us how to combat this by serving others. The best thing that leaders can do is to make others feel safe, thereby increasing their neocortex activity; this, in turn, leads to more productivity.

Ultradian Rhythms of Productivity:

Scientists believe that alternating work cycles with short breaks leads to a productivity boost. This was discovered by psychophysiologist Peretz Lavie. Mirroring our work cycles with the body’s natural ultradian rhythms of 90 minutes work followed by 20 mins of rest leads to enhanced energy levels. These 90 minute cycles are very similar to our 90 minute sleep cycles; thereby leading to sustained levels of productivity without fatiguing our brains.

4-5 of these cycles a day is ideal. Our bodies’ natural cycles are good indicators for when to take such breaks, as an alternative to setting timers. Psychologist Anders Ericcson, in a noted study of high-performing violinists, found that the top performers practiced every morning for 3 cycles of 90 minutes each followed by a break.

Neuroplasticity:

Neuroplasticity is is the ability of the brain to rewire or change itself at any age. For a long time, it was believed that the neural networks in our brain are fixed after a certain age and no rewiring was possible. That is no longer true!

So how can we take advantage of neuroplasticity?

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Simply, by exercising our brain and exercising our body.

Exercise creates new synaptical connections. Exercising the mind can be done in numerous ways – learning new things, trying new experiences, even simple things like taking a new route to work, trying a different cuisine or a different food item, or reading different books; these are all simple ways to enhance the rewiring process. This process leads to increased productivity. As managers and leaders, we can urge our peers and subordinates to eat healthy, exercise regularly, take on innovative assignments or new projects to take advantage of the power of neuroplasticity.

Being in the Zone:

Have you ever been ‘in the zone‘?

The zone is where time seems to stand still, or you have no recollection of the passage of time, and the things and the people around you seem to melt away as you are so immersed in an activity. This state is also referred to as flow. The flow experience is when we are engaged in a task to the point that we are immune to our surroundings. Wikipedia defines it as:

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“The mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. It is a state of supreme creativity.”

When people work in a state of flow, they are naturally productive. As managers, we must identify people’s interests, strengths and talents and marry these to their work assignments. People will find themselves more frequently in the flow state and thus be naturally productive!

Featured photo credit: Victor Hanacek via picjumbo.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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