The field of neuroscience has provided us with the opportunity to use the most advanced ‘computer’ in the world, the human brain, better than ever before. Daily there are new findings in research that improve our understanding of the brain and how we can use it to our benefit and that of others to enhance our life experience.
We are all sitting in the driver’s seat of our brain, but unfortunately it didn’t come with a manual to operate. This makes it more challenging to fully utilise one of the most advanced pieces of equipment in the known universe.
To put it into context if you are not yet fully familiar with the details of the brain, we have a 100 billion neurons and each neuron can make up to 10,000 connections with other neurons, passing signals to each other via as many as 1,000 trillion synaptic connections. We process impulses at the speed of 1000 impulses per second. Within this context and its possibilities, we can safely say we have more than enough potential to help us to become what we want to be.
Why do so many people then end up never tapping into this potential and becoming or achieving what they should be able to or want to?
Various elements affect reaching one’s potential and it’s a lot more complex and multidimensional than what this article can give attention to. We will focus here on the areas particular to neuroscience that provides a starting point for change and can lead to great strides in improving brain functioning.
Focus on your strengths
It’s important to have an accurate understanding of your neurological design in order to know what your unique gifts, strengths and talents are in order to develop associated skills, leveraging innate potential.
Potential alone is not enough though.
As children and as employees, via various systems such as educational syllabus and teaching methods, performance management, assessments and training programmes, we are continuously told to develop our weaknesses or areas for improvement. Neuroscience has show that focusing on our strengths and what we are good at, leads to much higher levels of achievement in general and we utilise the natural strength of our brain more effectively.
Practice that which you are competent at and you will become great at it and if you practice some more you will become excellent at it. We are all unique and outdated systems and paradigms were designed to make us feel we need to be good at everything if we want to be successful.
That is simply not true, we can be successful by doing what we are good at and by refining our craft and practice until we are excellent.
Competence = skills + potential
Whole brain functioning
We have one brain with two hemispheres and most people are dominant in either the left or the right hemisphere each with its own unique functions.
The left hemisphere is characterised by process, structure, detail, logic, analysis and methodical sequences. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body.
The right hemisphere is characterised by gestalt, insight, intuition, ambiguity, more artistic orientation with imagination, creativity and visualisation as components. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body.
We all start out homolateral and depending on our development we learn to use either in particular ways which results in dominance.
Irrespective of your brain dominance side, using both hemispheres are called whole brain functioning and it is the best way of utilising the impressive capabilities of the brain. Homolateral functioning is slower, tasks and learning take longer and is also much harder. Bilateral functioning makes things easier, its faster and a more effective. Its important to practice using both sides in order to learn quicker and improve your abilities. There are various exercises and activities utilising both sides of the brain to facilitate while brain functioning. Playing a musical instrument that requires both hands is an example.
The impact of stress
When we are stressed, we lose control over the non-dominant side of our brain and we only use the dominant side. If we are left brained and stressed, we will become more methodical, analytical and structured, but less flexible, intuitive and creative and vice versa. As you can see, we therefore do not have access either way to vital processes and skills that can assist in problem solving. Brain fitness is impaired and minimised as a result.
We further secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which when it is elevated for prolonged periods is an inhibiting chemical, which slows down brain cells and can even kill them. Cortisol further clogs arteries, restricts blood flow, suppresses the immune system and elevate blood sugar levels. This can affect our heart health.
Stress management and coping techniques are a priority for most people today. There is a lot of information available on stress management, its important to put these into practice to limit stress and its neurochemical and physical effects on the body and mind.
Not too long ago the concept of neuroplasticity was found. This was a breakthrough in neuroscience that changed the old belief that the brain fully forms early in our development and then remains static for the rest of life.
In a recent article published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers from Oxford University analysed the fMRI data from 461 project participants. Specifically, they mapped the links between 200 regions of the brain. Each participant also filled a questionnaire that helped to establish his or her basic behavioural traits and attitudes. Among other things, the scientists discovered that people with behavioural traits normally viewed as negative or positive had markedly different connectional and functional brain characteristics. These difference in brain connections prove that our basic attitude is indeed our basic attitude is indeed reflected in our brain structure.
We are the result of our neuropathways.
Neuropathways are formed all the time and it affects what we do, who we are, how we continue to think. These pathways are reinforced by continuing to think the same way. This repetition forms a permanent protein substance and ‘solidifies’ thinking. This causes functioning on autopilot, where you don’t even need to think what to do you just do or think it automatically, further reinforcing the behaviour, attitude or habit. That’s why trying to lose weight or starting to exercise or changing other habits can be difficult. Change is difficult as a result of these pathways that have formed.
We then start to see the world through these lenses and filters which we created in our brain and we can either miss or recognise opportunity purely by how we have trained ourselves to think through our attitude. The brain will not even be alert to those things that are outside of its formed pathways – think of confirmatory bias.
We all know it is preferred to have optimistic views of the world and to expect that things are good and will work out for you. This creates new ways of functioning and allow you to be open to receiving information from the world on opportunity, possibility and good prospects.
Nutrition seems to be an intuitive element of brain health as it is for the body. The brain utilises 20-25 watts of electricity to function and it requires the right raw materials to do that. Eating as close to nature as possible is important. Avoid processed foods mostly sold in packaging as well as preservatives in general. Drink enough water and do regular exercise.
Basic, but important for whole brain functioning.
This article is aiming to provide a few insights into the importance of managing the brain for improved functioning and is certainly not exhaustive. There are many more insights and information related to brain functioning and the findings of neuroscience that can help us understand more about ourselves to improve our life experience and success.