Your Brain at Work (Long notes)

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A metaphor: The stage = your conscious mind. To bring actors on the stage is to recall memories or create thoughts in your mind.

Mental operations: understanding, deciding, recalling, remembering, inhibiting.

Scene 1

The brain uses up a lot of energy, and gets exhausted with time. Use it like a precious resource.

Prioritize prioritizing. Planning requires a lot of energy, so it’s best to do it when you’re fresh, perhaps first thing in the morning.

Don’t tire your brain by trying to remember things while you drive (record things, get them out of your brain and into a system.), or by starting your day with email. Prioritize, then work on the most important task.

Try scheduling around different intellectual modes, not projects. Batch tasks that require the most effort and performance, then do low intensity tasks.

You can only hold 3 or 4 actors on the stage at the same time.

And you can only hold one thought in your mind without memory getting distorted.

Help decisions and remembering by visualization. Tell a story, paint an image. Our visual thinking circuitry is much more advanced and developed than our prefrontal cortex.

Scene 2: Too much to think about

Simplify decisions to only 3-4 variables.

Chunk. Associate complex maps of information with something you can think about in less than two seconds to enable the creation of even more complex structures and decisions.

(When learning, don’t dive too deep all at once. Build understanding concept by concept, chunk by chunk. Then, when you’re comfortable with your understanding of the base chunks, learn concepts building on top of that.)

Clear your mind before getting into complex work. Relax, and get other actors off the stage to make room for new ones.

Scene 3: Multitasking

Not only can you only hold 3 or 4 actors on the stage, they can only play one play.

If you multitask on more than one task requiring conscious effort (even simple ones!), you’ll lose a lot of accuracy and you won’t remember things very well. (Interference)

Multitasking can be done, however, if one of the tasks is an automated routine. Something not requiring the prefrontal cortex, but a habit performed by the basal ganglia. For example, listening to a podcast while walking.

Automate simple tasks – create embedded routines.

Allow yourself to multitask only consciously – be aware of when you can let yourself get distracted and lose accuracy. (Like part of a meeting you know is less important to you)

Scene 4: Distractions

Distractions ruin productivity. After a distraction, it takes a lot of time to get back to your full intellectual performance.

Turn off external distractions. Turn off notifications, alerts, disable social networks, don’t be in an open space. Isolate yourself from things ruining your flow.

Suppressing urges is done by PLVFC, a region in the brain that’s in prefrontal cortex. Yep – in the youngest, most fragile part of the brain. It takes up a lot of energy to suppress a distraction. When you’re down on energy, you might not be able to.

Willpower depletion/ego depletion. Making decisions and suppressing urges makes every subsequent act of decision making or inhibition much harder.

Learn to suppress internal distractions instantly. It’s easier to suppress them in the 0.2s after they pop up into our consciousness than afterwards.

Free will vs free won’t. There’s activity happening in our brains, seemingly making decisions before we’re aware of them. Curious, but even if we don’t quite have free will, we do have free won’t. A veto power to stop thoughts our brain generates.

Having explicit language to name an urge, a thought helps in inhibiting it (<— what does that even mean??)

Scene 5: Stress

The prefrontal cortex is fussy:

To be on your best performance, an optimal level of stress is required (not minimal!).

Too little arousal, and you’re bored, you don’t pay enough attention, you’re not on top of your performance. Too much arousal, and you’re hyperactive, you don’t notice things, you make mistakes.

To be in the flow, you need to be in the middle of arousal and interest spectra.

Two chemicals in our brains:

Both need to be in optimal levels.

Think of something moderately scary or stressful to get norepinephrine up. Think of something calming to get it down.

To get dopamine up, think of something novel, new, and exciting.

To get it down, inhibit the prefrontal cortex by stimulating other parts. For example, close your eyes and imagine a calming sound and sight, stimulating the visual and auditory parts of your brain.

Practice noticing your arousal and interest (norephinephrine/dopamine) levels.

Fear vs excitement. Thinking of something that makes us fear makes norepinephrine go up, but dopamine go down. But thinking of something exciting, of an opportunity, of a win, gets both norepinephrine and dopamine go up.

Scene 6: Creativity and insights

Priming. If you have a recent memory of something, you’re better at making good use of it. So, prime your brain with the information you’ll need soon before you actually start doing the work.

Creativity is hard, because it requires insights. If you try to logically push through to find a solution to a problem, you might find yourself stuck. Sometimes it’s called the writer’s block, but most generally: it’s an impasse.

When you’re at an impasse, you can’t find a solution or find a new path to it, because the wrong pathways are too activated.

To allow yourself to get new insights, switch off your prefrontal cortex. Stop working and thinking on the problem. Relax, take a walk, do something else. Let your unconscious grind on the problem and deactivate the wrong solutions in your brain.

And then, boom, an insight comes.

One tip: describe your problems in the simplest terms possible — so that you don’t have to think about it too precisely.

ARIA model of insights:

The director

Your brain can experience reality in two different modes:

The narrative network is when perceived information is filtered through the knowledge, perspective, thoughts you already have, and interpreted, forming a narrative. It’s when you do nothing, and have a constant stream of new ideas popping up. When you sit on a jetty, feel the breeze, and realize the summer is ending, snd start to think about skiing.

In direct experience, all your senses are heightened, and you get closer to the reality of experience. You perceive things, and yourself as close to objective reality as you possibly can.

Most interestingly, you also get the ability to perceive your own mind. And you get to intervene, to notice a brain pattern that’s unproductive, and change it. When you experience the world directly, you tune out the noise of everyday life, and the subtler signals become clear.

This is mindfulness. The ability to switch on direct experience, and to notice as your mind is switching between the two modes.

Practicing mindfulness makes you better at it, and better at directing your own mind’s experience. People tested high on mindfulness also have high levels of cognitive control.

This is perhaps the point of the book: the more you pay attention to your brain, the more you are capable of changing it.

The hard part is not to be mindful, is to remember to be mindful.

Act 2


Our emotions are managed by the limbic system.

Two kinds of emotions:

Away emotions arouse the limbic system to far greater degree than toward emotions, and they persist for longer, they make you mistakenly perceive things as threats. They’re dangerous. And you can’t just replace fear with opportunity. Opportunity is pleasant — you walk toward it, but in danger, you run away.

Allostatic load is “the wear and tear on the body” which grows over time when the individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress. It represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response that results from repeated or chronic stress.

It can literally damage and kill your neurons to be constantly in stress and fear.

The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex work in kind of a seesaw manner. When overwhelmed with emotions, it’s difficult to think clearly, remember things, and make the right decisions. But by engaging the prefrontal cortex, we’re suppressing the limbic system to some extent.

If being in a stressful, emotional situation can be harmful to us, we can do:

Okay, but say you already are in a situation that’s too arousing emotionally. You can:

Two cognitive change techniques:

Labeling is a simple technique. When you catch yourself having an arousing, negative emotion, literally label it in your mind. Putting a word to what you’re experiencing somehow you more in control of it. Don’t dwell on it either, make it symbolic: “okay, I’m overwhelmed”, or “this is anger”.

Some things to try:

Autonomy and reappraisal

Certainty is a primary reward or threat to our limbic system. It’s extremely stressful and scary to feel uncertain.

Autonomy is another primary threat or reward. When we feel like we’re not in control of our own world, that we don’t have the ability to make choices or decisions — that creates a strong sense of uncertainty.

Even a fake sense of autonomy and control makes you happier, less stressed, and more productive.

Cognitive reappraisal (Reinterpretation/recontextualization)

This is a powerful technique for reducing stress and effectively suppressing strong negative emotions. The idea is to change the interpretation you give to how you see the world to make it feel not threatening.

Types of reappraisal:

Some things to try:


Although rewards — toward responses — are far weaker than threat responses, having an expectation of a positive response, and having that expectation shattered creates a strong threat response. We feel uncertain. This is scary.

Dopamine plays a big role here, and in creating negative and positive spirals:

Having high expectations will screw you up. Set low expectations as a general rule. The psychology of having our expectations met and exceeded really works in our favor.

Slight optimism — having some positive expectations is very healthy for the brain and our ability to make things happen.


Act 3

Friend or foe

Our brains have vast circuitry specifically tailored to human interactions. It’s a bit outdated, though.

Our brains classify people are friends or foes, but in the absence of evidence to contrary, we automatically classify strangers as foes.

When we connect with someone on a human level, and bond, our brains release oxytocin — this gives us a pleasant buzz and signals that there is no threat. We can classify someone as a friend.

Empathy: We understand other people’s emotions by experiencing them ourselves. Our brains have circuits called mirror neurons that let us recreate someone else’s emotional state from cues we can sense. This allows us to empathize and understand other people’s intentions.

However, it’s very easy to misread people and misinterpret their intentions. This is particularly easy when the interaction doesn’t happen face to face and we don’t get all the emotional cues. In this way, a joke can become a slight, a slight can become an attack, and attack can become a battle.

Social interaction is a primary need for our brains, like food. The quantity and quality of safe, comfortable connections with other humans and relatedness is vital for our health.



Fairness is very under-appreciated strong driver of behavior in humans.

A sense of unfairness is a strong primary threat. We feel uncertain and attacked personally. People will choose fairness over money.

Feeling like someone is unfair to us can leave a scar for a long time and arouses our emotions such that it’s difficult to think clearly. And making someone feel like we are treating them unfairly makes them sense betrayal.



Status is another very strong driver of behavior. It’s also a primary threat or reward.

It feels great to gain status, even a tiny bit, or even to feel a promise or a possibility of increased status. A sense of gaining status produces a very pleasant toward response. It also literally makes us better, live longer, and be able to process more information to feel high in status (even controlling for other factors).

And having our status decreased or threatened (even if the threat is imaginary) feels the same as suffering from physical pain. A piece of feedback, a question, a misplaced joke can feel like an attack undermining our status, providing a very strong away response. Even just talking to your boss puts you on your toes, fearing a threat of decreased status.

Status tends to be a zero sum game. To gain status, you have to beat someone, and decrease their status. This is very unproductive.

An effective way of having a sense of increasing your status, without threatening other people’s status is to play against yourself. Compete with your own mind, beat yourself, get better at what you do, get better at sensing cues from your own mind, and derive a sense of a win from that.


All of those things tie into each other. Here are 5 primary threats, rewards and motivators in social interactions:

Imagine two kinds of bosses:

A boss displaying his own status by challenging your autonomy. A boss you cannot relate to. A boss that doesn’t make you feel rewarded and treated fairly for your effort and results. A boss that makes you feel uncertain about your future at an organization.

And compare:

A boss you can talk to easily, like with a friend. Who gives you autonomy to do your best work — increasing your sense of status. Who treats and rewards your fairly, and makes you feel needed — making you feel certain and higher in status.

The second kind of boss is a leader you will want to follow. A person you want to help. And who gives your brain everything it needs to be at its peak performance.

Act 4

Changing other people’s thinking

Giving feedback to people might not always be the best way to help. Giving feedback (providing solutions and your own conclusions) often provokes a threat response in people, as their autonomy and status is challenged. Sometimes, the better the idea suggested, the easier it is for others to dismiss it out of hand.

Instead of giving feedback, try helping others come to their own insights and conclusions. Calm them down and reaffirm their status and autonomy. Ask them questions that force them to activate their own Director and think about their thinking. “What clues do you have about this?”, “What approaches do you think we could try to get to the goal?”

Sometimes thinking analytically about a problem at hand is unhelpful and only provokes an emotional response. Try thinking about the goal you have in mind instead, and calm yourself down to allow for subtle connections and insights to emerge.

Create an environment that incentivizes you and other people to give feedback to themselves, judge harshly and as objectively as possible your own work, without a sense of threat.

Changing the culture

Attention is the key of neuroplasticity. Neurons that fire together, wire together. If you want to change your own (or someone else’s) brain, don’t just do “carrot and stick”, instead, create an environment in which you focus more attention to the thing you want to embed.

Facilitating change. Don’t try changing people when they’re in a strong away state. People can sense you want to change them and react with a threat response, feeling their autonomy challenged.

Use the SCARF model to calm people down, help them switch to a toward state, and focus their attention.

Create connections with question. Practice goal (solution)-based problem solving. Then activate the Director and pay attention to deepen those connections.

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