I’ve been interested in ideas emerging from behavioural neuroscience for some time and I thought it might be worth sharing one of my favourites here. In his book, Your Brain At Work, David Rock likens the conscious mind to a stage in a small theatre with fairly limited resources; there’s a director, some actors and an audience. The stage (pre-frontal cortex) is where thinking plays out. The actors (consciously selected information and external stimuli) and selected guests from the audience (memories and internal models) collaborate on stage to facilitate understanding and inform decision-making.
Having too many players on the stage makes it impossible to act effectively and overwhelms the director leaving the ‘lizard brain’ (limbic system) to manage the show. The ‘lizard brain’, of course, is more concerned with basic survival skills and has a baseline position of treating things as threats until proven otherwise. In a state of overwhelm it is likely that things will get emotional as you become more confused, anxious and stressed. Trying to suppress these emotions just makes things worse and, actually, a level of detachment is needed. However, that can be difficult to achieve from within this state.
Fortunately, research has shown that by re-tasking your ‘director’ to use other large brain regions, notably the sensing and motor functions, the ‘stage’ becomes deactivated to some degree and the narrative chaos will subside; an intermission if you like. This re-tasking can be achieved by paying more attention to real-time stimuli such as listening intently to your environment, observing your breathing or doing something physical for example. This is often referred to as mindfulness and does not necessarily need to be done for very long to be effective.
When you switch the ‘director’ back to the narrative tasks (eg. envisioning, prioritising etc.), it helps to label the emotions or mental states in a neutral way. I have been meditating regularly for a while now (thanks to Headspace) and ‘labelling’ is a core technique; briefly observing distractions and noting their occurrence, nature and my reaction objectively. By using methods such as these regularly, the ‘director’ can be made more responsive and this allows one to exert better control over the ‘stage’ and keep both the ‘actors’ and the ‘audience’ in line; and thus ration energy consumption for what matters most.
Alternate mornings I get up at 5:30 and go for a run. Initially my waking mind is filled with ideas, to-do lists and knotty problems to solve. As I run, I begin to notice the birds, the sunrise and the boats on the harbour and all of that mental chaos begins to fade away. But as I concentrate more and more on these sensory, real-time aspects, I start to notice the tiredness in my legs and need to distract myself from that by re-engaging with my internal narrative again. At this point I can use the labelling idea to control the situation in my mind and focus on populating the stage with just those actors that matter. Fewer options mean easier decisions. By this time I often find that I have run several kilometres without really noticing it (or the scenery). Ultimately I oscillate back and forth between the two modes until I complete my run and return home both relaxed and focused.
Apparently, prioritisation is one of the brain’s most energy-hungry processes and so it pays to do it early in the day. It seems to be working for me...