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Thoughts from Linda:

Your Brain at Work

David Rock, 2009


Yuval Noah Harari, in his book (previously reviewed in 2020 and on our 'bookshelf') 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, had strong warnings about the significance of knowing more about our brain and how it works. He noted that by mid-century, "humans as individuals and humankind as a whole will increasingly have to deal with things nobody ever encountered before, such as super-intelligent machines, engineered bodies, algorithms that can manipulate your emotions with uncanny precision, rapid man-made climate cataclysms, and the need to change your profession every decade." 


David Rock's book from 2009 is also quite helpful in helping us understand our brain and, as importantly, how we use our knowledge to manage it and, thus, ourselves to be more effective human beings. Clearly, we all have the mandate to know ourselves better to cope with the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) nature of this century.


He uses a simple metaphor of the theater, that of “the stage” and “actors” on that stage throughout the book to illustrate specific parts of the brain's workings. His tour of the prefrontal cortex early in the book is so interesting. I have found myself turning back to this book over the years, re-reading it to pass along some of the information in various speeches, presentations, and learning sessions. 


The book is structured around a few people who face daily challenges of work and home, and he uses their examples first to show what most of us could run into with these situations.  Then, he inserts significant neurological data and shows how—in “take two,” we could approach the situation with greater awareness of what is going on with our brains and how we could rework our approach, taking different behaviors using the techniques suggested.  It is quite practical as a teaching vehicle. 


Here are a few of the early facts he brings into focus: "The cortex of our brains is the outer covering of the brain (the gray stuff we see in pictures.)  It is 1/10th of an inch thick and covers our brain like a sheer. The prefrontal cortex, which sits just behind our forehead, is just one part of the overall cortex.  The last major brain region to develop during evolution, it is only 4 to 5% of the volume of the rest of the brain.  …And yet, it is the biological seat of our conscious interactions with the world… it’s the part of the brain central to thinking things through, instead of being on autopilot.”  Quoting Amy Arnsten, the well-known professor of neurobiology from Yale Medical School, he notes, “the prefrontal cortex holds the contents of your mind at any one point…it is where we hold thoughts that are not being generated from external sources or from the senses.  We ourselves are generating them…”


I love the example given, which goes like this:  if we counted the coins in our pocket/purse and made these equivalents to this part of our brain's processing resources, then the REST of the brain would be equivalent to the whole rest of the US economy.  This little part of our brain runs our conscious lives and learning how to deal with it is the story of the book.  As Arnsten says, "the prefrontal cortex is like the Goldilocks of the brain… it has to have everything right or it does not function well." Multi-tasking, attempting to hold too much information in our brains at any one time, constant texting, and emailing are all taken apart as high-impact disruptors of our prefrontal cortex's ability to work effectively. He explains why holding even four items in our minds at the same time can be taxing. He explains why a picture is worth a thousand words and explains why we can be so tired after brain work… the prefrontal cortex requires many metabolic resources.


The book gives us a good tour of the other parts of the brain, like the basal ganglia, limbic system, etc., and shows the complex relationships that exist. But this is not about the brain in purely scientific terms. Instead, it is all about understanding it and its workings using very simple and familiar predicaments we all have seen/experienced and illustrating two ways the situations can play out. "Take two” offers practical tips for how to tap into our brains in the most productive ways.


The book is divided into what he calls "Four Acts" called:  Problems and Decisions, Stay Cool Under Pressure, Collaborate with Others and finally, Facilitate Change.


David Rock spent three years on this book, which draws on many years of research, including over 300 research papers based on thousands of brain and psychological studies. The journals and other documents in the Notes section are numerous and quite informative for people who want more information, albeit from 2009. The field has exploded, and there is much available today on YouTube and via Ted Talks. You can find terrific podcasts and much information on his NeuroLeadership Institute website, along with several of his other books, which are widely available.


Warren Bennis says: "This is the best, most helpful and brainiest book I've read on how the brain affects how, why and what we do. After reading only the first four chapters, I felt roughly 100% more efficient in organizing my work and personal life." I agree! You will not be disappointed with this book.  

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