The whole brain works as a unit to keep you alive. Isn’t that heart warming? Someone cares. You. – Ruby Wax
Neuroscientists are continuously discovering more about the marvel that is the human brain, in part thanks to advanced neuro-imaging techniques over the past few years.
Our lifestyles have also changed quite dramatically over the past 30 years, due largely to the advancements in technology and the internet. Dr Martin Hilbert has calculated that we now receive five times as much information each day as we did in 1986. The amount of information we produce in a day through email, social networking sites and text messages is on average six newspapers worth, compared to two and half pages in the 80s.
Some say we are living in cognitive overload and that there’s a limit to how many things our brains can cope with at the same time.
So how do we help ourselves and our brains to cope with this?
Our brains weren’t built to multitask. Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time, and a barrage of information slows them down.
Multitasking is actually just rapidly switching from one task to another. The repeated task switching creates the feeling that we’re getting a lot accomplished, when in fact the small tasks that we accomplish tends not to require a lot of critical thinking. In fact, it creates poor brain habits.
Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time, and a barrage of information slows them down.
Each small task completed gives us instant gratification, which creates a cycle. It also creates a shorter attention span. Constant notifications for email, FB, texts, etc. activates task switching and it makes it difficult for us to filter out what’s relevant to the present moment.
Focus on One Thing at a Time
Daniel Levitin, author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”, encourages Deliberate Immersion. We do this by splitting up our daily activities into time slots and immersing ourselves in a single task for a sustained period, around 30 to 50 minutes without distractions.
He explains that our brains have evolved to have two major modes of attention to help us sift through and sort information: the task-positive network and the task-negative network. The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task and engaged without distraction. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering or daydreaming. That’s where inspiration and creativity come from.
The third component is an attention filter, which acts like a switch between the task-positive and task-negative networks. It helps orient us and tells us what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore.
Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with. If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.
He also says that as we practice deliberate immersion, our creativity will increase naturally. Task-negative activities like listening to music, walking in nature or forest bathing, can activate mind-wandering which acts as a reset button for our brain, and provides perspective on what we’re doing.
Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries writes:
The ability to balance activity and solitude, noise and quietness, is an excellent means to tap our inner creative resources. The secret of truly successful, creative people may well be that they learned very early in life how not to be busy.
Getting Enough Sleep
It could be the simplest way of re-setting the brain. Your brain cleans itself out when you sleep. Sleep is vital to helping us digest and solidify the information we’ve acquired during the day. It improves our ability to integrate unassociated information for creative problem solving, and boosts memory.
While you sleep your brain will “delete” the synaptic connections you don’t use.
Researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel have discovered that, after learning a new task in the morning, the group that then had a 90-minute nap were able to recall the task significantly better by the end of the day than those who didn’t take a nap. A nap of even 10 minutes improves cognitive function and vigour. If reading this makes you feel like yawning, go ahead. Yawning cools down the brain, research suggests. Sleep deprivation raises brain temperature.
While you sleep your brain will “delete” the synaptic connections you don’t use. This ability to discard useless information keeps your brain from being overwhelmed.
Neurons that Fire Together Wire Together
To consolidate a short-term memory and turn it into a long-term one, we need to make that memory flow around the circuit several times, strengthening the connections.
That means we need to make a conscious effort to store it in our brains by repeating the new information numerous times. Therefore we need to be mindful of what we’re thinking about repetitively.
In particular, because of what’s called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity”, whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self. – Dr Rick Hanson
The 4 Steps to Mindfulness
Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, author of a book called Brainlock, created a successful four-step approach of applied mindfulness to rewire or reset the brain by changing how you think.
- Relabel – The first step is to relabel a given thought, feeling, or behavior. This amounts to training yourself to clearly recognize and identify what is real and what isn’t, identifying deceptive brain messages and uncomfortable sensations. You can step back and say, “This is just my brain sending me a false message.”
- Reattribute – The second step is reattribute; to change your perception of the importance of the deceptive brain messages.
- Refocus – The third step is to refocus your attention in the moment in the direction you want to go and consciously do something constructive. It can be as simple as directing your thoughts back to the present or engaging in an activity that is healthy and productive — even while the deceptive brain messages are still there and bothering you. It’s through the refocusing of your attention that the brain gets rewired.
- Revalue – Revalue, the fourth step, happens almost naturally as a result of regular practice of the first three steps.You begin to see thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are: sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that don’t benefit you. This is another way of resetting the brain.
So whether you’re feeling overwhelmed by multi-tasking, or that you’re brain is becoming too full, remember to switch off distractions, focus on one thing at a time and be mindful of what you’re thinking of. Have a good night’s rest or even just a short nap right now.