Just as physical energy is the fundamental fuel for emotional competencies, so it is the fuel from mental skills. Nothing so interferes with performance and engagement as the inability to concentrate on the task at hand. To perform at our best we must be able to sustain concentration, and to move flexibly between broad and narrow, as well as internal and external focus. We also need access to realistic optimism, a paradoxical notion that implies seeing the world as it is, but always working positively toward a desire outcome or solution. Anything that prompts appropriate focus and realistic optimism service performance. The key support of muscles that fuel optimal mental energy include mental preparation, visualization, positive self talk, effective time management, and creativity.
Much as it is true physically and emotionally, mental capacity is derived from a balance between expanding and recovering energy. The capacity to stay appropriately focused and realistically optimistic depends on intermittently changing mental channels in order to rest and rejuvenate. When we lack the mental muscles we need to perform at her best — if we have too short an attention span, too pessimistic an outlook, or too rigid and narrow a perspective — we must build capacity by training systematically.
Physical, emotional and mental energy capacity all feed upon one another. At the physical level, the increased fatigue that results from two little sleep or poor fitness makes it more difficult to concentrate. At the emotional level feeling such as anxiety, frustration and anger interfere with focus and undermine optimism, especially in the face of high demand.
Perhaps nowhere do we so undervalue the importance of intermittent recovery as the mental dimension of our lives. In most work environments, the message — both explicit and implicit — is that working longer and more continuously is the best route to high productivity. We are into rewarded for taking regular breaks, or for building a work out into the middle of the day, or for any pattern of work other than keeping our heads down and grinding away for as long as we can.
The problem is that thinking uses up a great deal of energy. The brain represents just 2% of the body‘s weight, but requires almost 25% of its oxygen. The consequences of insufficient mental recovery range from increased mistakes of judgment and execution to lower creativity and the failure to take reasonable account of risks. The key to mental recovery is to give the conscious, thinking mind intermittent rest.
In his provocative book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Author Michael Gelb poses a wonderfully revealing question: “Where are you when you get your best ideas?” Gelb has asked this question to thousands of people over the years, and the most common answers he gets include “in the shower,” “resting in bed,” “walking in nature” and “listening to music.”
Prolific and productive as Leonardo da Vinci was, Gelb points out, the artist took regular breaks from his work. Rather than sleeping extended hours at night, he relied on numerous catnaps during the day. While da Vinci was working on The Last Supper, he sometimes spent several hours in the middle of the day appearing to be lost in daydreams, in spite of entreaties from his employer, the prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie, to work more steadily. “The greatest geniuses,” da Vinci told his patron, “sometimes accomplish more when they work less.” In his Treatise on Painting, da Vinci wrote, “It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation… when you come back to the work your judgment will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgment.”
Creativity & Recovery
Oscillation also permits different parts of the brain to be activated. The neurosurgeon Roger Sperry won a Nobel prize in 1967 for research in which he established that the two hemispheres of the brain have fundamentally different ways of processing information. The left hemisphere is the seat of language and operates in a sequential, step-by-step, time conscious way, arriving on conclusions based on logical deductions. Sperry’s breakthrough was his discovery that the right hemisphere has unique and often underappreciated qualities of its own. It is more visually and specially adept and has a greater capacity to see things all at once and to relate the parts to the whole. Because the right hemisphere is less linear and time focused on the left, it is more inclined to solve problems by intuitive leap and sudden insight.
Sperry’s work helps to explain why our best ideas often occur when we seem not to be consciously seeking solutions. Equally important, intermittent right hemisphere dominance seems to provide a powerful form of recovery from the rational, analytic left hemisphere mode that occupies most of our time at work.
The creative process itself is oscillatory. Beginning with the German physiologist and physicist Hermann Helmholtz in the late 19th century, many thinkers have sought to define the sequential steps of the creative process. Five stages are now widely recognized: first insight, saturation, incubation, illumination and verification. In her books Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and Drawing on the Artist Within, writer and art professor Betty Edwards has written brilliantly about the way that creativity involves cycling between the left and right hemisphere modes of thinking.
Two of the stages of creativity clearly depend more on logical, analytical left hemisphere skills. In saturation, information is gathered in a methodical, step by step away from multiple sources. The final stage, verification, relies on analyzing, codifying and translating the creative breakthrough into rational, accessible language. The other three stages — first insight (the initial inspiration), incubation (mulling over the ideas), and illumination (the breakthrough) — are all associated with the right hemisphere. All three tend to occur when we are doing something that Edwards calls “thinking aside” — not actively seeking answers or results. “In each of the stages,” she writes, “the creative work occurs largely at the unconscious level — and often after the left hemisphere is conscious, rational search for a solution has been exhausted.” In short, the highest form of creativity depends on the rhythmic movement between engagement and disengagement, thinking and letting go, activity and rest. Both sides of the equation are necessary, but neither is sufficient by itself.
The Plasticity Of The Brain
Increasing evidence confirms that the brain itself operates like a muscle — atrophying from disuse and increasing in capacity with active use, even late in life. At Baylor College of Medicine, research team spent four years studying nearly 100 physically healthy people over the age of 64. 1/3 of them still have jobs. 1/3 had retired but remained active physically and mentally. The final third had retired and were essentially inactive. After four years, the third group scored significantly lower than the first two, not just on IQ tests but also on those measuring blood flow to their brains. As neurologist Richard Restak puts it: “No matter how old you may be at this moment, it’s never too late to change your brain for the better. That’s because the brain is different from every other organ in our body. While the liver and the lungs and the kidneys wear out after a certain number of years, the brain gets sharper the more it’s used. Indeed it improves with use.”
Because the mind and body or so inextricably connected, even moderate physical exercise can increase cognitive capacity. It does so simply by driving more blood and oxygen to the brain. Exercises also believed to stimulate more production of a chemical — Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) — which helps repair brain cells and prevent further damage. A research team at the University of Illinois set out to test the cognitive functioning of 124 women age 60 to 75 who never or rarely exercise. The women or put on a three day a week program that included either a brisk one hour walk or an hour of gentle yoga style stretching. In affect the exercisers were asked to push past their comfort zones physically, while the stretchers were not. After just six months, the walkers demonstrated 25% higher scores than the structures on the series of key cognitive tests. In a similar experiment, a Japanese neuroscientist put a group of young people on a jogging program of 30 minutes, 2 to 3 times a week. When he tested them at the end of 12 weeks on a series of memory skills, they’re score significantly increased, and so did the speed with which they completed the tests. Of equal note, there gains disappeared almost immediately when they stop jogging.
Much as it is true physically and emotionally, the balancing of stress and recovery appears to be a critical factor in maximizing cognitive capacity. Exposing oneself to short-term stress, for example, can stimulate a burst of adrenaline that actually improves memory. When the demand is more linear chronic — and stress hormones continue to circulate in the brain — the hippocampus can actually shrink. Much like the body, the brain needs time to recover from exertion. After we have learned a new information or had new experiences, it takes time for the brain to consolidate and encode what it has learned. In the absence of downtime, or recovery, this learning cannot take place as efficiently.
Loss of memory is the most common complaint that people over the age of 40 bring to neurologists. Far more often than not, the explanation is not disease, but rather the failure to actively keep the mind engaged, and the resulting atrophy of the “muscles” of memory. Much as is the case physically, disuse feeds on itself. When we are young in our brains are highly plastic, learning even complex skills such as language is relatively easy. As we get older, and exercise these muscles less, the challenge of learning a new language or a new skill tends to be more difficult and frustrating. To avoid discomfort (and in some cases humiliation) our inclination is to give up. The result is that the avoidable deterioration of our capacity continues.
“Every time you learn something new builds new connections to the brain cells,” says Margery Silver, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the new England Centenarian study, “That way if you do have a few changes — a few plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s and a few brain cells become damaged, you still have a reserve because of all these additional connections you built up.” Put another way, continuing to challenge the brain protects us from decline as we age. Just as learning a new sport forces us to build your muscles into use our bodies in different ways, so learning new computer skills, or taking a new course, or even learning a few new words of vocabulary each day pushes us to develop the mental muscles that serve performance.