As leaders we don’t spend a lot of time discussing our pre frontal cortex, we take our ability to think, make choices, reason and have self control for granted, and yet the functioning of our pre frontal cortex makes the difference from clear thinking and focus to procrastination and fog!
Arousal levels ‘just right’
So what do we know about our PFC – well – it is our executive functioning region…. goal setting, motivation, inhibits inappropriate behaviour, conceptual thinking, free our thinking from internal and external distractions and plays an important role in how we encode and retrieve memories and gives us our ability to understand what others are thinking. And we know that it very sensitive to its neuro chemical environment. As Professor Amy Arnsten from Yale Medical School, says that the PFC is a bit like Goldilocks “everything has got to be just right!” The two main neuro chemicals are dopamine and norepinephrine – the arousal chemicals – too little and you will feel lethargic, disinhibited and disinterested, too much and you may feel overwhelmed.
Your levels of dopamine, in particular, are responsible for many functions including feeling of reward, pleasure, compulsion and perseverance. Norepinephrine underlies the fight or flight response. These chemicals are also known as catecholamine’s, and it is the right level of catecholamine’s that leads to optimum functioning of your PFC.
So if you have high levels of these excitatory neuro chemicals what can you do? Well it means that you are working at an unhelpful level of stress – firstly it’s important to notice when you hit this ‘overload’ – what are your tell tale signs – for me I speed up, try doing two or three things at once and my working memory refuses to cooperate and I forget why I have walked into a room, or where my keys are. Once you have become aware that you are ‘over aroused’ then do the things you need to do to decompress – strategies are plentiful: breathe, become fully present, take time out, meditate, stop…its probably the opposite of what you want to do….
And what if you are under aroused… feeling unmotivated, disengaged… what can you do? Well the brain responds well to novelty. Building novelty into the day, especially before a low grade task, can enhance your focus; try working in different places – a coffee shop, or at the park or even just a different office space. Create excitement just before embarking on a task by playing upbeat music or having an inspiring conversation can trigger enough internal excitement to be able to complete the task.
Now let’s talk about feeding your brain. Your brain needs energy and certain tasks use more energy than others. In the article ‘Towards a Physiology of Dual-Process Reasoning and Judgment’ by Masicampo and Baumeister, the impact of glucose (brain food) on decision making is discussed. The results of the experiment show the importance of having adequate levels of glucose when trying to make effortful or complex decisions. So what does this mean for us? Well, making sure that we are eating properly during the day and maintaining our glucose levels is fundamental to our critical thinking, without appropriate levels of glucose we are more likely to rely on more automatic thinking processes. According to the paper “Most important, we showed that the outcome of a decision making process could be changed by manipulations aimed at increasing or decreasing the available supply of blood glucose.”
So you can help your thinking and decision making by ensuring: “right food, right level of arousal, right focus”.
Interesting – so questions to ask yourself?
- How do I take care of my thinking every day?
- When is my thinking and decision making at its best, what time during the day?
- Do I eat regularly? How do I feel before and after?
- Am I more likely to be over aroused or under aroused, what strategies do I need to put in place to help me get into flow?