The Cost of Not Paying Attention.
Dr Chrisna Swart
Head: Neurozone Coaching Solutions
By design, the human brain has evolved to be a super energy-efficient operating system. Selectively and unconsciously, it plugs new information into goal setting to (in order of importance) keep you alive, help you survive, and enable you to thrive. It takes repeated mental states and actions and manifests default pathways for them, enabling survival-driven goals to automate those behaviors so they require very little energy input. However, despite the advanced evolution of these intricate processes, the brain’s perception of ‘threats’ remains fairly simple: including, by default, any and all forms of stress-triggers in the unnecessarily broad category of ‘my life is in danger’. And the energy-efficient and survival-oriented default pathways prioritize physically removing the threat over strategically solving problems. So, when stressed, the brain-body system moves away from a baseline relaxed physiological state (BRPS), and higher order thinking is solely applied to navigate the necessary responses for fight or flight. If the threat persists, energy resources get depleted and creative application to problem solving diminishes. Hence, two core tenets underlying High Performance Readiness: (1) the brain unconsciously pays attention to the most basic incoming cue that threatens its survival, and (2) energy for high performance is finite and needs to be optimized consciously.
The past year has highlighted more than ever just how volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous the world that we live in can get. What do we do when the environment that has shaped brain evolution changes drastically in such a short period of time? How do we tap into creative solutions to navigate an unfamiliar landscape when the problem-solving brain plays second fiddle by default under uncertainty?
Very early on our ancestors realized that our chances of survival are significantly higher when we function in groups. The need for social safety is so deeply embedded in our DNA that periods of isolation evoke mid-brain responses comparable to hunger (Tomova et al., 2020). Although we have come a long way in adapting how we connect and collaborate with others remotely, we have yet to realize the full extent of the mental repercussions of COVID-19. And as the mental pandemic rises, we see coaches joining the frontline to guide and support individuals and teams towards Resilience and High Performance Readiness. Being resilient does not only mean you bounce back after a challenge; it means you bounce forward – optimized after having internalized valuable lessons that enable you to perform at successively higher levels. However, our ability to observe, choose the best action, and learn from the process is dependent both on how much performance energy we have available, and how our brains prioritize task-related energy allocation.
How do we ensure the brain assigns the right amount of energy to the right tasks?
First, we need to increase the value assigned to the goals we set. It is imperative that coaches dedicate enough time with clients in optimizing goal setting. There are a number of techniques that can alter the value of the goals we set, for example: identity- and value-aligned goals have greater value; setting grand end-goals makes on-the-way obstacles easier to overcome; visualizing attributes of achieving a goal changes its value; and focusing on things we are naturally good at - that require less energy to execute – make for easier goals (Berkman, 2018).
Secondly, a high-performing brain uses attention in optimal ways. The brain has three attentional networks. There’s the default mode network (DMN), which activates when we are not paying attention to the outside world; the central-executive network (CEN), which focusses attention for planning, decision-making and problem-solving; and the salience network (SN), which is the value-based pivot that serves as a switch between the CEN and the DMN (Menon, 2011). The SN determines the amount of energy allocated to a task. If the energy needed is high, we go into the CEN; if low, then the DMN. Yet, we are constantly inundated with incoming sensory cues in an ever-fluctuating world, which can confuse energy allocation driven by the SN. One way to improve the efficiency of the attentional networks is through practicing mindfulness (Doll et al., 2015). Mindful presence allows us to exert control over the DMN which allows the SN to determine more accurately what is important to us, and thus our problem-solving brain to focus more efficiently on executing appropriate actions.
Finally, we need to mindfully cultivate daily rhythms of behaviors that continuously move us towards a BRPS of low stress and high innovation capacity. These are transactional behaviors that form the foundation of the brain-body system: exercise, nutrition, sleep, and meditation (Chaput et al., 2020; Kramer, 2020; Parr et al., 2020; Wenzel et al., 2020). We also need to cultivate specific behaviors that boost our performance energy like gratitude, optimism and humor (Gonot-Schoupinsky et al., 2020; Layous, 2020; Mohammadi et al., 2020), and reduce behaviors that deplete our energy, like negative thought patterns and destructive habits (Chahar Mahali et al., 2020; Wise and Robble, 2020). In fact, these behaviors are consistently reflected in our data (n=1450) as the largest predictors of resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic:
The seven most frequent predictors of resilience during the Covid-19 pandemic
Therefore, to ensure that we are well equipped to thrive in these mentally challenging times, we need visionary coaches to unlock visionary leadership – coaches who not only understand how to facilitate others’ brain-body optimization towards enhancing their Resilience and High Performance, but who have also undergone this process themselves. We need coaches who know first-hand how to transform a mindset to think and behave in ways that enhance our energy, a more mindful way of being, and our brain’s innovative problem-solving capacity.
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08 September 2021