Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The skill of using our brain

There are two groups of skills that we learn. There's the skills that we pick up from our environment - eg to use knife and fork or to speak a language and then there's the skills that we may have to additionally train to do - eg speaking a second language or sailing a boat.

And the skills in these groups change over time and can be different between cultures. For example most of us nowadays train to drive a car but before there were cars no one even knew the skill existed or most of us use computers nowadays but there are societies in the world that have no access to computers and for them this is not a required or interesting skill to have .

Nothing you don't know so far. What our world does not seem to have grasped yet is that one of the most important skills we need to learn and everyone must learn is how to use out brain. As we grow up we kind of figure it out but 9 out of 10 cases or even less what we figure out is wrong. Science knows a lot more about the brain than the common knowledge is. Information and skills that can help each one of us to make better decisions, avoid catastrophic consequences and generally be a better person and help make this world a better place.

Are we not ready yet ? Will we ever be ready?

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Take a deep breath, Count to 10

Or simply calm down. The advice and techniques aimed to help someone calm down are usually a good idea, well intentioned and only partially useful. Not because they are wrong or improper but simply because most of us don't know how to do it - we don't know how to make the breathing or the counting work.

The goal if achieved is to get to a state which many authors and even religions talk about. Some ways that describe it are : clear mind, getting in touch with your inner self, being at peace, activating your thinking brain and so on. I think all of them describe the same condition which is generally useful not only when you need to calm down.

What is it and why is it so useful? I prefer to use a brain analogy to answer these questions. So a little background first. A part of your brain known as the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for your executive functions - eg without it you would not be able to plan how to go to the shop or what to do next Saturday. Now the key about it is that it has very limited temporary storage - 4 or 5 bits of information and it takes a lot of energy to keep these bits there for long.

Overworking the PFC is a bad idea. Your brain becomes slow an you're likely to make bad decisions. In key or emotional moments the PFC will struggle to function properly. By quieting your mind you help the PFC mainly by making space for useful ideas to be brought to its attention. These ideas will usually be good enough to get you out of almost any situation.

All of the suggestions I mentioned at the start when executed properly are ways to make space in your PFC. For example with breathing what you need to do is focus exclusively on the breathing trying to get rid of any other thoughts. Breath in slowly then breath out trying to relax those parts of your body where you feel tension and all of the time focusing on your breathing and trying to avoid any other thoughts. ( see mindful breathing for more information)

So next time you need to calm down why not try taking a deep breath but using the technique described here and see if it makes a difference?

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Do you often compromise? Stop and read this.

There's this little boy and a little girl you are looking after and as they are playing with their toys they suddenly begin an argument that threatens to become a fight. You recognise the danger and decide it is the right time to get involved (before it's too late).

As you get closer you see that the kids have discovered the box of chocolates you bought for later and are presently arguing who should have it. You get the picture straight away and decide to split the box and the chocolates into equal parts and give each half. It does not get more fair than that, does it?

You've told yourself a story that looked realistic and you were pretty fast at it. So fast you didn't have time to ask why. Well, consider this: how about if you asked why and the boy told you he wanted to eat the chocolates (well most of them if possible) and the girl told you she wanted the box so she can store her collection of stones in it. Now your solution doesn't sound very good, does it?

So if you're telling yourself stories fast and if you're making compromises then stop and ask and think. And that might make quite a lot of difference in your life and work.
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