There’s still turkey hanging around in my fridge, but Thanksgiving is in the rear view mirror, Christmas on the horizon. In the twilight zone between sleeping and waking this morning, a mental readout of the tasks that need to be completed in the next few weeks flashes by like a mileage sign on the highway. Suddenly I realize I haven’t written a November post and it’s the last day of the month.
Gripped by a sense of urgency with potential topics doing the jitterbug inside my head, I catch myself an instant before I pour tea over my oatmeal. That’s a good thing for two reasons: I didn’t have to toss out my oatmeal, and the near miss helped me put the brakes on the Runaway Brain Train.
If you’ve read my posts over the last several years, you know I am fascinated by discoveries about the brain. Neuroscience and related fields are producing a cascade of information about how and why certain things happen in our heads. That notion that we only use about ten percent of our brains turns out to be a myth, but a lot of pretty crazy discoveries grounded in solid science have recently emerged.
Thanks to David Rock’s Your Brain at Work, I know what’s happening inside my head at a chemical level as I narrowly avert that breakfast disaster. And I also know what to do about it. In simplest terms, the urgency I felt about the unwritten post produced a flood of dopamine and norepinephrine in my brain. Dopamine is released when the brain encounters novelty, something unexpected or new. Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, shows up when we are fearful. Too little of this dynamic duo and we’re bored; too much and we’re anxious and stressed. It turns out there’s a sweet spot where that mix is just right. And peak performance, whether mental or physical, depends on hitting that sweet spot.
Back to the near miss with the oatmeal. As I set the teapot aside I realize I’ve blown right by the sweet spot. Now the most urgent task is to reduce the torrent of dopamine and norepinephrine to a more reasonable trickle. David Rock suggests some easy strategies to accomplish this: go for a walk or spend a few minutes focusing only on sounds, for instance. I chose the latter because I had a warm bowl of oatmeal waiting. The main thing is to be mindful of what’s happening in your head. Of course, as longtime researcher John Teasdale wrote: “What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.” In this, as in so many things, practice makes perfect.
Dopamine and norepinephrine may not be the only chemicals we can change in our brains. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy claims that changing your body language changes the mix of testosterone and cortisol. Although the research remains controversial, if you haven’t watched Cuddy’s TED talk about the chemical effects of the Wonder Woman pose, cue it up now. There’s a reason why it’s the second most viewed TED talk to date.
Neuroscience also tells us that our brains devour glucose and oxygen at a phenomenal rate. Which means once you’re hungry, high level intellectual work is temporarily off the table. We all sort of know that instinctively, but it’s been verified in the lab as well. So I’m heading down to make a turkey sandwich. Oh, and one more thing—that whole turkey, tryptophan, sleepiness connection that someone’s Aunt Mildred always brings up on Thanksgiving? That’s a myth too.