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Brain Fitness

Businesses are more focused than ever on excellent performance and a competitive edge through coaching, Leadership development etc. Outstanding performance is above all a game played in the head. In the corporate world, this calibre of self-awareness and self-belief is highly valued, so what makes us perform really well and how can we maintain or improve our brain fitness? And what can we learn from the Olympics and Paralympics? 

Hone your senses

Smell, taste, touch, vision and hearing. The five senses are how your brain knows what is going on in your world, through your nose, tongue, skin, eyes and ears. In the business world we are increasingly aware of the importance of integrating logic and emotion via the left and right hemispheres of the brain, but the brain-body axis should not be under-estimated. 

Smell is the most emotive sense because the olfactory nerve travels directly from the nose to a part of the brain that is close to the emotional centres, the limbic system. All the other senses involve nerves that travel around the cranium before carrying information back to the brain. The hippocampus is the part of the brain where emotions are linked to memories and some peoples’ most vivid memories are strongly associated with smells. The smell of the sea, freshly cut grass or the damp smell of earth after it rains can invoke strong childhood memories. Which smell most strongly evokes a childhood memory for you?

Lavender is the most potent naturally occurring neuro-modulator. It can balance the emotions, calming people when they are agitated and invigorating people when they are melancholic. One of my clients who tended to become quite aggressive during Board meetings, uses it and it has become a bit of an in-joke so that people say “get the lavender out!” when he starts to get annoyed, and a bit of humour always helps to relax the brain! 

Taste, in terms of brain optimization, revolves around really savouring a cup of tea or a piece of chocolate to give your brain a minute between meetings and bring yourself back to the present. This is a form of mindfulness. When we are not mindful, challenges can deplete our resilience more markedly. When an interaction with someone leaves a bad taste in your mouth, what does it mean?

Touch in terms of brain-body connection is about considering the information your largest organ – the skin - is providing you with. There is a map of the body in the sensory cortex of the brain called the homunculus. It appears somewhat distorted as the parts of the body with the most sensory neurons are most highly represented. So the lips and fingertips appear much larger than the arms and legs. When you feel the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up or goose bumps, what is your ancient neural architecture telling you?

Vision – this is probably the sense we use the most. Novelty is good for the brain so look out for something new every day. The social neurosciences tell us that the most eye contact occurs between two women, least between two men and moderate between a man and a woman. Notice what happens if you really look someone in the eye when you shake their hand. Bill Clinton was particularly good at this and utilized it to build trust and rapport.

Hearing – if you have a list of goals you are trying to achieve or behavioural habits you hope to embed, then try reading them out loud. When you do this you use three parts of the brain: Wernicke’s area, which understands written and spoken language, Broca’s area, which has functions linked to speech production and the temporal lobe which holds the auditory centres of the brain. So it reinforces the message to your brain much more strongly than reading alone.

With the basics in place, what can we do to attain Bronze, Silver or Gold in the Brain Olympics?

Bronze  - Energy

At the bronze level healthy nutrition and basic exercise requirements should be met. This would involve doing 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most days of the week. The serotonin boosting effect of this can be equivalent to the effect of a low dose of an anti-depressant and has been reported to boost productivity at work on the days exercise takes place in the morning by as much as 15%. Combined with the beneficial effects of fresh air and being exposed to sunlight, this has serious brain boosting power, as oxygen and glucose are vital fuels for the brain. The pineal gland needs sunlight to regulate our sleep-wake cycle and there are cascade effects on mood and stress levels.

A healthy, balanced diet, rich in antioxidants and supplemented with vitamins and omega oils is important. The brain, although only 2% of body weight, consumes 20% of its glucose intake in a critical “just in time” delivery system and cannot store glucose for later use. This should encourage the practice of regular eating to avoid defaulting to unconscious biases and low trust levels. The brain is constantly scanning out for threats and if there is not enough fuel available it will not be used to generate trust, but saved to ensure survival.

Silver – Resilience

Silver is about doing all of the above, as well as regularly ensuring enough good quality sleep. Six to eight hours is recommended although this will vary from person to person. As long as you are waking up refreshed and dreaming enough, you are probably allowing sufficient time for the brain to rest build up resources for resilience. The main reasons that this does not occur are:

  • Misuse of caffeine (caffeine should be avoided after 2pm)
  • Use of substances such as nicotine and alcohol. These should be minimized generally and avoided altogether for two hours prior to bed time
  • Use of digital media should be ceased at least one hour before going to bed

When the brain is resilient, people perform better under pressure, can regulate their emotions, multi-task, think flexibly and creatively, solve complex problems, be responsive to behavioural demands and make the best decisions or choices in the short and long term.

Gold – Higher purpose

With energy and resilience in place, and work on the integration of logic and emotion on-going in terms of personal and professional development, there is time to focus on fine-tuning intuition, unleashing innovative capability and thinking about leaving a legacy. To achieve this, like any Olympian, the talented and ambitious Leader would require a brain-based coach.

As Alvin Toffler says, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn.” An understanding of neuroplasticity and the practical application of neuroscience to coaching has revolutionized Leadership development producing more Gold medal winning executives all around the world.

Dr. Tara Swart

Tara föreläser på IHM i Stockholm 22/10 och i Göteborg 23/10.

2 september 2013
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