Neuroscientist Karolien Notebaert believes that the reasons behind business success, drive, consistency and achievement all have physiological explanations. Here she explains that by being aware of how your mind is responding to certain stimuli, you can optimise your performance - and minimise your stress levels.
What actually is performance? Performance is your potential (your talents, skills, know-how) minus your internal interferences. Let me explain. After delivering an excellent presentation in front of the mirror, you deliver a miserable one in front of the board that same day. You clearly have the potential to give a great presentation. So what happened?
In many circumstances, we are stopped from unlocking our full potential by so-called internal interferences, such as feelings of fear, stress or nervousness, which significantly reduce our performance. What do we need to access our full potential and increase our performance? This is what scientists call self-regulation. This capacity significantly predicts our private and professional success and is regarded as even more important than intelligence.
Most of our interferences are caused by a small brain structure called the amygdala. Our amygdala plays a general role in our emotional life but is responsible for stress and, in particular, fear reactions. Since the amygdala plays an important role in our survival, they are quickly activated (‘Run from the tiger!’). But they’re also activated when there is no real danger, such as during a discussion with your boss (‘Fight!’).
Regulating our fear/stress response requires a brain structure called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). However, the PFC takes mental effort to be activated. Only then will it help us to remain calm and think about our actions. In addition, the PFC is important for many of our executive functions, such as ana- lyzing information and solving problems. The bad news? The PFC works like a battery with a limited capacity. As most of our daily activities require the PFC, many of us reach a near empty state called ‘depletion’ on a daily basis. In this state, your brain shows heightened amygdala and very little PFC activation. In short, you are in a bad state. What does the brain need to save energy in the PFC and lower amygdala activation? Ideally, a self-regulation strategy that does not rely on the PFC but still reduces amygdala activation. Mindfulness meditation and its integration into daily life is supported by many recent studies as one of the most powerful self-regulation strategies. When practiced regularly it has been found to lead to increased executive functions and even a shrinking of the amygdala – the largest source of our internal interferences!
Mindfulness has nothing to do with candles, essences or sea sounds. It’s simply about switching round two important networks in our brain, namely the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Direct Experience Network (DEN). The DMN is typically more active. It produces our thoughts (and thus our stress and emotions), and can be compared with our autopilot.
Our DEN, on the other hand, is a network that is activated when we non-judgementally perceive something solely through one of our senses, such as feeling, tasting, hearing, smelling or seeing. One can easily activate the DEN by giving breathing or sensations on the skin your full attention.
The good news? The activation level of both networks is negatively correlated, which means that activating the DEN will automatically deactivate the DMN, our autopilot. It’s a strange irony that something intended to keep us alive in a hostile environment could be hindering us today. But our mental re- set button is always at hand to give our performance a boost.
Author: Karolien Notebaert. As published in WERTE No. 5, Deutsche Bank Wealth Management's client magazine.