5 Things Neuroscience Teaches Us…

I have spent many hours trying to understand how to best operate the gadgets in my life – my cellphone, computer and television… Granted, they keep being upgraded and change frequently, but how much time have I spent understanding my own “operating system”?

The basic biology that drives our brain’s incredible abilities is really old, and has not changed much in recent times, yet it remains the most complex “operating” system that is known to exist. Machines struggle to recognize a picture, let alone describe what is happening in a picture like a three year old is able to do. Consider that we have not even touched on interpreting the nuances of facial expressions and understanding body language.

With enhanced technology like the FMRI, we have now started to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the biology that drives our thoughts and emotions. Here are 5 breakthroughs in understanding that can help us better manage our “operating systems” to optimize potential, and facilitate living more connected lives:

  1. Your brain is fundamentally social, and not rational. This means that your learning, happiness, and potential is optimized under positive social environments, where you feel connected and supported by others.
  1. Your brain is “lazy”. It wants to automate and form habits as quickly and efficiently as possible. Practice a certain pattern of thought or behaviour, and it will become automated – whether it is good or bad/right or wrong. Brain science has proved that when a person is confronted with new ideas that conflict with preconceived ideas, we experience anxiety and stress – creating “cognitive dissonance”. It has been found that avoiding cognitive dissonance is as desirable as food, water, and safety…
  1. The “executive” part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, has limited energy and focus. In addition, it is highly sensitive to your emotional state. This means that your ability to pay attention, create insight, control impulses and even to have empathy, is compromised when your brain senses a “threat” or when you are tired. The “threat” alarm is triggered even when the threat is not current or real; e.g. thinking about a stressful event in the future will trigger the release of neurotransmitters and hormones associated with the threat response, now.
  1. Brain cells are in competition for space. This means that the more you use a certain part of your brain, the more surface area will be devoted to it. The more you use your hands, e.g. in the case of a physiotherapist, the more surface area will be devoted to it, and the more sensitive it becomes. The converse is unfortunately true as well, e.g. the less you practice impulse control and emotional self-regulation, the less you are able to do it.
  1. Your brain can change, at any time, at any age. You are neuroplastic, and change is possible, but to change, from a biological perspective, means you have to be comfortable with uncertainty and discomfort. Your brain is most neuroplastic when you are calm, emotionally engaged, focused and present in the moment.

In a nutshell – our “operating system” is social, “lazy”, and competitive, has limited energy and focus, and is capable of change. Our experience of our lives, as well the optimising of our performance and potential is tied to how we manage this system. Isn’t it time that you learned more?