Welcome to the NeuroEconomy
By Sean C. Orr, M.D. and Drew Edwards, EdD, MS
September 23, 2020
The Emerging NeuroEconomy and Brain Building
For all of human history, economies have been set up so that the majority of people would earn a living by brute force. Personal income depended largely on how much one could lift or physically rearrange. It was critical to create shelter for the things we’d grown or made. This was the genesis of slavery, the essence of the economic engine, expressed as horsepower, or heartpower. For thousands of years, all of humanity has effectively lived in the environment of a CardioEconomy, where brawn was the source of power and financial success. Only a very few were clever or brutish enough to capture that physical labor, and these titans of industry lived rich lives precariously balanced on the backs of an enormous labor force.
But things have suddenly changed. We now live in a NeuroEconomy. As of 2012, more than have the world’s workforce makes its living sitting behind a desk and tapping into technology that has altered our lives dramatically by unlocking new levels of power. The Internet and the World Wide Web have emerged as a global nervous system, an external repository of knowledge and information that serves as an extension of the brain, an “exocortex,” so to speak.
Our computers and smart phones have become portals to that disembodied layer of cognition, which is enabled by a redundant communications network that gives us constant, ubiquitous access. This network is leveraged by multipliers such as automated manufacturing, robotics, and an incredible array of other technical innovations that are allowing us to create, move, and store goods and services with much less physical effort than ever. Today, the true effort is coming from the mental energy expenditure that is going into imagining, creating, and executing business services and products. The only real limitation today is that of one’s imagination.
In fact, in so many ways, we’re now using our brains, instead of our bodies, to do the heavy lifting. So for the first time in human history, our economy is more dependent than ever upon on how we think. In the NeuroEconomy, our well-being, our economic success in life, and the economic health of nations depends on how well our citizens use their minds to manipulate their environment and create viable products and services. Companies such as Oracle, Salesforce, Facebook, and Google are prime examples of how wealth has been created from thin air, from the collection and manipulation of data on a mass scale. And companies such as Apple Computers and Amazon represent the transition from old-fashioned labor to intelligent automation and leveraged wealth production.
So why is it that things have changed so dramatically? Well, there is a confluence of multiple factors that are coming together to naturally create this change. For one thing, the average citizen is becoming aware that our Brain Function has a huge impact on our revenue generation. How we use our minds matters more today than it ever has before. Leaders have always known this fact, but the masses are finally becoming aware.
In the NeuroEconomy, the margins in life are thinner than ever before. The COVID-19 Pandemic has exposed this reality in the most raw way. It has exposed what some of us saw a decade ago, that systems and institutions were not able to continue to operate with a CardioEconomy orientation because the new infrastructure was demanding a new way of doing business.
So many have resisted making changes in their personal lives, but during the lockdown, we’ve all become thrust into the transformational “liminial phase” that is so disorienting.
It is scary for our society to go through this transformation, largely because so many cannot see the forest for the trees. We become myopic, focused on the daily task of survival, and this makes it hard for most to step back and look at the big picture. Thus, it should be no surprise that we find ourselves in turmoil, turned against one another and looking for someone to blame. Society-level transformations are fraught with chaos and fear, As our society emerges into the NeuroEconomy, the benefits will start to become clear to many. We ought to see a rapid acceleration of change that will resolve those fears as a new level of abundance and expansive growth empowers the average citizen like never before.
Whether we want to or not, we are being forced to make dramatic, sweeping changes to our personal lives in order to keep up with the tide. Some refer to this time as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But the transformation has much broader implications than simply industrial change. We are witnessing the next stage in human evolution, where our historical symbiosis with technology is changing rapidly, enabling us to do much more with much less in every aspect of life. It is a boon, but it is confusing and disorienting to many who are just starting to make the transition.
In this lean environment, the consequences of not having a well-functioning brain are more grave than ever. Personal debt is at such a high level that with one misstep, the average worker in this economic environment can go from a robust wage-earner to a pauper almost overnight. And more often than not, those missteps arise from decisions that require serious mental thought, analysis of data, and skill sets that have not necessarily evolved in the traditional labor mindset.
Finally, disruptive innovations are happening at an ever quickening pace. Clayton Christensen describes this process in “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and provides examples:
The introduction of the Apple Watch, personal health trackers, and personalized health hacking are other manifestations of this disruption. Pertinent disruptors in the NeuroEconomy also include cloud-based systems and externalized memory repositories, such as Evernote. New entrants to the data analytics sphere, such as Snowflake, embody massive, externalized data processing that is commoditized, enabling just about anyone to gain access to tools that before were only available to a select few.
Expanded, externalized cognitive capacity enables the average worker to outsource and offset trivial, less demanding cognitive tasks and memory demands. The confluence and application of Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and increasing bandwidth will only accelerate this trend, and in short order, the vast majority of workers will routinely depend on these tools for their everyday existence. Those who struggle to make the change will fall to the wayside, a fact that we’re already seeing play out in the wake of the Opioid epidemic and the Coronavirus Pandemic. In a very tragic way, deaths of despair and deaths of mediocre health are hallmarks of the pressure that this transformation to the NeuroEconomy is placing on our population.
Indeed, for those whose brain function is not optimal, who struggle with brain fitness, things will fall apart. Cognitive fatigue, tiredness, lack of energy, and degraded motivation eventually give rise to depression, despair, and suicide, all of which are hallmarks of burnout. Burnout is the predictable path of the energy-deprived brain. With the emergence of the NeuroEconomy, it is more critical than ever to understand the demands that are being placed on your brain – and how to balance and mitigate those demands.
The Exocortex and Brain Energy
Today, humans already are using the very first versions of the Exocortex. The emergence of cloud-based applications has freed us from the constraints of storing information in our minds and on our computers. Exchanging information with the cloud is the first step towards offsetting memory and cognitive tasks to an externalized partition of our logic circuits.
We can say that the Exocortex is part of our brain, as a logical extension of our own cerebral cortex. In that case, the energy demands on the brain can be scaled to expand significantly. And the demands on our natural brain to manage the rapidly expanding Exortex can be quite significant, indeed. The Exocortex, as a repository of memory and function, is being tasked to replicate and even replace some of the organic brain’s functions.
This sophisticated, cognitive extension is connected indirectly to the human brain through Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs). Smart phones, laptops, or any other BCIs that give us access to that externalized information are but portals to the Exocortex. By nature of their portability, the average BCI is easily damaged or lost. Who hasn’t had that moment of panic when their cell phone crashes? Or a loss of function when they lose connection to the cellular network? If the definition of dementia is a loss of cognitive capacity from a previously held level, then it’s fair to say that most of us have experienced some form of reversible dementia while waiting for their smart phone to finish an update, or reconnect to the network.
While scientists have developed the first direct BCIs, they are still relatively primitive and, in most cases, invasive. Elon Musk has made waves recently in announcing Neuralink’s progress in developing their robotically inserted BCI. Indeed, we can expect that this space is going to evolve rapidly as more people demand faster access and direct links to their exocortex. We also can expect that these new portal tools are going to introduce a strain on brain function that will need to be managed and mitigated.
Indeed, the brain manufactures and stores energy that it uses all day, every day. The problem is that we have a finite amount of energy available to the brain. We are constantly replenishing our brain energy stores by synthesizing molecules that are used for brain function. These brain molecules are called neurotransmitters, and they are responsible for signaling between brain cells and networks that connect the different functions of the brain. Neurotransmitters enable and affect our thinking processes as well as all of the automatic functions that maintain the health and homeostasis of the body.
Under periods of stress, when demands on brain function are high, then there is a need to replenish brain energy stores more rapidly. There is a greater need to synthesize more neurotransmitters, and there is a greater demand for the basic building blocks of those molecules. Increased stress places a metabolic demand on the brain that results in the production of more byproducts of cellular metabolism. These include the very structures that have been associated with the development of conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson Disease.
Free radicals, tau protein, and beta amyloid are byproducts of cellular metabolism that can be though of as “debris” that needs to be cleaned or removed from the brain. Failure to do so leads to lower fidelity of information processing, or “Brain Failure.” The frontal lobes appear to be particularly vulnerable to these effects, and in the clinical realm we are developing an greater appreciation for the importance of optimizing the supply of nutrients and the removal of brain waste in order to properly optimize Brain Function.
It’s unreasonable to think that any BCI or the exocortex can properly function without first optimizing the function of the underlying organic brain substrate. Thus, in the NeuroEconomy, we will place a premium on those strategies that not only optimize but enhance Brain Function. A comprehensive program that address this will be judged on its ability to improve Brain Fitness.
The Importance of Brain Fitness
Brain Fitness is the ability of the human brain to meet the demands that are placed on it without suffering any decrease in its performance characteristics. Brain Fitness accounts for the effects of stress from productivity demands, emotional needs, physical and spiritual needs, and the demands of numerous relationships in an expanding personal network. Performance is improved when there is good Brain Fitness. And performance suffers when Brain Fitness is degraded.
Having a good understanding of Brain Fitness is absolutely critical in this day and age. As Neuroscientists, it is our passion and our careers to study, teach, and coach brain fitness.
We have worked for years with people with various brain disorders, such as stroke, neurodegenerative disease, autoimmune disorders of the brain, and addictive disorders, or Reward Deficiency Syndrome as we now refer to them. These conditions represent the extremes of failure of Brain Fitness. And in each case, patients uniformly benefit from strategies that improve their Brain Function and therefore Brain Fitness.
These strategies not only benefit people who are suffering with brain disease, but they also benefit healthy, highly successful, motivated and actualized people. We have taken the lessons learned from patients with neurological illness and applied them to healthy patients to improve their Brain Fitness. We work with entrepreneurs, professionals in many industries, executives, politicians, entertainers, and athletes to help them optimize their Brain Fitness. These days we even go beyond optimization to help them enhance or augment their brain function.
Burnout can Derail Successful Transformation
We see many highly successful people trying to get into the right frame of mind for success. However, because the brain is so vulnerable to being drained of energy by all of life’s demands, people are using up the resources available to quicker than they can replenish them. As a result, many are on the path to burnout.
Over the years, the term “burnout” has become somewhat commonplace and is used loosely to describe many states, include fatigue and exhaustion. But burnout is really a well-defined process and it encompasses three stages
Burnout: Stage One
In the first stage, there is some form of stress that is not relenting. People are living at a heightened level of stress. This can lead to insomnia, forgetfulness, headaches and the inability to concentrate. Typically this happens in the context of some performance demand in somebody who’s ramped up his or her activity level and is starting to feel the early stages of the consequences of this stress, which we call “strain.”
An important problem is that when somebody starts down that path of burnout, they begin to lose perspective and actually lose the ability to perceive that they’re burning out. This is because as their brain energy starts to become drained, and the parts of the brain that provide feedback start to fail. In Neurological jargon, we refer to this as “anosognosia,” or a failure to perceive the significance of one’s one Brain Failure. It can be thought of as a blindness to one’s own blindness.
Burnout: Stage Two
The failure to recognize that the symptoms of burnout leads one to continue down the path and easily start to go into the second stage of burnout. In stage two, subjects unconsciously start to conserve energy. They may start procrastinating or may become apathetic. They don’t show up for work on time, and they hide out in the bathroom. They may have decreased sexual desire, and relationships start to unravel.
Some may try to remedy their situation by resorting to stimulants, such as caffeine or amphetamines, in an attempt to jolt the brain up into higher levels of function. They also depend more on alcohol or other sedatives to calm them down. This results in even more stress on the brain, and the strain shows up as impaired metabolism that further interferes with Brain Function.
Burnout: Stage Three
At this point, if something doesn’t happen to stop it, subjects will continue to deteriorate and arrive at stage three, which is the exhaustion stage. Physical manifestations become much more pronounced, and ultimately, people who are burning out will lose their job, drop out of society, and may even take their own lives.
At The NeuroGenesis Project, we frequently encounter high performers who have spent so much brain energy without taking the time to try to recover that they’re well down the path of burnout, and it’s crippling their performance. Thus, it’s crucial to recognize the symptoms of burnout because it’s common to not be aware that you’re actually on the path.
So when you start to find yourself feeling like you’re missing deadlines, if you’re starting to run into conflicts with family members where you didn’t before, starting to feel cynical and resentful because of the burden that’s been placed on you - or if you find that you’re starting to increase your consumption of alcohol or caffeine products - those ought to be warning signals that you’re on an unhealthy path.
Some of the end stage burnout signs are chronic headaches, chronic physical fatigue and just the desire to drop out of your activities. These are huge red flags that tell you that you’ve essentially arrived at the end of the road with your brain energy. You feel like it’s time to bail out.
In reality, it’s actually time to get help from a professional who can give you an objective opinion and start you on a path of Brain Building Strategies to help you improve your Brain Fitness.
This is ever more true now that, in the NeuroEconomy, higher levels of performance are required from so many people.
How do you sustain your brain energy to perform at a higher level without suffering burnout?
Someone who’s stressed out and in the beginning phase of burnout is really suffering brain pathology, a brain injury in process. So our first step as Brain Building Neurotherapists is simply to rescue and recover that person, and protect them from further harm.
Our fundamental Brain Building Strategies for optimization are fairly basic. They focus on the essentials, such as sleep, diet and exercise. What kind of foods are you putting in your mouth? Are you relying on fast food and sugary beverages just to keep going? Are you not sleeping enough hours to refresh your brain? Do you just sit around a