Design Principles: Your Brain

I was recently put on the spot and asked to “bottom line this neuroscience thing”.   “In fact, give it to me in guiding design principles I can use at work”, they continued.    It was a dare that I just couldn’t resist.

It’s tricky (and unwise) to bottom line the dynamic and rapidly changing field of neuroscience. It’s best practice to remember the learnings change and that as unique beings, these concepts show up with subtle variances in each of us.

Here’s where I landed (with a bit more explanation for you):

Keep Me Safe     The priority of the brain is to keep us alive.  It perceives and judges all people, places, situations, and things in a binary fashion. Does “it” support our aliveness or might “it” threaten it? Your brain makes its judgement in literally the blink of an eye and then adapts your behavior accordingly, in ways you might not recognize.  The brain doesn’t always get it right, and yet, unless we intervene, the cascade of changes related to a threat are off and running.

The take away     Take the time to assess if all aspects of how you are experienced by others (in writing and in person) are in the “safe” bucket.  The second an interaction with you becomes a threat to another’s brain, the harder it will be to have the kind of relationship and rapport you really want (or need).  Even the little accidental threats are filed away and remembered by the brain. It’s designed to remember threats to keep us alive.

Train Me Like a New Puppy     Just like puppies need to be taught how to heel, listen, sit, and stay, your brain needs to be trained for what you want it to do.  Without diligence and consistency in how you teach it to operate, your brain is going to train itself based on your routines day in day out – a concept called neuroplasticity.  When left to its own devices, your brain is going to train itself around behaviors that rewards it’s desire to be alive, connected, and conserving energy, however that may not support your need to focus, bite your tongue, ignore distractions, read the environment, or stay calm when nervous.      Training your brain requires the commitment to learn and repeat the skills that you wish it to default to until it catches on that these are the ground rules and then habituates them such that they are behaviors that become automatic.

The take away      Be your brain-whisperer.  Start with training your attention through mindfulness.  It’s like pointing the puppy toward its bed and every time it strays saying, “psst…over here”, until it learns to go there on its own.

Mind the Low Battery Signals     If your brain had a dashboard, like your car, it would have various indicators to remind you when service was needed. Signals that your brain needs some attention include hunger, tiredness, distraction, over emotionality, anxiety, and that sense of just grinding out the task versus being engaged with it.  When the signal indicates your cognitive battery is low, it can be re-charged with just a few minutes of movement, exercise, laughter, some deep breathing out in nature, a snack and/or simply getting up and leaving the task at hand and allowing your mind to focus on anything else for about 5-10 minutes.   

The take away     The two most common errors are focusing on managing time instead of cognitive energy and believing our daily lifestyle choices have no impact on our how our brain operates.  Begin to work in 60-90 minute chunks with breaks in between and then take a look at the overall picture of how you support the functionality of your brain.  How’s your sleep, nutrition, exercise, stress, social time, learning time, etc?

Watch for Jumping to Conclusions    Our amazing human brain is riddled with little glitches, called biases.  These biases impact our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions and our decisions.  We can think we are being objective and thorough, and yet we commonly jump to conclusions based on our automatic thoughts, mental models and any one of the many cognitive biases.

The take away     Particularly when in conversation or negotiation with others, develop practices around how to separate out what is objectively known by all involved from inference, story, assumption or often invisible automatic thought.   Then try not to make meaning of something until all aspects of it have been explored and considered from multiple perspectives.

Use Me or Lose Me     Your brain is like an energy star appliance.  It is designed to perform using minimal energy.  Your brain will stop supporting and prune away the neuropathways that you are not using as part of energy conservation.  You need complex neural pathway architecture to be agile in the moment, and resilient in case of a disease of the mind.

The take away     Be an ongoing learner.  Try new things and vary some of your routines in ways that your brain is engaged and having to use or create pathways.  

Be My Social Secretary     The research undisputedly identifies that we are social creatures and our brain is wired for interaction and relationship. It is an easy to overlook ingredient in our brain health and our life wellbeing.  Particularly as we get older, it’s easy to become too busy for down time with friends. One way communications through text or on social media really doesn’t cut it.  We need enjoyable time with and around people in ways that we can be who we are and feel a sense of belonging.

The take away     For our short term and long term brain health, make the time to stay connected in person, by voice and in face to face interactions.

How do you do on implementing these in your life?

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