Introduction - How the Brain Works

- understanding the brain will allow you to understand people and help them improve their performance

- our thinking, feeling, etc comes from the brain which is dominated by our primitive instincts, ie selfish, survival, etc

- 3 parts to the brain (see more later)

i) instinct, ie amydgala handles threats (fight, flight & freeze)

NB if under threat, cannot think straight as all the blood, energy, etc is drained from the mind to the heart, ie ready for action

ii) automatic, ie feelings (includes emotions, long-term memory, value judgements, gut feeling, procedural memory (habits, routines, etc)

iii) prefrontal cortex, ie thinking (conscious, logical, understanding, analysing, working memory, reasoning, recalling, inhibitions, etc). This part of the brain has limited storage and tires quickly.

NB The pre-frontal cortex can control the unconscious instinct and automatic part of the brain. Otherwise the later 2 dominates, eg 90+% of decision-making from the subconscious areas of the brain, ie instinct and automatic

Six primary drivers of the brain

i) Autonomy (control, etc)

ii) Certainty (structure, etc)

iii) Connectivity (social links/networks, etc)

iv) Equality (fairness, etc)

v) Status (position, recognition, etc)

vi) Safety (personal, etc)

NB Safety from threats will dominate the other drivers. The brain prefers to move away from threats and move towards rewards.

Everybody has a dominant primary driver.

(source: Diane Harner, 2017)

. Applying understandings about how the brain works and interacts with others will increase your effectiveness at work, home, etc. This involves

i) self-awareness (knowing yourself and how to manage your brain so that you get the best out of it)

ii) mindfulness (involves being able to pause before action, ie it gives you the space of mind to consider the various options and choose the most suitable one)

iii) interoception (awareness of your internal world and its signals).

These are important elements in modifying your behaviour in change.

NB Changing one's behaviour is hard, eg only 1 in 9 people who underwent heart surgery changed their life-style. Yet these people had the ultimate motivation, ie possible death. Thus changing other people's behaviour is even harder and changing a group's behaviour is harder still!!!!

. This involves the fields of neuroscience or biopsychology. Neuroscience includes

- the study of how people get along by studying brain functioning and social psychology. It is the interaction of brains by exploring competition, co-operation, empathy, social pain, self-knowledge, etc.

- the study of anatomy & physiology of the brain & its integration with other disciplines, such as psychology (the study of the human mind & human behaviour). It involves understanding that the brain (the physical organ) works with the mind (the human consciousness that thinks, feels, acts, perceives, etc).

- bringing into focus the science behind the art of change management by recognising the importance of the brain and how it works

. Since 1990s neuroscience was made possible by studying imaging of blood flows & electrical impulses in the brain via Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI).

. It is estimated that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are extinct. The activity of our brain is the key to our survival. Remember that there are 1 hundred billion neurons in the brain. It is suggested that our "ability to use symbolic reasoning" is the pivotal element of our mind and survival. This has been described as our ability to fantasize, ie to see things that we do not possess. This is linked with our ability to use words and language.

. The brain is designed to

i) solve problems

ii) survive

iii) be in an unstable, out-door environment

iv) to work in nearly constant motion

. Importance of air (oxygen), water & food (glucose) for the brain

Daily we eat around 1 kg of food, drink around  3 kg of water and we breathe around 15 kg is of air. Thus air quality is very important. We need offices that are micro-designed right down to the chemical level. Circular sustainability is a concept in which buildings, like hotels,  are designed as living organisms with plants that transform food scraps and biological waste into energy and fertiliser for the kitchen gardens, which in turn supply the restaurant, ie new vegetables become new waste become new energy and new vegetables. Linked with this is the use of filtration to recycle water, which in turn finds a variety of uses. Creating algae blooms on glazing has the potential to be like a sunscreen on hot days and provide a potential energy source as biogas

- the brain is around 80% water and needs water

(NB Most unprocessed foods are around 70% water)

- need to keep glucose (energy) and water levels up to ensure that brain is functioning OK

- takes 15 minutes for glucose to go from stomach to brain

Fats and sugars
It is thought that we are hardwired to respond to fats and sugars, especially as they were rare foods in our early evolutionary times.  As a result, our brains became sensitised to detecting the presence of fats and sugars.  Owing to their value, our brain rewards their consumption with a powerful jolt of pleasure.

In nature there are a few, if any, naturally-occurring combinations of fat and sugar together in food that we eat. As a result, our bodies (including our brains) have not developed mechanisms to appropriately handle this combination of fats and sugars found in processed food, like chocolate. When eating these processed foods, our taste buds send positive messages to our brain about the sweet taste; this fires neuro-chemicals, like dopamine, in our brain which increases the desire for more of these substances. The over-consumption of these processed foods and our brains' positive response to processed food has helped lay the foundations for the world-wide obesity crisis. (SBS 2017).

The brain is energy-hungry, ie is 2% of the body weight but generates 20% of the body heat but consumes:

- 20% of the energy intake

- 60% of your blood glucose

- 20% of the oxygen intake

-NB executive function thinking is the most exhausting

. Lack of energy and/or water impacts adversely on executive functions, eg

- making poor decisions

- choosing impulsively

- being cranky

- struggling with problem solving/memory tasks

Three Elements of the Brain

. The brain has 3 key elements, ie

i. "Lizard brain" (it is like auto-pilot/automatic functions; controls your body's housekeeping functions like breathing, heart rate, sleeping, waking, etc; its functions revolve around 4Fs, ie fighting, feeding, fleeing and f...... - reproductive behaviour)

ii. Routine/habit functions , ie amygdala (controls past and current feeling/emotions of rage, fear, pleasure, etc); also contains the hippocampus (converts short-term memories into long-term forms), thalamus (the control tower for our senses)

iii. Cortex (human brain which is highly specialized for speech, vision and memory). In our evolution to adapt better to our environment we did not become stronger, we became smarter, ie what distinguishes us from other species is the prefrontal cortex (a specialized area just behind our forehead that is the most recent addition to the brain). This area governs our executive functions like problem solving, maintaining attention, inhibiting emotional impulses, thoughts, memories, creative thinking, etc..

"... It is where we hold thoughts that are not being generated from external sources or from senses..."

Amy Arnsten as quoted by David Rock, 2009

"...Your prefrontal cortex is the biological seat of your conscious interactions with the world..."

David Rock, 2009


NB The brain is energy-hungry, ie is 2% of the body weight but uses
- 20% of the energy intake
- 20% of the oxygen intake
- generates 20% of the body heat
NB executive function thinking is the most exhausting of the 3 functions


. When people learn something they are rewiring their brains, ie the physical structure of the neurons participating in the process change. They swell, sway and split; they break connections in one spot and form connections elsewhere

. The brain acts like a muscle. The more you use it, the larger and more complex it can become: use it or loss it!!!!!

. We are borne with some preset circuits controlling our basic functions like breathing, heartbeat, etc. This leaves other parts of our brain to develop based on experience. Despite a great deal of the structure and function of the brain being predictable, we are hardwired to be flexible with various parts of our brain developing at different rates in different people. No 2 people's brains store the same information in the same way. Thus learning results in physical changes in the brain; each change is unique to each individual. Consequently, human intellect is multi-faceted.

. The main development of the brain occurs before 20 years of age but fine-tuning continues all our lives, especially until mid 40s. Different parts of the brain develop at different times. For example, there is a great deal of brain connectivity activity when we are around 2 years and again in our teenage years.

. Conscious thinking involves deeply complex biological interactions in the brain amongst millions of neurons.

. Every time the brain works on an idea consciously, it uses up a measurable and limited resource. Think of conscious thinking is a precious resource to conserve. Some mental processes use a lot more energy than others; for example, prioritising, dealing with emails, etc are energy-intense activities and themselves need prioritising. Need to schedule the most attention-rich tasks when you are fresh and alert.

. Use the brain to interact with information rather than trying to store information, by writing things down and using visuals for complex ideas; schedule blocks of time for different modes of thinking

. In change contexts we need to know how the brain works in order to best handle change. Tiny changes in behaviour can generate substantially different outcomes.

"...subtle internal changes, which can happen within a fraction of a second and may not be noticeable to the outside world, can sometime change everything..."

David Rock, 2009

Diagram of the Brain

organisational development change management

What Different Parts of the Brain Do

Hippocampus handles our complex memories
Cerebellum stores procedural & motor learning
Amygdala handles fearful memories & emotion-based learning
Basal Ganglia deals with cognition, learning  &motor control
Frontal Lobe deals with working memory, abstract thought & some physical movement memories
Temporal Lobe handles recognition & autobiographical memory, language & auditory memory
Parietal Lobe deals with sensory learning & short term memory
Occipital Lobe handles vision & reading


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