Tagged: neuroscience

Neuroscience bringing work culture to its senses

Interesting video from the Financial Times – an interview with Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and coach who teaches at business schools.

For those who care to pay attention, neuroscience has been able to back up a great deal of common sense in the workplace, and may even begin to counter the ridiculous long-hours-as-status-sginifier that began in the 1980s and plagues us still.

What sort of common sense? Well, that we are none of us superhumans. That we can’t work 80 hour weeks and not suffer a lot of ill consequences, many of them in the quality of the work we do. That we are unable to multi-task without making lots of errors, unable to make high quality decisions if we don’t sleep enough, get nutrition, hydration and, you know, have a life…

On the sleep point, Ms Swart remarks in the video: “A lot of lawyers are very surprised when I tell them that.”

All so obvious, but without some data, some science to back it up, we’ve suffered stupid-work and presenteeism as defaults in the workplace for too long.

I also like the emphasis Ms Swart puts on the importance of  habits and growing new ones. You need structure to help you grow new habits, a professional coach or an app connected to wearable devices can help with this. I’ve found reading, talking better working habits openly with colleagues, peers and coaches have all worked well. For getting more sleep and not being so sedentary – a wearable device has indeed been very useful.

 

We don’t just read novels, we live them

A neuroscience research project suggests that when we read novels we create a connection with the protagonist, a change that is visible in fMRI brain scans and that persists for five days.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Read with all the usual caveats – a single study, filtered by journalists etc. – but I like the idea, any reader would agree: a good book changes your mind, puts you in an altered state. What's interesting about the study of course, is how long the effects seem to last.

I'd love to see a similar study for watching a good film.

Image: A profile of Jack Reacher by Lee Child, his creator, on the Mysterious Bookshop imprint.

 

The best question you can ask: How fascinating! What can I learn from this?

As part of the Nokia Smarter Everyday program myself and some members of the Brilliant Noise team were lucky enough to sit in on a coaching session with the clever and inspirational Caroline Webb, founder of the McKinsey leadership practice and CEO Seven Shift Leadership. Caroline is an expert on emotional intelligence and applying cognitive science to our working days.

She described a technique she learned from conductor and author, Benjamin Zander. Every time he found himself in a stressful situation, he would stand up, raise his arms in the air and exclaim “How fascinating! What can I learn from this?”ZZ3590D6F3

Image: Benjamin Zander demonstrating his “how fascinating!” approach to failures (also useful in any stressful situation)… 

The reason that this is useful, Caroline says, is that the question/exclamation switches you from an “away state” – sense of threat, fight or flight, worry etc. – to a “toward state” (open, interested, curious, engaged).

Releasing yourself from fear you become more likely to solve a problem or at least find something useful and feel a little more in control of the situation. Stress levels drop, you smile and get on with the work with a clearer head.

I started using it straight away – it works every time. Also. everyone I have shared it with so far has said it works brilliantly for them. We’ve started to hear it in Brilliant Noise team meetings a lot too. It’s a nice thing to share. (Hence the blog post, I suppose…)

Try it for yourself – wherever possible with the action of standing up and throwing your hands in the air.

I’ve known for some time that you need to interrupt negative thoughts and look at them objectively to rob them of their power. It’s a part of mindfulness and is applied in cognitive behavioural therapy. Perhaps it is the charming quality of this “how fascinating” question and the physical cue helps that process, makes it easy to talk about and turn into a habit.

Situations I have applied this in so far have include mental blocks while writing against a deadline, being delayed on a journey, being admitted to an ER room in Canada, difficult meetings, frustrating conference logistics, and recently being periodically incapacitated by a kidney stone (the outcome of that visit to Canadian ER).

That last example of intermittent incapacitation by renal colic is a good example. I’m currently awaiting treatment and exist in a state somewhere between extreme pain and being fluffily useless due to the painkillers used to manage that pain.

It means that I have about two or three hours of quality brain time per day – and even then not 100%. Outside of that there is no chance of me writing an insightful post, outlining a plan or developing an interesting presentation for client.

With the help of caffeine I have no problem delivering presentations and can sometimes read, highlight and comment on articles. But there’s no chance of squeezing in 90 minutes of quality writing, or of developing a creative or strategic idea. That kind of cognitive heavy lifting is beyond my reach outside this two to three hour window (usually in the morning).

How fascinating. What can I learn from this?

By throwing up my hands and asking the apparently magic question I have managed to stop feeling sorry for myself and found a bright spot in this situation. Firstly I’m probably getting some much needed rest, but that’s by the by. The really interesting thing is I can only pick one project to make some significant progress with each day.

Much of the evidence from cognitive science and anecdotally from coaches suggests that this is always the case anyway – if you can get four hours of focused work (no not emails and meetings) then you’re doing really well. Yet somehow I usually will try to squeeze into or three major projects into any given day.

What I have learnt from the pain is what it is like to have the complete discipline of only doing one meaningful piece of work a day. It is therefore both focused and slightly liberating to be trapped in this condition.

As I say, try the trick yourself and let me know how you get on. Tomorrow, I’ll be getting zapped with ultrasound shockwaves which should get rid of the pain problem. Should be an interesting experience – wonder what I will learn from it…

: : Bonus link: At 6:40 in this video you can see Benjamin Zander describe the technique to a conference of headteachers – but do watch the whole thing if you have 14 minutes – he’s great…

Turning down the distraction on our devices

Apps. When did they get so needy?

Like newly hatched chicks they chirrup and gawp, those little red dots having a similar cognitive effect on us to a chick’s open beak does for its parents – except we cough up some some attention instead of food.

When we get a new phone (or a new OS upgrade on one) there’s usually some mucking around to get the settings how you like them. Most people turn off the sound alerts for most things – few of us need a whooshing sound to let us know that set an email has indeed left the device, nor do we feel the need to annoy anyone in our vicinity with micro-clicky noises indicating we have successfully hit a key on an on-screen keyboard.

When it comes to turning down the volume of distractions coming out of mobile devices, we are left with some fairly basic, binary functions: you can turn on flight mode or some variation of “do not disturb”. As soon as you decide to be fully online though, it is apparently open season for any of the tens of apps you have installed to interrupt you with such vital news as they have a new feature, update or just – for goodness’ sake – that you haven’t used them in a while.

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The author of Your Brain at Work, Dr David Rock, says that the habit of checking mail – and we can infer any other social app or icon on our devices which sees fit to display a red dotted plea for attention – can be so strong that we literally see the signal, open the app, scan the mail and begin responding before we have had a chance to think about it.

The science: experiments have shown that the brain prepares us  to act *before* we make a conscious decision, especially when we have a strong habit or instinct. Unless we can find a way to short-circuit a habit, we have almost no choice about what we do next.

One other thing we learned about habits when creating Design Your Day and Mobile Mastery books for the Nokia Smarter Everyday programme was that because of this incredible resilience in the neural pathways you have built around a habit, trying to break them is a fool’s errand. Instead you need to introduce new behaviours and repeat them in place of the old – *growing* a new habit is a useful way of thinking about this process.

So how to avoid the red dots and attention traps of mobile devices? I use three devices on two ecosystems – each loaded with admittedly too many apps, so I’m an extreme case. My first move was to remove apps with red dots and alerts from my home screens altogether – leaving just things for reading or listening to music and podcasts there.

Recently I have gone further – removing the red dots and number of new messages from everything except texts messages and phone calls (the channels of urgency and last resort – either closer friends and colleagues or people who need to get in touch quickly will try these). Nothing gets to call for my attention until I am ready to see what’s going on in the world of that app, network or channel.

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Perhaps we need to be more considerate about interrupting ourselves, allowing ourselves to be distracted…

Phone calls in the middle of movies or dinners or meetings are disruptive and – unless there’s some real urgency to them – extremely antisocial. When mobile phones came along it took us a little while to work this out, but soon turning them to silent and generally resisting the temptation to answer them became norms. When it comes to email and social media of various kinds, we may still be working out those social norms and the parameters of acceptability and usefulness.

It’s not just about social situations, though, it’s about the effect of these devices and apps on our ability to think clearly, focus on important things and manage our emotional well-being (constant connectivity can burn you out, raising your allostatic load – the stress hormones in your body).

There’s a useful question we’ve started asking since we started looking at all of this: who responds fastest when the other shouts for attention – you or your phone? Who in that relationship is the servant and who is the master?

I hope we’ll see device manufacturers offering an addition to airplane mode and do not disturb: low distraction mode – a selection of levels to tune in to how open to being interrupted we are. I’ll tell my phone when I want to look at email, Twitter and Facebook updates, thanks.

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Meanwhile, although it is a little bit fiddly – you need to delve into too many apps’ settings – I highly recommend modifying your device to be low-distraction – red dot-free, as it were. Give yourself a little more peace, allow yourself to develop the habits that work for you around how you use these amazing connected tools we have suddenly found ourself using.

There’s a metaphor lurking about how a healthy diet of information and communication requires discipline and new habits. Like the past few generations of people in the West who have suddenly had access to literally all-you-can-eat sugar, saturated fat etc., we are having to come to terms with information-rich, distraction saturated, dopamine-firing, fascination on demand.

The result of all this de-distraction-ing of my devices was apparent immediately. They feel calmer, there are fewer triggers for bad habits or giving too much attention to Twitter etc (gorgeous as it is). It helps me to be more purposeful in my use of apps and my mobile device (“purposeful” being one of the three themes of Mobile Mastery we’ve been exploring at Brilliant Noise).

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The most important part of this equation for me is mindfulness, combined with a sense of personal responsibility. If things aren’t feeling right, if you’re feeling stressed or anxious when you’re using social media or any technology, you need to acknowledge that and do something about it – take a break, declare email bankruptcy, try growing some new habits and ways of working. The responsibility is with  each of us as the user to make sense of the amazing opportunities to learn more, think faster, connect more ideas that the web and mobile devices offer.

Cognitive slipstreaming: Thinking is an endurance sport

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* Updated *

In endurance swimming, I found out this week, you slipstream* just like cyclists do in a peloton. My wife, a sea swimmer, told me that swimming close to the person in front – right up by their kicking legs, off to one side – saves about 30% of the energy.

When you are swimming for a mile or more in the sea, energy efficiency is the basis of everything. A 30% reduction is a big deal.

The brain also consumes energy and we are interested in efficiencies there. For instance, we learn things through repetition, which makes them automatic, saving us from using the energy-hungry pre-frontal cortex. There are a whole load of other strategies and tricks we use without necessarily thinking about them, to save us from doing mental heavy-lifting too often.

Explaining one of my online working habits to Neil Perkin earlier this week, I realised that what I was doing was a kind of cognitive slipstreaming, using bookmarking. To be exact, using other people’s bookmarks.

In my one of my top folders in Google Reader, one that I read a lot, I don’t just have feeds from blogs. Using the RSS feed from Delicious, I follow the bookmark streams of a few people who are reading and working on things that closely match my current interests.

As they read and bookmark things, I see them. It doesn’t save me all of the effort of reading them and highlighting and bookmarking for myself and making connections and putting them in context and writing about them. It saves me the search though, it saves me the effort, the joules of energy that would take, to decide that this – and not the other 25 things that have passed through my reader or Twitter stream in the past ten minutes – is worth bookmarking for reference.

Amazon Kindle’s public notes and highlights provide a similar kind of opportunity to slipstream other people’s cognitive exertions, their brains’ hard work, although I don’t use that as often as following the bookmarks of fellow travellers.

Slipstreaming in endurance sports is a collaborative endeavour. Like cyclists, endurance swimmers in a small group take turns swimming at the front, they develop a rhythm of moving up to take on the burden of pushing through the waves first, then falling back to an easier position. Even though they may be competing to get to the finish line first, the pack and the peleton move together, sharing the load.

The parallel with knowledge work suggests that we should share more than we do, even if some of it helps our competitors at times. It is the final manifestation of our work, the product shipping, the report’s publishing, the pitch being pitched where we compete in an all or nothing sprint. Up until those moments, everyone is smarter if they slipstream.

* My wife’s pointed out that it is usually called “drafting” rather than “slipstreaming” in her swimming group.

Working fast and slow

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Maria Popova blogged about a book called Reading Like a Writer – by the aptly named Francine Prose – that looks at the importance of reading for writers.

This quote made me stop and think hard:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

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Learning to learn, thinking about thinking

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Image: my niece, Boudicca, being amazing, as babies are wont to do…

How our brains work is something that I’m reading and thinking about a lot this week, connecting neuroscience with how we work and manage our everyday lives.*

A happy moment of serendipity this morning, as I happened to hear The Life Scientific on Radio 4, an interview with Annette Karmiloff-Smith, a renowned psychologist.

Her answer to her first question about what was amazing about babies has stuck with me all day.

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