The Optimized Brain: A Workshop on Flow States with Steven Kotler
Introduction to the Optimized Brain, with Steven Kotler
Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. Steven Kotler runs through the neuroanatomic shifts that make it possible. If your guess is that the brain somehow works harder or faster during flow states, you may be surprised to learn that everything actually slows down thanks to what's called transient hypofrontality.
This is the first video in a five-part series with Steven Kotler on the "optimized brain" available in playlist form here.
The Neurochemistry of Flow States, with Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler explains the neurochemical changes during flow states that strengthen motivation, creativity and learning. "The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals." Kotler discusses how each amplifies intellectual and cognitive performance.
This is the second video in a five-part series with Steven Kotler on the "optimized brain" available in playlist form here.
What’s Actually Happening When Your Brain Goes “Wow”
Beyond neuroanatomy and neurochemistry, flow states rely on shifts in the brain's neuroelectricity. The brain's default state is one of waking consciouness. Flow alters your brain waves to sit on the border of daydreaming and dreaming.
Understanding Flow Triggers, with Steven Kotler
There are seventeen triggers for flow that can each draw your attention to the now. Mastering flow means building these triggers into your life. Two of these triggers are high consequences and deep embodiment. Kotler explains how these triggers enact flow for people ranging from snowboarders to surfers to Montessori students.
Hack Your Flow: Understanding Flow Cycles, with Steven Kotler
We now know that flow works not like an on-off switch but in a four-part cycle. Understanding these cycles can help you to more often access flow. The parts of the cycle are as follows: struggle, release, flow, and recovery. To hack flow, explains Kotler, you have to learn to struggle better and recover better.
- Feedback is a gift, says business psychologist Dr Melanie Katzman. Giving or receiving feedback can be a formal part of our jobs, but in Dr Katzman's assessment, we often don't go far enough with feedback.
- Katzman suggests creating a psychological contract with a partner who you respect and trust. In that contract, you agree to exchange extremely honest feedback by mutual consent in a safe and trusting way.
- In this video, she lays out the rules for such a contract and how you can embark on one. This kind of feedback is not advised without a clear contract as people can feel you are going out of bounds. So be clear, be mutual, and then be extremely candid.
- You're negotiating every day of your life, whether it's a huge business deal or something as small as getting the remote control from your partner, says Shark Tank investor Daymond John.
- Over 65 percent of communication is body language. Only seven percent is what you say. Using body language effectively is a simple way to shift power to your court during negotiations or strategically shift power over to others.
- Used-car salespeople have this down to a fine art, says John. They are the best because they listen to clues in the way potential customers talk and then they engage your senses: sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste.
She said her mother was losing her memory and her bearings, and was very worried because nobody knew what to do about her symptoms. The oncologist sent her to the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist sent her back, saying that her symptoms were a result of the cancer treatment.
This experience prompted my student and me to begin studying the problem of 'chemobrain' or 'chemofog' – the terms used by people who have experienced memory loss or cognitive impairment following cancer treatment. Scientifically, it's referred to as 'cancer-related cognitive impairment' or 'chemotherapy-related cognitive dysfunction'.
Consider another example, that of 'Jane', a 52-year-old teacher who had her right breast removed three months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, before starting on chemotherapy. After two cycles of chemo, she noticed that she was finding it difficult to remember simple words. For instance, she would say: 'Oh can you pass me the writing thing, the writing stick with the ink in it.' She also kept forgetting people's names, which was startling because she always had a good memory for names. She had trouble following traffic rules. For example, she would merge into traffic without checking, and would cross roads without looking left to right. Her daughter would have to hold her to prevent her from walking in front of cars.
There are many such stories, and today we have enough research evidence to suggest that chemobrain is a real phenomenon, although it remains poorly understood. In fact, it's not clear in many cases whether the cause is the treatment itself, the stress of the treatment and illness, or even a direct effect of the cancer. I believe that the link with stress is strong, and most recommendations for symptom-alleviation are to reduce stress.
There are multiple symptoms associated with chemobrain, including some or many of the following:
- difficulty remembering words and spellings, as well as recalling names and faces;
- forgetting previously known routines, inability to multitask, and difficulty navigating traffic;
- inability to stay focused on a task, getting easily distracted, and going blank or becoming confused;
- easily losing things;
- difficulty learning new skills; and
- frequently repeating oneself.
These symptoms can affect people's self-confidence, social relationships and even their ability to perform jobs that require substantial intellectual input. Women with chemobrain have described finding it difficult to get back to work. They've told researchers about their reduced confidence in work and social activities; how they tend to get frustrated easily and can feel more intolerant of others. Survivors of childhood cancers find it hard to remember what to actually do in a task and maintain attention on a task. As a result, they are either unable to complete tasks or take much longer to complete them.
Curiously, people who report loss of memory and attention after chemotherapy usually perform well on neuropsychological testing, which makes chemobrain difficult to measure using currently available neuropsychological tools. Nonetheless, their subjective symptoms cause them significant distress, and this has an adverse effect on their quality of life.
It's worth noting that not all patients who receive cancer treatment experience this condition. Surveys suggest that 70-75 per cent of those who receive treatment for breast cancer typically experience chemobrain. It's also common following treatment for prostate cancer, and can occur with other conditions such as childhood cancers, as well as in older people with cancer. Chemicals produced by certain cancers are known to affect memory, which might partly explain why chemobrain varies in prevalence with different forms of the illness.
Another established pattern is that, while chemobrain is frequently reported during and after chemotherapy or radiation therapy, it is rare following surgery alone. The reasons for this are unclear. One possibility is the higher stress levels caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy (as opposed to surgery alone) might add to any pretreatment stress-related mental difficulties. The absence of chemobrain in about half of those who receive treatment for cancer might be because their cognition was not already affected by stress. This would also explain why women who have pre-existing depression and anxiety are more likely to experience chemobrain symptoms.
These findings suggest that, if you are awaiting chemotherapy or radiotherapy, the chances of developing symptoms of chemobrain are increased if you are or have been under stress or have a pre-existing mental illness such as depression or anxiety. The lower your pre-existing stress levels, the less your chances of experiencing chemobrain-related symptoms, and the higher the chances of their early disappearance.
If you believe you might have chemobrain, avoiding stressful situations and engaging in relaxation exercises and short periods of strenuous exercise could improve your memory. Other activities such as meditation, art and yoga have also been found to be helpful in controlling symptoms. Once you identify what activities exacerbate your symptoms, you can avoid them as much as possible, and choose suitable exercises from the menu of options. Memory exercises or brain games might also help counteract the symptoms. Thankfully, chemobrain symptoms are usually temporary. They develop soon after treatment commences and typically last 6-12 months, after which they tend to subside. However, in more serious cases, they can last up to 20 years.
Unfortunately, until recently, oncologists, though vaguely aware of the occurrence of chemobrain, have not paid much attention to it. This is because they believe it is uncommon, and are uncertain about their role in managing it – and how to manage it. As a result, many clinicians don't give it the importance that it deserves. Therefore, my advice if you are commencing cancer treatment is to discuss the possibility of chemobrain with your treating team, including the different ways to manage with it, in case it develops.
My research also suggests it is useful for family members to be made aware of the symptoms of chemobrain because, in many cases, it is they who first begin to notice such symptoms. Being aware of them, they will be able to show understanding and provide you with support. Emotional and social support play an important role in helping people cope with symptoms of chemobrain.
If you're already experiencing chemobrain, inform your doctor about it and ask for specialist nursing help. In my research, women in Australia treated for breast cancer told us that breast care nurses were very helpful in managing chemobrain symptoms, as they are specially trained to provide emotional and social support to patients who experience it. Also inform your family and friends so they can support you during this time. To manage your chemobrain symptoms, the focus should be on reducing your stress levels. The more efficiently you can achieve this, the quicker your symptoms will subside.
At a societal level, it's vital that we raise awareness of chemobrain. With the availability of increasingly better treatment modalities for cancer, more and more people are living longer following cancer treatment. Currently, about 90 per cent of women with breast cancer live for 10 years or more in Australia, with the survival rate for the same period at around 84 per cent in the US, 78 per cent in the UK and lower elsewhere. Unfortunately, chemobrain can significantly affect their quality of life during this time with its social, psychological and economic impacts. However, it continues to be poorly understood and inadequately managed. It's time for researchers and medical practitioners to take chemobrain more seriously, with the goal of improving people's post-cancer quality of life.
- Maintaining a proper morning routine (which involves getting dressed in work clothes) and structuring your work-from-home day as you would any other in-office workday can help boost productivity.
- Organizing your work station (the height of your desk, the use of a proper chair, the cleanliness of your work area) can also impact your mood and productivity levels.
- Adding a sense of joy and fun to your in-home work environment helps improve your mental state and work ethic, according to designer Ingrid Fetell Lee.
Dress for success (even at home).
"Enclothed cognition" is the term to describe how clothes impact our mood and behaviors.
Photo by Bogdan Florea on Shutterstock
While it's very tempting to roll out of bed and into the workday still dressed in your most comfortable pajamas, this could be one of the biggest reasons you're finding it hard to concentrate during your work from home days.
"Enclothed cognition" was a term coined by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology to describe the way that clothes can impact our mood and behaviors. In one particular 2012 study, participants who donned a white lab coat increased selective attention compared to those participants who were not wearing lab coats.
According to Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky (the lead researchers on the project), clothes systematically influence your psychological processes - dress for work and you will be much more productive.
Structure your days of the week to be similar to one another.
Routine and structure might feel non-existent in these difficult and uncertain COVID-19 times, but research shows that keeping up with a day-time routine is really important to both your mental health and your effectiveness on the job, especially when you're working remotely.
One of the biggest mistakes people are making during periods where they are working remotely is sleeping in. Hitting the snooze button a few more times than normal may seem fine (because you don't actually have to leave your house to start work) - but oversleeping can actually dampen your cognitive function just as much as not sleeping enough can.
According to a 2018 study conducted by Western University, oversleeping can impact your ability to store and recall information from memory and decrease your problem-solving skills.
While you don't have to stick to the typical 9-5 hours you would if you were in the office working, seek out a pattern in your work-from-home routine - unless you are stuck to particular deadlines, you should aim to do the most important work when you're feeling most energized (whether that be eight in the morning or three in the afternoon).
Organize your work station for maximum comfort and productivity.
Keep your workstation as clean and clutter-free as possible.
Photo by Pepsco Studio on Shutterstock
While it's common sense to work in a somewhat organized work station that provides the space you need to work, there are plenty of things at your desk right now that could be impairing your functionality throughout the day.
While you may be sitting at your Ikea desk not giving much thought to this - the height of your desk really can impact how productive you are throughout the day.
A desk that allows you to sit with proper posture:
- Your feet should be flat on the floor
- Your legs should fit comfortably under the desk
- Your arms should be resting parallel to the floor
You can use the Ergotron Workspace Planner to find the proper settings for your desk and chair based on your height
The height of your chair isn't the only thing that can impact how productive and healthy you are during these work from home days.
The depth of your chair also matters - chairs that fit your body properly should:
- Provide proper lumbar support.
- Allow you to sit with your lower back against the lumbar support curve
- Leave a 1-2 inch gap between the back of your knees and the end of your seat.
If you find that your chair isn't meeting these requirements - maybe invest in a new office chair. After all, we may all be telecommuting for a while due to social distancing rules.
When it comes to your monitor or screen, many people don't understand how this could connect with things such as bad posture, shoulder problems or eye strain.
However, according to these monitor placement guidelines from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), your computer screen or monitor should be:
- Between 20 and 40 inches in front of you
- The top line of the screen or monitor should be at (or below) your eye level
- Your screen shouldn't be tilted more than 10-20 degrees.
Organize your desk to improve your mental health.
It's not just ergonomics that should play into how you organize your desk, but the things you have near you and how you arrange your workspace at home can impact your mental health throughout the day as well.
The power of a desk plant:
Turns out plants can help make you more productive. While this may sound strange, there is quite a bit of research to back this claim.
Indoor plants prevent fatigue during what can be attention-demanding work hours and placing your desk next to a window that has a view of greenery can keep us focused, according to a 2011 study.
In fact, psychologists at Exeter University claim a desk plant can boost your productivity by up to 15%.
A cluttered space means a cluttered mind. Distractions could be ongoing depending on your current situation (children home from school, a spouse or partner that's also working from home, pets that require our attention) - so having your desk be a designated place for work (and work only) is important.
At the end of each day, take a few minutes to clear your desk of clutter:
- Put all pens back in a holder, stack papers neatly proper piles.
- Clean away any dishes (coffee mugs, etc) and wipe down your desk.
Returning the next day to a clean and clear work station will put you in a more productive mood and get you off to a better start.
Make working from home a joyful experience.
Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer and author of "Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness" explains that creating a joyful working from home experience is key to being more productive.
If your space feels comfortable and settled, your life is likely feeling that way as well. If your environment is feeling frazzled, cluttered and tired - you may start to struggle with those difficult emotions in your personal life.
The idea that your environment can impact your mood is part feng shui and part logic. When your desk is piled full of papers and bills, it's likely safe to say you're maybe not as "on top of" your finances as you'd like to be.
"How we care for our homes often indicates how we're caring for ourselves," Lee explains, "If the kitchen is a mess, my diet is usually a mess too. A clogged fridge and pantry kills my motivation for cooking. We start ordering more takeout and end up feeling bloated with low-energy and it becomes hard to break the downward spiral."
The same goes for your working space - if your workspace (especially your home office) is feeling cluttered and chaotic, you will be less productive.
- Scientists have found evidence that the Neanderthals were eating large amounts of fish long before modern humans got to Europe.
- Previously, it was thought that only modern humans were fishing on a large scale.
- The findings show that the Neanderthals were more like us than most people think.
New evidence from a cave in Portugal suggests the Neanderthals were eating fish before modern humans settled Europe. This finding not only changes our understanding of Neanderthals and how they lived but gives further evidence that they were more like us than we tend to imagine.
Nothing fishy about this
An international team explored a cave, known as Figueira Brava, and used uranium-thorium dating to determine the age of excavation layers. The use of the technique allowed the scientists to discover that the layer is between 86,000-106,000 years old, dating back to before modern humans came to Europe.
Since archaeologists have already found hundreds of fish bones alongside the remains of waterfowl, clams, and dolphins in the cave, the dating suggests that Neanderthals were eating a diverse aquatic diet long before fishing was thought to have been introduced to Europe. While previous investigations had shown that Neanderthals collected shells, including those of edible animals, and used them for making jewelry, this is the first strong evidence that they were actually eating marine animals.
Filipa Rodrigues, an author of the paper published in Science on the subject, told the New York Times: "We all have that image of the primitive Neanderthal that eats lots of meat… Now, we have this new perspective that they explored the marine resources like Homo sapiens did."
What does eating fish have to do with anything?
Fish and other types of seafood contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which promotes the growth and development of brain tissue. It has been speculated that the eating of fish may have played a part in the development of early modern humans, giving them the boost in brainpower needed to create symbolic ideas and complex organization.
Just as eating fish is thought to have helped our immediate ancestors develop their capacity for abstract thought, this finding could explain how Neanderthals were able to function at a similar level. Contrary to popular opinion, Neanderthals were reasonably intelligent. They were able to create fire, had social structures, made cave paintings, built boats, turned seashells into jewelry, used language, and did many other things that anatomically modern humans did.
Perhaps a diet featuring fish made all of this possible.
Neanderthals were more human than most people think. This finding shows yet another activity previously thought to be done only by homo-sapiens was also done with regularity by others before our evolutionary cousins died out. While more research is needed to know if this was a widespread behavior or if the cultivation of this much seafood was limited to certain areas, the discovery changes what we thought we knew about our long gone and much maligned cousins.