“My thoughts are free to go anywhere, but it’s surprising how often they head in your direction.” Author Unknown
When our mind wanders, where does it wander? And why does it seem to ruminate on what is wrong or what people may be thinking of me? How often does this increase our stress levels – worrying about what others may think – and yet we have no evidence that they are thinking about us at all!
So we have developed social brains, we have evolved to think of ourselves in terms of others. Researchers have shown that when our mind wanders (our default network), there are three main neural circuits that are active:
• Thinking about oneself – the medial PFC (MPFC)
• Thinking about what others may be thinking – the dorsal medial PFC (DMPFC)
• Thinking about other people’s actions – the lateral temporal lobe
So what does this mean for leaders? It demonstrates how our brains are set up for being concerned with our social self. The default network is activated when we are not busy on a task or distracted, it is the thinking that we continually go back to.
The brain is wired to “minimize threat and maxmise reward” – Dr Evian Gordon in the Brain Revolution. Research has shown that we are highly sensitive to possible threat, so the question is when we are in default are we more likely to think positive thoughts about what others may be thinking or doing or negative ones?
Well the answer is probably different for everyone but many leaders form a habit of thinking negatively. This is learned through past experience. Our limbic system, and the amygdala and hippocampus in particular are crucial in helping us to learn and adapt especially to danger. And we can learn to watch out for possible threats. Relationships are important to our survival so therefore it seems logical that we spend time thinking about how others could negatively impact us.
This has an impact on our ability to emotionally regulate. Through a negatively wired default network we can activate our limbic region, our amgydala increases in activation, leading to the eventual release of adrenalin and cortisol. This increases our allostatic load – our daily levels of stress, and this is just created by our thinking about a perceived threat rather than an actual threat.
As Kevin Oschner writes in ‘Staying Cool Under Pressure’;
“Sometimes we elaborate negative events in ways that amplify our feelings about them, adding cognitive insult to perceived injury”
When this happens we can easily go into a downward spiral where we are creating the perception of threat in our mind and we are triggering a threat response, leading to further fearful thinking etc. As adrenalin levels increase, levels of dopamine and serotonin decrease, and our ability to use PFC functioning decreases.
A downward spiral is generated through negative thoughts, and the opposite an upward spiral cultivated by more positive thoughts. When we are in default mode we may have a tendency to think about and ruminate on the possible threats, however if we can learn to do that why can’t we learn to think about positive aspects of self and others? This would generate more positive thinking and increase levels of dopamine.
Downward spirals are life exhausting, upward spirals are life enriching.
• Notice where your mind goes when in default mode. Are your thoughts more negative of positive?
• Notice how it feels? What subjective experience are you creating for yourself?
• Is your thinking based on facts or interpretations? Is it real or imagined?
• Focus on your breathing or stop and do a body scan – activate your direct network.
• Place your attention on 3 things that you appreciate about life, self and or relationships with others. What are you grateful for?
• Notice how you feel?