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Have a good day: Three important scientific themes

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  1. The two-system brain: one deliberate and controlled, and other automatic and instinctive.
  2. The discover-defend axis: We’re cosntantly on the lookout for threats to defend against and rewards to discover. It takes very little to put our brains into defensive mode, and we’re not at our smartest in that mode.
  3. The mind-body loop: The state of our bodies and that of our minds are far more deeply entwined than we generally realize. As a result, certain simple physical interventions can immediately boost our intellectual performance, emotional resilience, and personal confidence.


“Effortless intuition” or “deliberate reasoning”. We are asking the deliberate system to review some information, connect that to our past experience, make sense of it all, generate options, and evaluate those options wisely. Logic, empathy, creativity, self-control and planning are involved with deliberate system. Deliberate system is smart – but small, sequential and slow. Working memory can store three or four pieces of information at once and it is only able to do one thing at a time. When we are trying to multi-task it’s switching from one task to another and back again. It gets tired very quickly. There are countless objects in your field of vision, each a potential distraction.

“Effortless intuition/the Automatic system/”reflexive system”/”subconscious” has automated the majority of what we do to free up our deliberate system to focus on what’s its best at — things like handling unfamiliar situations, resisting temptation, and thinking ahead. Our automatic system is capable of doing multiple things in parallel, unlike our “one thing at a time, please” deliberate system. Becase our automatic system acts as a spam filter, we don’t experience the world as it is: we’re always experiencing an edited, simplified version. Our brain’s energy-saving automatic system doesn’t just filter our perceptions of the world. It also strealines our decision making by nudging us toward whichever choice requires the smallest amout of conscious effort. If there’s a plausible option already on the table, or one that doesn’t involve thinking hard about the future. “Fantastic! Let’s apply the ‘most obvious option = best option’ rule. No need to think further.” We can be more proactive in telling our brain what’s “important” enough to merit our conscious attention. When your deliberate system is overused, overloaded or distracted, it’s harder for you to be wise, balanced, or reliable. You make the most of your brain’s talents if you adjust for the limitations of each system. That means creating conditions for your deliberate system to function at its best, and recognizing when to slow down and come off autopilot.


Every moment, our brain is busy scanning the environment for unpleasant things we should avoid and pleasant things we should rush toward. Either we take steps to defend ourselves from the “threat” or we embrace the “reward” with delight. We will have a good day if we manage to spend as little time as possible in defensive mode. When we face life-threatening experience, we’re reminded of the “survival circuits” that we all have buried deep in the automatic system of our brain. When those survival circuits pick up any sign of potential danger, they work fast to defend us by launching a fight, flight, or freeze response. The survival circuits that drive this emergency response include a part of the brain called the amygdala. It’s constantly on the look out for things that are uncertain, ambiguous, or novel, including potential threats in our environments, and it’s sensitive enough to react to some thing as mildly worrying as a picture of a frowning stranger. If our amygdala picks up anything of serious concern, the fight-flight-freeze reaction gets triggered. This kind of rapid response is impressive. Their (survival circuits) speed often comes at the expense of accuracy. It’s as if they have a mantra of “better safe than sorry.” The second challenge is that when you’re threatened, your brain powers up for that defensive response by shifting resources away from its sophisticated-but-slower deliberate system. If the “threat” you’re facing is one that requires a thoughtful approach rather than a foot race — perhaps, it’s criticism from a customer or a deadline that’s moved unexpectedly — it’s not great that you’ve just taken your strongest cognitive skills offline. Exposure to even mild negative stress can significantly reduce the amount of activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most of the deliberate system’s work gets done. Our brain reacts just as quickly to personal affronts and work-place indignities as it does to genuine physical threats. Our fight-flight-freeze defenses can be triggered when someone takes too long to return a text message or when a colleague shows signs of desapproval. We can choke (freeze) when challenged, conceal or tune out (flight) when we’re feeling out of depth, or snap (fight) at people when we’re feeling let down. Thank goodness we have this defensive system keeping us safe from genuine life-or-death threats– but when it’s active, we’re not thinking expansively. Just when we want to behave like our most evolved selves, such as in the middle of a delicate or complex situation, our brain can sometimes have us behave more like a cornered animal. We can blame defensive mode for most of our “oh shit” moments. A colleague’s inexplicable bad behavior usually makes more sense, if we know that we’re observing a fight-flight-freeze response. By asking ourselves which “threat” might be causing the reaction, we may be able to improve the situation rather than making things worse by reacting angrily and amlifying the threat further. And the same goes for ourselves. This self-awareness is the first step toward reengaging our brain’s deliberate system and getting back to being at our best.

Discovery mode seeks out rewarding experiences. Our reward system constantly scans for potential treats like praise and pleasure, not just primal rewards like food and sex. When we address workplace challenges from the discovery end of the axis, rather than the defensive end — when we feel rewarded rather than threatened — we handle them better. In discovery mode, our survival circuits are not launching a fight-flight-freeze response, which means our deliberate system is able to stay fully online. We are going to be able to think clearly about the problems if our brains are not on the defensive and we feel good when we are able to solve tough analytical puzzles. Look for potential rewards in the situation you’re facing. If you can trick/tempt your brain’s reward system with something valuable, you’re more likely to be able to respond to a tough situation with the benefit of all your “discovery mode” intelligence.

Primal rewards like food and sex aren’t available in the middle of our most difficult conversations at work. Neurollgical effects of financial gains/money are short-lived. Humor is a small reward, but it’s enough to puncture the tension, which is a sign that everyone has moved back toward discovery mode. Social rewards are candy to the human brain. We’re extraodinarily sensitive to signals that we belong, because historically we needed the support of our tribe to survive on the savannah. Our brains respond to signals of belonging in a way that’s very similar to more primal rewards. So praise and recognition — “job well done” comment — can help to keep us in discovery mode. Having a sense of autonomy and personal competence is motivating. We perform better, and feel better about ourselves, when we feel in charge of at least some aspects of what we’re doing — whether that’s in the goals we set for ourselves, the way we work, or the purpose behind our effort. Our brains also find it rewarding to learn new and interesting things – even if it’s just office gossip. Merely getting answers to quetions visibly activates the reward system. Summon these social, personal and informational rewards to keep you out of defensive mode and enable you to stay focused, smart, and adaptable in the face of workplace challenges.


The way we treat our body has a huge effect on the way our brain performs. We can reap immediate intellectual and emotional dividends from investing in exercise and sleep, or even from taking a moment to breathe deeply, smile broadly, and stand a little taller. A tired and sleep-deprived brain devotes less blood to the prefrontal cortex, where most of the deliberate system lives. Going short of sleep is like forgetting to save a document that you’ve worked on all day. We now know taht a week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent. We never say “This person is a great worker. He’s drunk all the time!” Yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep.” Prioritizing sleep is one of the surest ways to have a good day.

Even a single session of aerobic exercise immediately improves our intellectual performance. It enhances all the functions of the brain’s deliberate system. On days people exercised before work, they were able to concentrate and handle their workload better. Exercise also boosted people’s mood and motivation and their ability to deal with stress. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain. Even a fast walk at lunchtime can make a real difference.

Mindfulness enhances our analytical thinking, capacity for insight, ability to focus, self-control, sense of well being, energy, and emotional resilience. Mindfulness improves connectivity between different parts of the brain’s deliberate system and reduces reactivity in the survival circuits when faced with negative stimuli. Which means more time in high-functioning discovery mode, less time in defensive mode. At its heart, mindfulness is the practice to pause, focus your attention on observing one thing, and calmly return your attention to that point of focus if your attention drifts away. Pause, focus, return. People often focus on their own breathing. People can get results from practicing mindfulness for as little as five minutes a day.

Your brain’s deliberate system performs far better when you’ve had enough sleep, some aerobic exercise, and a few moments of mindfulness. Building this kind of physical maintenance into your routine helps you stay sharp, calm and generally pleasant to be around.

Source: HOW TO HAVE A GOOD DAY by Caroline Webb

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