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Transform your Overloaded, Underperforming Brain into an Efficient, Overachieving Machine (Part 1)

This train of thought will be broken into several bite sized chunks for easy digestion.  As a kindness to all involved, I’ll post the piece-parts in quick succession so that we can all “stay on the train.”

It all starts with learning

When I first started computer programming back in the day, it was hard, and I was slow.  Really slow.  In fact, I nearly failed my first programming class in college, before recovering because the world would have come to an end if I’d gotten a C.  Really, I thought that.  It probably comes as no surprise that I hated that class.  Failure doesn’t feel good.

My next programming class was COBOL.  It made much more sense.  It had sentences.  It had sections, like chapters in a book.  Did I mention that my other major was English?  In retrospect, COBOL was easier because I had a frame of reference, and it wasn’t a totally new creation.  By the time I became an Information Technology consultant, I was quick.  I was a business problem solving, application developing machine.  I was the one of the first, if not the first, certified PowerBuilder Developers in Dallas (that’s a nice laugh for all of the IT people in the audience).  My point is that I went from near failure to near brilliance.  You might chalk it up to persistence, however, the same did not hold true for Calculus.  Generosity from my professor, not superior brain power, saved my bacon in Calculus.  So, why the difference?

What neuroscience shows us is that our brains form collections of pathways, which many call maps.  When we learn something complex and new, like driving, our brains use a lot of energy in focus and attention to create those maps.  It is kind of like creating a footpath one step at a time.  As we repeat the activity, the path widens.  Pretty soon, it is like habit, and we have a superhighway.

For me, I found a frame of reference for computer programming, a clothesline where I could hang new knowledge as I learned.  Calculus to this day has remained a collection of abstract concepts that I couldn’t wrap my brain around.

A crash course on brain function

Once we have the superhighway in the brain, things run pretty smoothly don’t they?  Think of the last time you solved something – a brain teaser, jigsaw puzzle, crossword puzzle, Sudoku, a problem around the house – and the sense of satisfaction you got from the your success.  I figured out how to upload pages to my website last week.  Nirvana!!!

Conversely, think about the last time you tried to memorize an unrelated list of things, like dates for a history test.  It was harder and more frustrating, yes?  Can we agree that memorizing unrelated lists is less interesting?  Brain science explains that tasks like memorizing lists are harder and less interesting because the brain wasn’t designed to work that way.

Here’s an experiment.  Look at this snippet of a song refrain:
“Sh ws a dy trppr,
n wy tckt, yeh”
What’s the Beatles song?

It is “Day Tripper”.  Were you able to read it without the vowels?

In all likelihood, you were able to read it without the vowels and know the song.  Why?  Because I provided a context (Beatles Song) and something familiar (Day Tripper).  If you weren’t able to do it, chances are you’re probably not a Beatles fan, and I didn’t choose a subject for which you had a brain map.

So, what we observed here, is that if something is missing, your brain goes back to the map it’s created from your previous learning and experience and an fills in the blanks for you.

Let’s do a couple more experiments.

What is the missing number in this series: 2-4-6-8-___?

How about this one:  1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 20, 37, ___ ?

The brain is a pattern machine.  It likes to create patterns and fit them into its structure or context.  Whenever your brain encounters a situation in which it is familiar, it will fill in the blanks for you.

Why is this important?  Because this phenomenon is not solely applicable to reading and brain teasers. How you communicate, relate to others, solve problems, supervise, perceive others’ actions, attribute motives, and so on depend on your patterns, filters and expectations. Good or bad, your decisions, interpretations and actions are based on your thought patterns, filters and context, all of which were built in your past experience.  These may not be accurate to your current context, which can lead to poor decision-making, ineffective behavior, and less-than-optimal results.
Enter the brain-based coach.  This is where we examine how you think and whether these processes are getting you the results you want.

Your fieldwork for today, should you choose to accept it:  think about a conflict you’ve had with someone, either at work or in your personal life.  Did you attribute something to them that might not have been there (hints: statements that start with “He always” “She’s just” “He’s out to get me”)?  What if that attribution or assumption wasn’t true?  What could have been different about the situation and its outcome?

We’re definitely expanding on this topic next time, and I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments.

Ciao for now,

P.S. – I’d love to know what your fieldwork uncovered for you.  Any aha’s?  Please post them in the comments section, if you’re comfortable.

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