Melvin's digital garden

Your Brain at Work

author: david_rock

Metaphor of stage, actors and directors.

Problems and Decisions

Conscious thinking as a resource to be spent carefully (requires a lot of energy). Schedule blocks of time for different modes of thinking. Prioritize prioritizing. Use the brain to interact with information rather than storing information by creating visuals.

The stage is small (no more than 3-4 different ideas at once, for comparisons keep to 2). Simplify information by focusing on the salient elements. Group information into chunks. Practice getting the most important actors onstage first, not just the ones that are easiest.

Multitasking reduces performance and accuracy. Get decisions into the right order to reduce blockage. Combine active thinking only with automatic, embedded routines (handled by the basal ganglia)

To focus, remove all external distractions completely. Clear your mind to reduce internal distractions. Practice your mental “braking system” (ventrolaterial prefrontal cortex), “We may not have free will but we have free won’t”. Inhibit distractions early before they take on momentum.

Be aware of your levels of alertness and interest throughout the day. Bring adrenaline level up by visualizing a mild fear. Bring dopamine level up by using novelty, change of perspective, humor or expecting something positive. Bring dopamine and adrenaline levels down by activating other regions of the brain than the prefontal cortex.

To get pass an impasse, reduce your anxiety. Take a break and do something light. Try quieting your mind and look out for subtle connections. Focus on the connections between information rather than drilling down into a problem. Simplify problems to their salient features (abstraction), reflect from a high level, watch for the tickly of subtle connections preceding insight, and stop and focus on the insights when they occur.


Mindfulness and the director. We have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, through your narrative circuit (involved in planning, day-dreaming and ruminating) and through direct experience (you are not thinking about the past or future, other people or yourself, rather you are experiencing information coming into your senses both internal and external). Practice using the director and observing your internal state.

Staying cool under pressure

Our brains are designed to minimize danger (away) and maximize reward (toward). The limbic system is easily aroused. An away response is strong, faster and longer laster than a toward response and can reduce cognitive resources making it harding to think straight. Suppression does not work and only makes it worst. Labeling can reduce limbic system arousal. Practice noticing emotions as they arise, to get better at sensing their presence earlier.

Practice noticing feelings of uncertainty and reduced autonomy. Find ways to create choice and a perception of autonomy. Reappraise by reinterpreting an event, reordering your values, normalizing an event, or repositioning your perspective. “That’s just my brain.”

Expectations are the experience of the brain paying attention to a possible reward (or threat). Practice noticing what your expectations are in any given situation. Find ways to keep coming out ahead of your expectations over and again, even in small ways. When an expectation is not met, practice reappraising by remembering it’s your brain doing something odd with dopamine.

Collaborate with others

Social connections are a primary need. Make an effort to connect on a human level as early as possible to reduce the threat response. Become friend with people you work with by sharing personal experiences. Active encourage people around you to connect on a human level to create better collaboration.

A sense of fairness can be a primary reward. Find ways to create increasing fairness around you. Don’t let unfairness go unpunished.

Status is a significant driver of behavior at work. We preceive ourselves using the same circuits we use when perceiving others. You can trick your brain into a status reward by playing against yourself.

SCARF = Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness

Facilitate change

Giving feedback often creates an intense threat response. Catch yourself when you go to five feedback, problem solve or provide solutions. Bring people to their own insights by focusing them on their own subtle internal thoughts using questions.

Focused attention changes the brain. Use elements of SCARF to shift people into a toward state. Use solution-focused questions to focus people’s attention. Invent ways to have people pay repeated attention to the new circuits.

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