Neuroplasticity: Upgrade Your Brain

by Adam Gale

Focus, creativity and stress-management are all things you can change with a bit of brain science.

WHAT IS NEUROPLASTICITY?

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new synaptic connections between neurons. It’s what enables us to learn new things.

We’re at our most neuroplastic as babies, but as we get older and become more efficient at doing things we already know how to do, we get less neuroplastic. In recent years, however, scientists have discovered that adult brains are far more malleable than they’d previously thought.

WHY DOES IT MATTER TO ME?

Because it means you’re able to improve things that you didn’t realise you could. Whereas before you may have thought there was no point trying to improve because you were congenitally unimaginative or irredeemably scatterbrained, now you have no excuse.

‘Neuroplasticity is happening anyway, we don’t have to do anything to make it happen,’ explains Dr Jenny Brockis, author of The Future Brain: The 12 Keys to Create Your High Performance Brain. ‘If you are exposed to new stimuli, your brain will rewire itself in response.  But if you choose to, you can literally upgrade how well your brain functions in areas like memory or focus.’

HOW CAN YOU USE NEUROPLASTICITY TO UPGRADE YOUR BRAIN?

We are creatures of habit, whether we like it or not. If we’re in a situation often enough, our brains will form such strong pathways that our responses become automatic. It’s similar to riding a bike or using a keyboard.

Unfortunately, our brains can just as often form unhelpful habits as helpful ones: giving a speech automatically causing unnecessary anxiety, for instance. If we want to harness our inherent neuroplasticity to replace bad habits with good, we simply need to practice applying the good habit in a given situation instead of the bad one, until it becomes our ‘new normal’.

It’s hardly rocket science (or indeed brain surgery…), but it works. To increase your chances, Brockis advises picking one thing to work on at a time. ‘New synaptic connections are incredibly fragile when they first form, so you’ve got to nurture them and make sure they stay intact by going back to them and practising. It’s a bit like when you learn to drive a car for the first time – it’s clunky and horrible at first but with repetition and time it becomes much easier,’ Brockis says.

Don’t expect a one-off fix, however. Vigilance and discipline are required. ‘We don’t break habits, they just get weaker if we can replace them with a new, stronger habit. But when a bit pressure comes along, the stress levels go up and we default to the old ways. The brain’s hardwired to go back to the simplest route it knows best.’

WHAT IF YOU DON’T GET THE CHANCE TO PRACTISE YOUR NEW GOOD HABIT?

Rewiring how your brain responds to something that happens regularly (your nightmare morning commute, let’s say) is a lot easier than when the trigger happens less frequently.

Public speaking, for example, is something that for many people only comes along once or twice a year. It’s not impossible to use neuroplasticity to your advantage in these situations, however. Visualisation has been proven to activate the same parts of the brain as actual practice does while focusing on a positive past memory can help to improve your mindset.

ARE THERE LIMITS TO NEUROPLASTICITY?

The short answer is we don’t know. The research is still in its infancy. However, it would seem unlikely to expect you could transform yourself from, say, a numbers dunce to an arithmetical genius, just through a spot of practice. Some things are just hardwired.

But progress is possible where before we assumed it wasn’t. It’s a particularly relevant message for older workers, who might face the prospect of having to retrain mid or late career. ‘The more we use our brain to continue to learn new things the more plasticity we retain. That old saying of “use it or lose it” was right,’ says Brockis.

Old dogs can learn new tricks then, but only if they keep trying.

 

This article was originally posted on Management Today.

Contact us at info@brg.co.za to book Dr Tara Swart and achieve peak brain performance through neuroscience.

 

Sleep your way to the top

By Dr Tara Swart

What makes a good leader?

Senior executives, managers, and business leaders are paid to use their brains. So it is surprising how little emphasis many put on this vital organ.

In a fast-paced world that is constantly changing, the brain’s executive functions, such as creative and flexible thinking, task-switching, bias suppression, and emotional regulation, are becoming increasingly important. But our ability to perform well at these outputs will be enhanced only if fed the right inputs. These include nourishing, hydrating, and oxygenating the brain appropriately, simplifying tasks to give the brain mindful time, and resting it.

That final element – rest – is one of the most crucial. We often hear stories about famous leaders such as Margaret Thatcher surviving and even thriving on very little sleep (Thatcher did suffer from dementia in her later life). It is true that an extremely limited number of people (1-2% of the population) have a genetic mutation that reduces the amount of sleep they truly require for optimal functioning to 4-5 hours a night. But for the rest of us, getting seven to nine hours of good, quality sleep every night is vital for staying on top of our game.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep deprivation will negatively impact your cognitive performance. Getting less sleep than the recommended amount can cause an apparent IQ loss of five to eight points the next day, and population norm studies have shown that losing an entire night’s sleep can lead to up to one standard deviation loss on your IQ. In other words, you’re effectively operating with the equivalent of a learning disability.

Shorting your sleep can have longer-term effects as well. Our glymphatic system requires seven to eight hours to clean our brains, a process which flushes out protein plaques and beta-amyloid tangles that can lead to dementing diseases if allowed to accumulate. Not getting enough sleep, or getting poor quality sleep (which includes sleeping after drinking alcohol) inhibits this process and can therefore increase the risk of developing these types of disease.

While high stress levels can make sleeping more difficult, getting a good night’s sleep can also help to reduce the effects of stress.

How can I improve the quality of my sleep?

There are many simple but effective ways you can improve the quality of your sleep. Those who work late on phones, laptops, and tablets are at a higher risk of poor sleep quality. This is because melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, is released by the pineal gland into the bloodstream. The blue light that phone and laptop screens emit confuses the gland because darkness is what triggers it to start work. Our ability to fall asleep, and the quality of that sleep, is thus impacted. Brain activity may increase by virtue of the information we are consuming at those late hours as well. Turning off all screens an hour before bed is a good antidote to this.

Other simple ways of improving sleep quality include:

  • Making sure you are sleeping in complete darkness—no stand-by lights in the bedroom and with black-out curtains (or wear an eye mask).
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks after 2:00 pm. The half-life of caffeine is 8-10 hours and its effects can disturb your sleep.
  • Try lavender. Our olfactory nerves directly connect the nose to the limbic part of our brain. Lavender is the strongest naturally occurring neuro-modulator. Try using it to relax and to create an association with sleep when you go to bed.
  • Skip the nightcap. Although alcohol is often used by people to help them fall asleep, it interferes with proper sleep cycles and does not provide a benefit.

If your sleep has been disrupted, there are ways you can cope in the short term:

  • Napping during the day gives your brain a power boost. A 30-minute nap improves your learning and memory. A 60–90 minute nap will help additional connections to form, which aids creativity.
  • As little as 12 minutes of meditation or mindfulness activity can boost your cognitive function significantly enough to build up your mental resilience.

Through my work as a leadership coach and the courses,I teach at MIT (Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People and Neuroscience for Leadership) I regularly come across driven, ambitious, capable people who want to excel at what they do. But often they have not considered the mental resilience it will take to achieve and sustain their goals, whether heading up a global company or simply reaching the next level in their career. Resting your brain properly through a good night’s sleep is essential to achieving mental resilience and peak brain performance.

About the Author: Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.

Contact us at info@brg.co.za to book Dr Tara Swart and achieve peak brain performance through neuroscience.

 

Communicating Under Pressure

By Brent Gleeson

Effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know.” – Jim Rohn

Communicating under pressure is a critical leadership component learned very early on during Navy SEAL training. Without having the ability to maintain composure, think clearly, gather information and make a call, you can’t succeed in combat. Which of course can lead to the worst possible outcome.

The same applies in business leadership situations, without death and dismemberment of course. We all know what it’s like to have the perfect response pop into our heads after an important situation or verbal exchange, too late to be of any use. And then there are those who can face all kinds of conflict and seem to know exactly what to do and say. And they do so in a calm and tactful manner. Faced with an angry customer, an uncooperative co-worker or tense negotiation, they don’t stammer or get upset. They keep their cool and glide through the situation getting what they want without breaking a sweat. These are the people who typically rise rapidly through the ranks. But great communicators are made, not born. It’s simply about having the right tools and knowledge.

Thinking on Your Feet and Communicating Effectively

Performing well under pressure builds trust within the team and makes others confident in your ability to not only lead the team but also support the team in stressful times. Here five benefits of thinking on your feet:

  1. Credibility: Others will believe what you have to say. Your associates will believe in you when you earn their respect. You do that be being credible, especially under fire.
  2. Professionalism: Being able to think on your feet means that you can respond, in some capacity, to all questions. You don’t always have to have the perfect answers, but rather ownership over finding solutions.
  3. Reliability: Others will find you dependable. When you are effective in critical situations others will look to you for leadership.
  4. Relationships: You will increase positive rapport with others.
  5. Confidence: Others will see you as more sure of yourself.

The more we focus on communicating well under pressure the better we will be at it. So let’s take a look at how to identify snags and improve leadership communication.

Eliminating Your Communication Hang-ups

Everyone has trouble communicating ideas at some point. Awareness of your communication hang-ups and how you react in various types of conversations and communications can help you develop solutions for improvement. Here are four common hang-ups:

  1. Controlling Emotions: This is a big one for most people. When we lack the ability to control our emotions we appear less confident. That weakens our ability to clearly get our point across and makes others less likely to be receptive to what we are saying.
  2. Prejudice: When we go into a conversation without an open mind nobody will benefit. When we take time to clear our minds and tell ourselves we will put our prejudices aside we will have a better foundation from which to have more productive communication.
  3. Fear: There are plenty of times we fear the conversation that needs to be had. Most people don’t enjoy conflict and therefore prefer to put those tough conversations off or sugarcoat what they are trying to say. Don’t put off the tough conversations. Remain calm, be candid and take it one step at a time.
  4. Body Language: Communication is about 7% the words we say. The rest is tone and body language. Be aware of these things and control them when possible.

Communication problems begin when you don’t keep an open mind to what others have to say and refuse to compromise. When you don’t strive to achieve a collaborative solution everybody loses. Remember to remain objective, actively listen, ask good questions, and concentrate on creating common ground.

This article was originally posted on Forbes.

Contact us at info@brg.co.za to equip your leaders to be calm and effective no matter what. Business Results Group is the exclusive licensed provider of  Think On Your Feet® across Sub Saharan Africa. 

 

My day is just meetings, meetings, meetings…

By Richard Evans

Does this sound like a familiar problem? Too many of us find ourselves spending many hours a day in meeting after meeting, which all too often fail to reach any sort of positive outcome, even after hours of debate.

The implications of long, unproductive meetings can be hugely detrimental, not only for the individuals involved but also for their organisation as a whole. It can create an environment where conflict and negativity reign, and those who shout the loudest, most often, are the only ones who get their opinions heard, and others fear speaking up.

Traditionally, very little new thinking is achieved in group discussion, with a lack of structure and focus, meaning attendees revert back to ideas they have had before. Each individual concentrates on their own agenda, rather than exploring all aspects of a problem to come up with a quick and effective solution.

With time being the scarcest, yet the most precious resource most of us have, shouldn’t we all be trying to make all the meetings we attend much shorter and more productive? Isn’t it much more powerful to harness the full thinking power of a group, whilst eliminating the default stance of some individuals – the defence, and attack, where possible, are how the strongest survive?

The solution is Dr Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats™. It is a very simple, yet a powerful way of improving both group and individual thinking by quickly, but fully, exploring a subject. Only by looking at each aspect of a problem, can we hope to make that step forward to a next action and positive outcome, rather than limiting the opportunity available, by just arguing around it.

This one day workshop teaches delegates how to think together in parallel. Using human energy in a much more efficient and effective way is the aim, making the best use of the most powerful asset we all have – our minds. It looks at what ‘can be’ rather than traditional thinking, often adversarial and negative in stance which lacks any constructive and creative energy, or end result.

When a group thinks all in the same way at the same time and co-operates, using the Six Thinking Hats™, the result is a fast but robust solution, where everybody participates and each of the perspectives has their place. It is about changing our behaviour and attitude to not just thinking but communicating, shifting our thoughts from negative to positive and turning disagreement into real opportunities, or actionable alternatives to examine further.

Thinking in this way is a skill, which, when given a simple but powerful framework, allows anyone to use it to look at different approaches, separate fact from opinion and stimulate creativity which can surprise everyone! Only in this way can we all evaluate ideas productively and make the right decision faster.

Original article posted by Indigo Business Services Limited.

Can your organisation afford to ignore the Six Thinking Hats™? Contact us at info@brg.co.za or visit our website to find out more.

Want More Engaged Employees? Stop Being Such An Optimist

By Karen Tiber Leland

A decade of research shows why a sunny outlook may not be the best way to lead.

Decades ago, when I was just beginning my journey as a management consultant, I had the good fortune to work with Liz Wiseman, who at the time was the Director of Learning and Development for Oracle. Since then she has gone on to found The Wiseman Group and author several best-selling books including the newly released 2nd edition of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.

One of the findings of Liz’s years of research is that just because a leader possesses a trait in abundance doesn’t mean that it’s contagious and that others around them pick it up in a positive way.

ARE YOU THE ICONIC OPTIMISTIC LEADER?

One example Wiseman cites is the iconic optimistic leader. You know them – the positive can-do people who see possibilities and paths forward everywhere. These cheerful C-suite executives recognise the capability in others and themselves at every turn. Even when they take on something hard, they bring a can-do attitude in abundance.

“It’s like wearing one of those rubber wristbands, only it says, ‘I can do hard things,'” jokes Wiseman. “This observation comes not only from my years of research but also from looking in the mirror,” says Wiseman.

A self-described ‘raging optimist’, Wiseman struggles with her own positivity. “I don’t have a lack of optimism; instead I struggle with too much,” explains Wiseman. She goes on to explain that her personal awareness about this dynamic came to her by surprise and with a sting. Here’s the story she tells…

“I’m working with a colleague on writing an article on a pretty tough piece of research and analysis for a prestigious academic journal. Towards the end of the project, my colleague pulls me aside and says, ‘Liz, I need you to stop saying that thing you say all the time.’ ‘What thing?’ I ask him. I really did not know what he was talking about”.

“‘You say it all the time,’ he said. ‘It usually goes, “Hey, we can do this. We’ve got this.”‘

“Recognising my own optimism, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I do say that all the time.’ ‘That is my way of saying that we’re smart and we can figure this out, that I have this belief in what we can do,’ I explain to him.

“‘Well, I need you to stop saying it.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘This is good leadership. Optimism, we need that just to survive,’ I say. ‘The reason I need you to stop saying that is because what we are doing is hard; it’s really hard, Liz, and as my manager, I need you to acknowledge it.’

“In that moment I realised that my can-do, get-it-done personal brand was setting a pace that was making it really hard for other people to keep up with me. “I came to the conclusion that sometimes my optimism – which is a gift – can also translate into processing a little too fast for other people. I need to give them time to process at their own speed.”

DISPENSE YOUR EXECUTIVE PRESENCE IN SMALL BUT INTENSE DOSES

That personal experience, combined with her research and work with leaders, has led Wiseman to the conclusion that the really great leaders know how to dispense their executive presence in small, but intense, doses.

“When a leader is always on, they become white noise,” says Wiseman. That’s one of the ways executives end up as what Wiseman calls ‘accidental diminishers’. These are leaders who have an intention for their staff to be empowered but are so whipped up with positive energy all the time, they end up diminishing those around them. “They think their energy is infectious, but not only are they sucking up all the oxygen in the room, they are getting tuned out,” says Wiseman. “People around them are like, ‘You’re killing me with your energy. I’m dying here.'”

So what’s the enthusiastic and eager executive to do? Wiseman suggests two almost ridiculously easy (but highly effective) ways to rein in your energy, without losing your optimistic edge:

1. PRACTICE THE FIVE-SECOND RULE

After you ask a question, wait five seconds to give the person a chance to think. For many leaders, when no one answers immediately, the tendency is to want to answer themselves. Don’t. Some people are fast witted, quick to process and quick to answer, but not everyone. Not all forms of intelligence manifest themselves in speed.

2. AVOID RAPID RESPONSE

Optimistic leaders are often quick to respond immediately to situations and take action, even if someone else on their team could handle it. Except in a case of immediate required response, try taking a hands-off stance for 24 hours.

In both these cases, it’s the power of the pause that creates the opportunity. It gives other people, who may not be so quick on the draw, a chance to comfortably formulate opinions and bring their own brand of optimism to the party – even if it’s a few decibels lower than yours.

This article originally features on Inc.

Learn how to DOUBLE THE INTELLIGENCE of your team. Contact us at info@brg.co.za to lead like a Multiplier. Business Results Group is the exclusive distributor of Multipliers in Southern Africa.

 

Five Daily Habits For Future-Proofing Your Brain

By Tara Swart

This is how to keep your brain alert, creative, and rational for decades to come.

Just a few generations ago, most people weren’t expected to live much past 50. But now most of us can expect to live well into our 70s and beyond. A longer life, however, means that we’re working our brains harder as we age.

In an ageing population, health services worldwide will face increasing pressure. Combined with our sedentary lifestyles and modern habits, which are harming our brain’s health as well as our bodies, we could be heading toward a crisis when it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s, according to studies published in the Journal Of Comparative Neurology and the Journal Of Alzheimer’s Disease.

But there are things you can do to prevent that fate. Small lifestyle choices throughout your adulthood can help your brain remain alert, creative, rational, and reduce the likelihood of disease. Here are some steps you can take to guard your brain against deteriorating as you get older:

1. SWITCH UP SOME OF YOUR FOOD HABITS

Maintaining a healthy diet isn’t just good for our bodies, it’s vital for our brains. You can start by making small, easy changes to your routine like swapping your late afternoon cup of coffee for a green tea. Green tea contains less caffeine and has antioxidants, which will help protect your brain cells from long-term damage. You can also stay away from smoked foods or those high in mercury like tuna or swordfish, which are high in oxidants and damaging to brain cells.

Eating healthily doesn’t mean consuming only lettuce and quinoa all day. Academics at the University of Edinburgh found that a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, olive oil, and oily fish could help promote cell growth and stave off cognitive decline.

2. ADD JUST 20 MINUTES OF MOVEMENT TO EACH DAY

Being well rested and properly fed isn’t enough to stave off cognitive decline – you need to get up and get moving. Aerobic activity boosts blood flow throughout the body and brain. Research has shown that it can improve memory and stimulates cell growth, making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. Better still, exercise can have the same effect on the brain as a low dose of antidepressants and is associated with a drop in stress hormones. To get the maximum benefits, try to do about 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week (or about 20 minutes a day).

3. BUST OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE MORE REGULARLY

Your brain will stay fit and alert for longer if it is continually stimulated and challenged. Contrary to popular belief, our brains are not hardwired. Old habits can be unlearned and replaced with new ones. This process is known as neuroplasticity. Learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument is the best way to keep your brain flexible because it forces the brain to forge new neural pathways and develop new connections. By keeping your brain malleable, you are also maintaining the ability to keep an open mind.

Spending time with people of different generations or backgrounds will also help prevent your brain from defaulting to well-trodden neural pathways and biases.

4. PRIORITISE SLEEP

While we sleep, our glymphatic system ‘cleans’ our brains of neurotoxins, including beta-amyloid plaques and tau proteins. This is an active process that takes time, hence the need to get your seven to nine hours and avoid accumulating ‘sleep debt’. As explained in 2015 research published in Nature Review Neurology, a build-up of these neurotoxins can contribute significantly to the degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

5. MAINTAIN AN ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE

Human beings are social creatures. But as we age, our social circle tends to decline, and we typically experience less social interaction on a day-to-day basis. However, maintaining an active social life with friends and family is critical to cognitive health. According to a study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, cognitive decline was reduced by an average of 70% in people who were frequently socially active compared to those who were more isolated.
About the Author: Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.

Contact us at info@brg.co.za to book Dr Tara Swart and achieve peak brain performance through neuroscience.