PART TWO: THE FLEXIBLE BRAIN
“From 60 to 80 percent of all energy used by the brain—occurs in circuits unrelated to any external event. “
Marcus E. Raichle
In Part One, I made the case that “there is a profound and predictable disconnect between what we know, and what we actually do that is an unrecognized driver of project breakdown,” and that this disconnect is caused and/or complicated by a chronic, high-stress mental and bio-chemical state that operates like an outmoded operating system that will not run new applications represented by our proposed technical and behavioral fixes.
In these next two sections I would like to consider the neuroscience that underlies this hypothesis as a way to understand why this is occurring, why it goes unrecognized and inadvertently aggravated, as well as some new approaches to training and professional development that are showing promise in producing high performance solutions.
Let’s start by looking at the underlying problem. If, noticing that you seemed stressed, I encouraged you to “relax,” and then, a few moments later insisted that you “hurry up because we’re going to be late,” you might respond, with justifiable irritation by asking me to make up my mind. Subjectively we know that “relax” and “hurry up” feel like two mutually exclusive demands.
The human brain is intrinsically organized into dynamic, anticorrelated functional networks. During performance of attention-demanding cognitive tasks, certain regions of the brain routinely increase activity, whereas others routinely decrease activity.
Marcus E. Raichle, May 19, 2005, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
These areas that decrease activity when we focus on external cognitive tasks light up fMRI images of subjects’ brains when they are asked to “do nothing.” Raichle called this network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world, and the brain is at wakeful rest the “Default Mode Network (DMN).” The DMN seems to correspond to task-independent introspection, or self-referential thought, and creativity. Furthermore:
From 60 to 80 percent of all energy used by the brain—occurs in circuits unrelated to any external event. With a nod to our astronomer colleagues, our group came to call this intrinsic activity the brain’s dark energy, a reference to the unseen energy that also represents the mass of most of the universe.
The challenge we face, in the everyday work of getting projects out the door, is that we want and need both: the focused intensity and the relaxed creativity. We need to move as fast as possible to meet very aggressive completion dates, and we also want to be at the top of our creative game so that we can solve an endless stream of novel problems. Consequently, people in project organizations report that they feel like they are constantly being prodded to, “be creative and be quick about it.” This is like stepping on a car’s gas pedal and break at the same time.
When we actually drive the car we switch effortlessly back and forth between the break and the gas applying each as needed. It appears that our brains, unencumbered by constant stressors, are meant to function with a similar effortless flexibility. But what if, when you took your foot off the gas, the car failed to respond and continued hurtling forward at 70 miles per hour. That’s something like what’s happening under the chronic stress conditions described in Part One.
To effectively address this problem we need to accomplish two things. First, we need to fix the gas pedal. That means developing a resilient nervous system and brain that, despite constant exposure to external stressors, does not stay stuck in a constant stress response. Second, we want to re establish the capacity for effortless switching. Some practical approaches for accomplishing this will be the focus of Part Three. In the meantime, I would encourage you to relax as quickly as possible.