Do you understand how your brain really works? Studies suggest that while many of us mistakenly believe our brains are independent, rational, thinking machines, our brains actually have an entirely different purpose.
“The brain’s most important job is to regulate the systems of your body to keep you alive,” explained Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, when we interviewed her recently. “This means that everything else your brain does—seeing, thinking, and feeling—it does in the service of regulating the internal systems of your body to keep your heart beating, your lungs expanding, and quickly getting glucose to your cells. This process is known as allostasis or you can think of it as ‘body budgeting.’”
“Everything your brain creates, from memories to hallucinations, from ecstasy to shame, is part of this mission. Sometimes your brain budgets for the short term, like when you drink coffee to stay up late and finish a project, knowing that you are borrowing energy that you’ll pay for tomorrow. Other times, your brain budgets for the long term, like when you spend years to learn a difficult skill, such as math or carpentry, which requires a sustained investment but ultimately helps you survive and prosper,” said Lisa.
So how can we help our brains to body-budget wisely?
Lisa’s research suggests:
Be clear on who you want to be
Because we are a social species, we are the caretakers of each other’s brains. For example, the brain regions that are most important for processing language—your ability to speak and understand words—are exactly the same regions that regulate your body, heart, lungs, metabolism, and immune system. This means what you say and how you say it impacts the nervous systems of the people around you.
So, what kind of person do you want to be? For example, do you want to be somebody who energizes or drains other people’s body budgets?
Prioritize your productivity
Your brain is a predicting organ. Picture your brain trapped in a dark box (let’s call this your skull) and that it is only able to receive information about the outcomes unfolding around you through your senses. These include light through your eyes, changes in air pressure through your ears, changes in chemical concentrations in the air through your nose, and so forth. When you hear a loud bang, what does it mean? Is it a car door slamming? A box being dropped? A gunshot?
The challenge is that your brain is only receiving information about the effects—such as a loud bang—and not the cause, yet it still needs to determine the most beneficial response to regulate your body and keep you alive. The only way your brain can solve this problem is to draw on its past experiences to predict what might happen next and what actions it should prepare to take next.
When you make yourself predictable and trustworthy for others—by sharing goals, being respectful, and expressing care for others—working alongside you requires less body-budgeting and this has been found to improve productivity. In addition, when you get enough sleep, drink enough water, prioritize enough exercise, and make time for rest and recovery, your body has more energy to budget and that has also been found to improve productivity.
Be mindful of your social realities
Your brain actively and willingly participates in a socially made-up world each day. For example, certain small pieces of paper are only valuable because we have socially agreed it will represent “money” or we agree that a certain person is a “leader” and give them a title like “CEO” to bestow social power. To the best of our knowledge, only human brains co-create social realities in this way because of the brain’s abilities:
- Creativity—the same creativity that enables you to create art and music enables you to decide that certain small pieces of paper will represent “money.”
- Communicate—your ability to learn and share language enables us to efficiently communicate with each other and create a shared social reality.
- Copying—your ability to reliably copy others is how social norms and rules are passed from one person to the next.
- Cooperate—your ability to work alongside others to have a bigger impact than you can alone, makes a shared social reality desirable.
- Compression—your ability to think abstractly and draw on past experiences to create shared meaning with others.
We are often unaware of the shared realities we have created, and yet we uphold these social realities every day through our behaviors. Be mindful of where the social realities in which you are invested are serving you and others well. On the flip side, pay attention to where these social realities are unintentionally creating a workplace and a world that is not good for you or for others.
How are you working with your brain to perform at its best?