We have all heard the old sound bite that we only use 10% of our brain which of course is not true. We use all of our marvellous brains all of the time just different networks and structures are more or less energised at different times and under different circumstances. For instance, even when you are asleep all your brain networks are still working just at different speeds and frequencies to when you are awake. So what we could say (and is nearer to the truth) is that we are ‘aware’ of our thoughts through the 10% of our brain networks, primarily in the brain structure called our prefrontal cortex.
When your brain and central nervous system detect uncertainty they kick off a stress response to give you a boost of energy to bring your environment under control. This process is called homoeostasis. On the physical level this is why you sweat when you go into a room that is much hotter than where you were before so your body can remain at its ideal constant temperature. From a nervous system perspective this works the same way - we all have a set point to which we want to rebalance to as soon as possible. When we feel angry or scared for example, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in making our hearts beat faster and redirecting blood flow from our organs to our large muscles to get us ready to fight or flee so we can feel safe and calm again. This all happens at lightning speed because the 90% of your brain activity which makes up our subconscious mind is now primarily in control. As it swings into action to protect you it puts the 10% that is your conscious thinking brain essentially on power save mode. It does this by directing a lot of the blood flow away from this energy hungry region. The 90% is amazingly quick as responding to predominantly unconscious signals from the nervous system alerting us to danger and kicking off adaptive strategies to get us to safety and calm us as quickly as possible.
Actually the reason your brain and the nervous system overall can work so quickly is that a brain is essentially a prediction machine. It uses your past experiences to predict millisecond by millisecond what will be required of you and the body & brain energy quota. In simple terms each day the body overall has a certain amount of energy to use to get you through life that day. The brain is like the manager of this precious resource constantly allocating resources as required to the most relevant teams. Lisa Feldman Barrett Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School in her groundbreaking book ‘How emotions are made’ calls this managing your body budget. She explains; Just as a company has a finance department that tracks deposits and withdrawals and moves money between accounts, so the overall budget stays in balance, your brain has circuitry that is largely responsible for your body budget”.
In the last decade alone, there have been massive leaps in our understanding of how the physical and mental are more interconnected than we ever before understood. Many fields of science have contributed to this from Neuroscience, Psychology, Psychiatry and Neurophysiology to name but a few. Feldman Barrett’s work on emotion and Stephen Porges on the vagus nerve are both pivotal in our understanding of how our bodies and brains work together as a marvellous system, using continuous feedback to ensure we thrive in both our physical and social surroundings.
However, even if we do get to hear about and understand these new scientific findings change is not that easy! You can’t tell your brain what to think when you are in the throes of a stress. Ever tried to tell someone to calm down…you will know what I mean! For one they simply can’t process this high level brain function as their 10% has its dimmer switch on and anyway they aren’t even hearing you in most cases. Stephen Porges work has shown that the nervous system adjusts the sounds allowed into the auditory processing regions of your brain to prioritise low level predator like frequencies and not the frequencies of human voice.
But the real problems arise when, like the world we now occupy with an unprecedented level of uncertainty – its prolonged! Our stress responses are designed to work in short bursts to give us energy to deal with a threat to our survival and move on. But now the double whammy of an already over taxed stress response due to our modern 24/7 culture and now the void that COVID-19 lays before us means our brains are no longer able to predict with the same level of accuracy. This is massively stressful for us.
A negative feedback loop now pre-dominates; prediction error leads to out of whack body budgets which leads to chronic stress, chronic stress leads to more predictions of more stress. Very soon our brains adjust to this hugely uncertain world of stress by adopting a negativity bias. Everything now is coloured as more negative and we become hyper vigilant to threat. The lights have been dimmed on our 10%. Our ability to apply our knowledge, be creative, learn new stuff, and be social are all dependant on us feeling safe.
The COVID-19 grip on our world won’t last forever, it will pass! BUT (and it’s a very big but) the effects will be long lasting on our health generally and more specifically our ability to perform at our best if we don’t take steps now to build our resilience.
Based on the latest Neuroscience and Psychology here are my top 3 ways to help you get through these times of uncertainty. Building your resilience as you go and ultimately allowing you to perform at your 100%;
1.Look after your body budget
Sleep, eating healthily and getting exercise are all KING! I know you are sick of people telling you this but it scientifically true. As Feldman Barret so eloquently puts it “…when your body budget gets out of whack, then you’re going to feel crappy no matter what self-help tips you follow. It’s just a matter of which flavour of crap.”
2.Build your emotional intelligence
There isn’t a single emotion that has one specific, consistent expression for all people whether on the face, blood pressure or even brain networks! Variation is the norm. Your brain’s most important job is not thinking, feeling or even seeing, but keeping your body alive & well. Your brain does this by constantly making predictions. Its these predictions which become the emotions you experience and the expressions you perceive in other people.
At its most fundamental level being emotionally intelligence means as Feldman Barrett puts it “…getting your brain to construct the most useful instance of the most useful emotion concept in a given situation.”
The simplest & quickest way to do this is by building your Emotional 'granularity'. For example, this could mean you can create distinct experiences of disappointment, anger, spite etc. rather than just “I feel bad”. This is because words you hear affect how your brain is wired and every emotion word you learn is a new tool for future emotional intelligence!
2.Train for flexibility
What we all experience as negative emotions are our warning signs that a stress response may be required. Research has shown that people with better self-control are better able to deal with stress because they see less situations as stressful and have less intense stress reactions when they are required. . Chronic stress can lower our threshold for being able to control our stress reactions, that is our ability to emotionally regulate and be resilience!
The great news is we can all train our emotional regulation. Dr Mithu Storoni in her best seller book ‘Stress Proof’ breaks up training into short term and long term fixes and all healthy brains love a combination of these.
Short term could be giving you brain something else to do – distraction. You want to stretch the mind a bit but not too much and give it a buzz of reward. Studies have shown that Tetris is great for this.
Long term fixes can target your resilience hardware of your brain allowing you to catch the first signs of a stress response. Our amazing brains are responsible for our experience of moods, thoughts, and all our cognitive/mental abilities. All this brain activity can be measured in electrical pulses and it can tell us a lot about how it's working. When brain activity is measured in real time, different patterns of brainwaves can be seen, which can inform us about the mental state of the person.
Studies show a neuroscience based brain training tool, neurofeedback helps train your brain to optimise its own functioning. Wearing a headset that can sense your brain wave activity together with software that can respond to the changes in your brainwave patterns, your brain learns to naturally shift to the desired state of the training programme. Not only that but your brain learns to enjoy it and sustain it when required! For example, if you were training for relaxation then whenever the brain is relaxed (i.e. alpha brainwaves intensify) you are given a rewarding nature sound. But when the brain loses that state the rewarding sound disappears, thus notifying the brain in real-time that it needs to regain that state once again.
And as Storoni so rightly points out; “Learning what to do to calm yourself down as well as learning when to intervene makes a stress strategy even more effective”. Neurofeedback gives us a unique way to do just this by utilising technology to strengthen our own ability to connect the what and when of stress to give us our 100%!
If this sparked an interest & you would like a bit more information on neurofeedback brain training then....I'd love to hear from you!
Give Frances a call on 085 862 3009