Antivirus for your Brain

In a modern day environment, we are constantly bombarded with information and loaded with sensory input, in order to face new demands, deal with more stresses and pressures. Our brains are not adapted (yet) to process such large amounts of data, and it can be overwhelming and disturbing, making it difficult to remember things, to make right choices, to buy right products…

While many tasks can now be transferred to our computers and smartphones, offloading many tasks into external devices, we make tremendous amount of effort to look after our handsets and equipment, taking time to sort the data, to clean the bugs, paying money for antivirus and other software to protect and improve performance of our devices. And yet we often forget that the most important tool – our own brain – also needs maintenance and looking after in order to perform at its best for as long as possible.

In this article, I will be looking into our data processing brain and simple habits that we can put into place to improve our mental wellbeing, enhance memory and make our working and academic environment easier to cope with. The first thing we need is wider understanding about how our brain is processing information.

First of all, it is important to understand the basic principles of conscious and unconscious processes in our brains. The prefrontal cortex of our brains, which is the newest part in terms of evolutionary process, is mainly responsible for slow, deliberate, rational thinking. However, a capacity of our rational part of the brain is quite limited. Average of normal processing is around 40 bits per second, and the maximum is 120 bits per second – which is equivalent to 2 people speaking to us at the same time, or us paying attention to 4-5 things at a time. In comparison, our unconscious processes of our brain run a constant stream of approximately 8 billion bits of information per second!

Unconscious work of our brain is running numerous parallel processes to make sense of our world, to integrate new information into existing structures and to monitor the environment. When that neural activity reaches a certain threshold, we become aware of it consciously.

However, conscious attention is a limited resource – to pay attention to one thing means you do it at the cost of something else. The best examples of this research are by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, with their famous experiments of Invisible Gorilla. It is the research that makes us doubt the world that we see and reveals ways how our intuitions are deceiving us. Part of this selective blindness is due to our genetic laziness – our body’s way to always try and preserve as much energy as possible. This is because our brain consumes ~20% of body’s energy, despite accounting for only 2% of its body mass and conscious, effortful thinking requires a lot of energy. That energy is derived from oxygenised glucose, which is a limited resource. Neurons are living cells and they have their own metabolism – they need oxygen and glucose in order to survive and do the job properly. Once this resource is depleted, we experience mental fatigue, have reduced levels of empathy, misunderstanding other persons intentions and social situations, easily succumbing to temptations, lose impulse controls, end up making poor decisions (or unable to make any), as well as being easily suggestible and influenced by environment, situation, advertising, or other people. If we don’t know how to replenish this resource, then pressures of modern demands can easily lead us towards becoming impulsive, emotional, indecisive and susceptible individuals.

Those are 4 things that have the biggest detrimental effects on our brain’s performance processes:

1.     Multitasking. It is the number one enemy of our productivity, and the one that burns more energy than staying on task.

2.     Distractions. Once we are familiar with the continuity of one task, part of the process becomes automatic and habitual, saving energy of our rational brain. Any distractions will need to invest more energy into creating a new pattern and enter automatic mode again.

3.     New Environment and constant changes. Things that are familiar will induce a state of safety into our being, enabling us to relax and focus on a task. New surroundings and constant changes will switch on the unconscious process of vigilance, of brain looking for potential threats before it can settle on a task again.

4.     Too much decision making. Small, irrelevant decision making will use up as much energy as the important ones.

In relation to this, there are 4 things we could put in place to enhance productivity and help our conscious brains to stay most active:

1.     Focus on one task at the time. This uses less of brains energy and streamlines the process for efficiency. Maximum time to keep your focus on one task should not go longer than 45 min – set little targets for what you can do in this period of time, and give yourself break and reward before starting next task.

2.     Create habits, routines, and familiarity. This allows for part of the brain to transfer some work from rational part, into subconscious processes, that are intuitive, automatic, and consume less energy, freeing your rational brain for more important tasks.

3.     Create relaxed state of mind and relaxed physical posture. When we are stressed, the body produces cortisol and unhealthy levels of adrenalin, and other chemicals that affect many processes, including physical posture – our shoulders tighten up, necks shorten, breath becomes faster and shallow, etc. By reversing the process and adapting relaxed posture, deep breathing, relaxed jaw, will have opposite effect of ‘tricking’ our mind into the state of safety, and therefore ultimate learning and performance state.

4.     Practice controlled attention. Ability to control attention is also closely linked to control of emotions and self-awareness. Mindfulness meditation or a task that requires your intense, undivided concentration is the best ‘anti-virus’ program for your brain, enhancing neural growth and synaptic links between different neurons.

Learning how to look after our brain and understanding how to use and replenish our mental ‘fuel’ can be the most beneficial mechanism for enhancing capacities of our brains, including problem-solving, memory, productivity, impulse controls, etc. It will also ensure long-term mental health and wellbeing, preventing Alzheimer’s, dementia and other brain-degenerative diseases, not to mentioning overall improvement to our coping mechanisms for dealing with working and academic environment demands.

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