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Is Your Brain Asleep on the Job?

Without challenge, your brain relies on the same old neuronal ruts

You have the world's most amazing supercomputer sitting on top of your shoulders, hardwired to perform brilliantly. Together with "programmed software" (a.k.a. your mind), your brain is capable of amazing feats. In addition, your brain consists of more than 100 billion cells (10 billion are neurons; 90 billion are "helper" cells called glia) whose primary function is to form synapses for the exchange of information. A superior, highly stimulated brain has the capability to create as many as 100 trillion different synapses or pathways; but if you spend your days doing something that you've already got down pat, your brain tends to rely on the existing neuronal pathways. Eventually, those well-trodden pathways become ruts.

Here's the simple truth: If you don't find your job challenging, you've likely zoned out due to boredom. Boredom arises when you have maxed out, learned as much as you can learn or mastered all the skills required to perform your job, particularly if your job doesn't require complex thinking and analysis. Even if you loved your job in the beginning, eventually your brain becomes quite good at performing the required tasks, even to the point of being able to perform while only half-awake (metaphorically). The brain interprets your current reality, which is the same reality it faces every day, and responds with behaviors that have served you well in the past, and which take the least amount of time. Such shortcuts save energy, but they can also sap your interest.

The fact of the matter is that your brain becomes stuck. It doesn't like simply repeating the same thing over and over and over, and it can also be lazy, and evolutionarily, tries to perform tasks using the least amount of energy possible. Without challenge, your brain is prone to rely on the same old neuronal ruts, and essentially (and almost literally) goes to sleep on the job. In fact, one surefire way to tell that you are bored is becoming physically tired for no reason at all. If you are getting plenty of sleep at night and performing tasks that aren't physically or mentally demanding, but find yourself yawning and sluggish, it's a surefire bet that you're bored, and your brain is taking a cat nap. Likewise, if nothing at work seems exciting (even a completed project or a new employee), you're bored. Boredom can become a habit if you're not careful, which would eventually make it even harder for you to wean your brain of its bad habits and create new neuronal pathways. When it comes to your brain, the 'use it or lose it' principle applies.

Engage Your Mind

One of the oldest precepts of neuroscience has been that our mental processes (thinking) originate from brain activity: that our brain is in charge when it comes to creating and shaping our mind. However, more recent research has shown that it can also work the other way around: that focused, repetitive mental activity can affect changes in your brain's structure, wiring, and capabilities.

In fact, thanks to modern technology that allowed neuroscientists to see with their own eyes how our brains work-scientific research has now proven that our brains are capable of neuroplasticity, or the ability to change itself, throughout our lifetimes. We are not stuck with the brain we were born with, but have the ability to consciously cultivate (by using our minds) which parts of our brain we wish to strengthen, rewire, or even regenerate.

The actions we take can literally expand or contract different regions of the brain, firing up circuits or tamping them down. The more you ask your brain to do, the more cortical space it sets up to handle the new tasks. It responds by forging stronger connections in circuits that underlie the desired behavior or thought and weakening the connections in others. Thus, what you do and what you think, see, or feel is mirrored in the size of your respective brain regions and the connections your brain forms to accommodate your needs.

What does all this mean? It means that you can retrain your brain to be more productive, more resilient, and more creative, but it's up to you to fully engage your mind and ask your brain to step up to the plate.

Challenge Your Brain

If you want to keep your neurons firing, it's as simple as this: find something more challenging to do. Ideally, you will find something that really stretches your mental abilities, or at least that keeps you using your brain's cognitive abilities on a daily basis, but doing anything new is beneficial. Look for ways to challenge yourself: take on new responsibilities, find a new job, or at least a fascinating hobby that will challenge your brain in ways that it's never challenged in your present-day life. To challenge your brain on a daily basis at work:

  • Commit to doing whatever you undertake to the best of your abilities. Stop being lazy and set higher standards for yourself. If nothing else, you can vastly improve your vocabulary, your ability to communicate, and your ability to be more creative.
  • Every so often, take on a project that feels extremely challenging or intimidating. Revel in the challenge; metaphorically burning the midnight oil is good for your brain. If you ask your brain to help you decipher complex material and give your dedicated focus and however long it takes to achieve this, your brain will deliver the goods.
  • Brainstorm ideas for new ways to do things; or for new ideas that you can implement. Brainstorming can create new synapses that can bolster your brain's ability to make new connections, linking new information to existing information in unexpected ways. Creativity is a muscle that can be strengthened.
  • Spend an hour each day learning something new about your chosen profession, the more complicated or difficult to comprehend the better. Why settle for being a drone? Are you really happy being so bored in your job?
  • Identify holes in your capabilities and use mental muscle to fill them. You are only limited by how narrowly you define yourself. Your mind tells your brain who you are and what you are capable of achieving. Set the bar high.
  • Continually up the ante, challenging your mental abilities daily. The more you flex your brain, the better it gets. Remember: brains can be lazy.
  • Learn something completely foreign to you that will challenge your brain on multiple levels. Because it will call upon parts of your brain that you rarely use, it will produce amazing, often unexpected results in your brain.

Creating opportunities for your brain to make new and often startling discoveries can make you smarter and more creative.

Think Like Einstein

After his death, neuroscientists studied Einstein's brain and discovered that the world's most famous genius experienced different changes in his brain than most other brains. Notably, the area that separated his temporal lobe (memory storage, critical for the formation of new factual or emotional experiences), from his parietal lobe (knowledge, reasoning, and sensory integration) was almost completely gone, and neuroscientists believe that this could account for his more integrative way of thinking and his ability to make unusual associations that other, "more normal" people couldn't see.

A researcher from the University of California-Berkeley also found that Einstein had more brain connections in these logical brain parts than other men. Einstein's brain shows us that changing your connections, and the structure of your brain, really can help you think differently, more logically, and with more clarity. Einstein shaped his brain to meet his needs, and you can too!

So rather than letting your head bob over your keyboard, exercise those gray cells by continuing to learn, expanding your brain's base of knowledge, and fostering new synapses and neuronal connections. Engage your brain by brainstorming new ideas and looking at problems as a puzzle you need to solve. The more neuronal activity you have going on, the more your brain will be stimulated to grow, and the more relevant information you feed your brain, the better it can respond when you need it.

Wake Up Your Brain

Another way to wake up your brain is to create short-term goals for each day (or task). These tell your brain what you want it to focus on, bringing it to fuller attention. Your brain likes having a set of concrete actions to perform. That's why having and reviewing a list of short-term goals, and the tasks required to meet them, works so brilliantly. Your brain happily signs on as your taskmaster, but it's up to you to create the tasks that matter and to keep your brain alert and focused on achieving them. It works because goals wake up "sleeping neurons" and strengthen and increase the firing of neuronal synapses. Plus, monitoring goals keeps your brain focused on the task, even while it sleeps; and if you link pleasure to achieving your goals, your brain will be even further motivated to perform. Your brain is wired to understand the good consequences that come from distinct action; setting your workday up so that it can perform to its peak capacity is a recipe for success.

Instead of wasting your brainpower by not being intentionally focused, train your brain to be on the outlook for ways to maximize opportunities to meet your goals. The more you train your brain to focus on your goals, the more it will rise up to the challenge.

Get into the Habit of Working Hard

Finally, if you want your brain to stay focused, make it a habit to fully engage and challenge your mind. Lazy brains aren't as likely to be primed and ready when you need them most. Plus, it is very true that the more you use your brain the sharper it becomes. Each use, each introduction of new information, each dip into complex thinking or creativity strengthens existing synapses, creates new synapses, and even creates new neurons. You have the ability to reshape your brain simply by doing the desired tasks on a regular basis, stretching just a little more each time. On the other hand, if you don't intentionally and fully engage your brain in complex thinking, you can end up dipping lower than boredom into inertia.So, if you're feeling bored, don't wait for it pass. Boredom is a clear signal from your brain that it needs new or additional stimulation. It's your brain's bid to get your attention.

This article was co-written by Teresa Aubele, Ph.D. and Susan Reynolds

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