Your Brain At Work by David Rock
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Marcus Aurelius
That, in a nutshell, is what Your Brain At Work is all about . By blending snapshot stories, scientific and medical research, and practical examples, David Rock lays out a convincing and easy to read argument that, by understanding the workings and limitations of our brains, we can better understand others, overcome challenges, and navigate our world.
While this book is certainly written for a mass audience, innovators especially should give it a read because of what it has to say about insights, ideas, and driving change.
We’ve all had those A-Ha! moments. Those brief seconds when we’re doing nothing of import (like taking a shower) and suddenly, without warning, an insight pops into our heads.
Often those insights are an answer to a question or a solution to a problem that has been plaguing us. We’ve encountered a new challenge and we know that the usual solutions, procedures, and answers won’t work, but we don’t know what will.
What we need is an insight — “not a logical solution,” Rock explains, “but one that recombines knowledge (and maps in your brain) in a whole new way.”
The reason why insights pop into our heads when we’re doing nothing is that our brain is, in fact, doing quite a lot. Studies conducted by Dr. Stellan Ohlsson, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explain why this is, “when facing a new problem, people apply strategies that worked in prior experience. This works well if the new problem is similar to the old problem. However, in many situations, this is not the case, and the solution from the past gets in the way, stopping better solutions from arising… Instead, the projection of prior experience has to be actively suppressed and inhibited.”
By not thinking of anything in particular, we’re actually suppressing the usual answers and creating space for new answers (insights) to emerge. And luckily, we don’t have to spend our days in the shower to make this happen.
How to Create Insights:
- Focus on the big picture: Dr. Mark Beeman, an associate professor at Northwestern University and an expert in the neuroscience of insights, found that when people solve a problem using insights, their right anterior lobe (a region in the brain’s right hemisphere) becomes more active than usual. Because the right hemisphere is primarily responsible for identifying holistic connections, keeping it active is key to producing insights. However, when we focus on the details of a problem, instead of the big picture, we activate the left hemisphere this decreasing activity in the right hemisphere and reducing the conditions required for insight.
- Get a fresh perspective: As Dr. Ohlsson’s research shows, the more we know about a problem or a situation, the more likely we are to rely on past experience for a solution. It can be incredibly hard to get out of our own way so, instead, we should seek out people with different experiences and perspectives for their input. Even if they don’t have the perfect answer, simply listening to a different perspective can help create the space needed for insights to emerge
- Have fun. Beeman’s research has also revealed a strong correlation between emotional states and insight. As Rock explains, “Increasing happiness increases the likelihood of insight, while increasing anxiety decreases the likelihood of insight. This relates to your ability to perceive subtle signals. When you are anxious, there is greater baseline activation and more overall electrical activity, which makes it harder for you to perceive subtle signals.” Quite simply, if you’re happy, you’re able to pick up subtle pieces of information that can be used to create brilliant insights.
Throughout the book, Rock uses a small theater as a metaphor to explain how the brain works.
Imagine that your pre-frontal cortex, the part of the cortex (the curly gray outer covering of your brain) that sits just behind your forehead and that Is responsible for most of our decision-making and problem-solving activity, is a stage. The stage is small, it can hold only a handful of people at a time, and it needs A LOT of lighting (energy) to operate (think).
In the theater are actors, pieces of information from the outside world, and the audience, information from our internal worlds (thoughts, memories, etc.).
YOU are the director and you can move actors (external info) and audience members (internal info) on or off the stage at any given time to accomplish the following:
- Understand a new idea — put an actor (external info) on the stage and see how it interacts with the audience (info already in your head)
- Make a decision — put several actors on stage and compare them to each other
- Recall information — bring an audience member on stage
- Memorize — move actors off-stage and put them in the audience
- Inhibit thoughts — move actors off stage
Understanding how your brain works, and that you can control it, provides insights into how to get the most out of it on a daily basis AND how to get the most out of others’ brains when you need to — like during an ideation session
How to Generate Better Ideas
- Start in the morning: The pre-frontal cortex is energy-hungry so the more your work it, the more physically and mentally drained you become. Doing creative work early in the day means that you’re starting with all your available energy
- Tell stories about people: When explaining a problem to people, it’s tempting to lay out all the facts. But “studies have shown that when you give people a logic problem to solve, they do so dramatically faster than when the problem is explained in terms of people interacting rather than in terms of disembodied conceptual ideas.” This is why personas, photos, and videos are so powerful during ideation, the move our thinking away from the conceptual (e.g. “how can we increase revenue?”) to the personal (e.g. “how can we better serve Claire the Customer?”)
- Provide diverse, analogous, and unexpected example solutions to spur ideation: “Picturing something you have not yet seen is going to take a lot more energy and effort,” Rock writes. “This partly explains why people spend more time thinking about problems (things they have seen) than solutions (things they have never seen and taking breaks gives you the opportunity to recharge so that you can continue the creative work.” Give people examples of solutions so that they can shift their thinking away from problems AND suppress their instinct to focus on existing solutions to the new problem they’re facing
We’ve all heard the clichés — “Get comfortable being uncomfortable” and “The only thing that is certain is uncertainty” and “The only thing that is constant is change.” But none of them make us feel better when everything around us is changing and, especially when we are being asked to change.
The reason for that is, according to neuroscientists, “because uncertainty feels, to the brain, like a threat to your life.”
It’s easy for innovators, people who feel it is their mission to drive change, to forget this when we propose new ideas or procedures. We are confident that we’ve done the work required to make a thoughtful and correct proposal that improves a product, process, or situation and are dumbfounded when we meet with resistance.
While we’ve worked hard on our idea, we’ve forgotten to work hard to understand how our audience’s brains will react. Specifically, whether the people we are presenting to may experience threats in one or more of the following domains:
- Status: Will I be perceived as less than other people?
- Certainty: Am I being asked to do things differently?
- Autonomy: Will I lose control or decision-making authority?
- Relatedness: Will I lose my connection to others?
- Fairness: Were my expectations not met?
Anticipating possible reactions in any and all of these domains, and addressing them directly or indirectly is critical to creating and sustaining change
How to Create Change
- Proactively address and reduce threats: Act humbly and acknowledge someone’s position and role to reduce threats to status, Set clear expectations and talk openly about the future to increase certainty. Let others own key activities and make timely and clear decisions to promote autonomy. Be authentic and real in all of your communications to reinforce relatedness. Keep your promises and quickly address broken ones in order to promote a perception (and reality) of fairness.
- Set goals and provide rewards: Setting goals as they relate to any of the five items above (stats, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness) and prime people’s brains to look for evidence that they are progressing towards those goals. Adding in a reward for achieving the goals further improves the likelihood that change will occur because it keeps “the expectation of a primary reward in sight…(which) will lift their moods and improve their thinking.”
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat: “Real change requires repetition,” explains Rock. You’re asking people to stop doing something they’ve been doing for a long time and to start doing something different. That isn’t going to happen overnight and it’s certainly not going to happen based on even the most compelling data-based argument (how many of us eat as many vegetables, exercise as often, or floss as frequently as we should?). Instead, change happens because we are reminded of it, it is reinforced, and we are rewarded over and over and over again.
These lessons and actions only skim the surface of the interesting and useful insights in Your Brain at Work. But to learn more, you’ll just have to buy it.