Updated: Dec 24, 2020
By Sean C. Orr, M.D. and Drew Edwards, EdD, MS
December 21, 2020
Writing Frees Your Mind: The Fundamental Success Strategy
Six Neuroscientific Principles
The World is in Transition
In early 2020, the world was rudely awakened to the reality that an unforeseen, disruptive force was tearing our lives apart. In truth, our world has entered a transitional phase where chaos and uncertainty rule the day, compelling a massive transformation in how we arrange our lives, day-to-day.
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, human activity became organized into an industrial, "Cardioeconomy" that built our nations’ infrastructure with human-power. As technology rapidly advanced, we started to leave the Cardioeconomy behind and move into an era in which the way we work, live, and interact with each other will be based on a foundation of a new "Neuroeconomy," where strong, healthy minds are essential. Succeeding in this new era will require optimization of our most precious asset, our prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that makes us uniquely human. It enables us to envision a better future, to develop cogent plans, and to acquire and assemble the resources necessary to make it happen.
Where does one start?
With "brain-building strategies." These improve the way that your brain functions and enable you to sustain high performance amid the day-to-day-stressors and demands of change.
In this article, we argue for the benefit of one particular, perhaps even "old-school," brain-building strategy, the practice of writing things down. Borrowing from the old idiom, “Things that get written down get done,” it turns out that our laptop or digital tools cannot totally replace the pen and paper. There are scientifically sound reasons why capturing our ideas, thoughts and goals on paper is critical to brain building and to success. We're going to share six principles based on neuroscience research that will help you to understand why writing is the key to unlocking your true productivity.
The Six Neuroscientific Principles behind Writing
Principle #1: Your Brain was not Built for Multitasking
In the postmodern Cardioeconomy, let’s call it the last 30 years, the workforce had one leg in the world of technology and the other in the world of physical labor. This stress forced most workers to compensate for the enormous expectation placed on them, via the advent of email. Prior to email, a manager may get a typed “memo” 2-3 times per week and have 1-2 face to face meetings with his or her boss and colleagues. As email caught on, though, a worker might get 30-40 emails per day, which demanded a response. Stress increased and productivity declined.
Early portable handheld computing devices, such as the Blackberry, were the first technology that attempted to help the overwhelmed worker organize the day more efficiently by attempting to “multitask.” But neuroscience has taught us that multitasking is not possible. Our brains are not designed to efficiently run two different, complex routines simultaneously. What we do instead is “set-shift.” By set-shifting, we divert our attention from one activity that requires a specific skill set to another, which requires a different set of skills. Set shifting is a marker of cognitive capacity, and it enables higher performance. Those with more cognitive capacity regularly deliver excellent results, and do this more often than those with less cognitive capacity.
The good news is that increasing cognitive capacity is now achievable. The bad news is that focus shifting, if not regulated and executed correctly, may seriously degrade performance.
Principle #2: Writing Improves Focus
The ability to sustain adequate focus is a result of the bioavailability and timely activation of the neurotransmitter dopamine. As you surely have experienced, our world is full of distractions, many of which divert us from important work. For instance, you probably were not aware of the feeling of your feet on the ground or the air on your face until you read these words. That's because dopamine is working in the background to filter out the stimuli and allow you to focus on reading. Unfortunately, some people have low levels of dopamine, which can seriously impair their ability to focus. This is particularly true when you have a busy mind full or internal stressors that command your attention. The ability to filter out distractions in order to sustain focus is essential to productivity and success in every area of life. Yet, some tasks are boring, or uninteresting, and yet they have to be engaged and competed. This skill requires the ability to concentrate when you would prefer to think about or do something else.
Concentration is defined as, “voluntary continuous focusing of mental activity.” It is the ability to shut out distractions, engage and finish a task. Intrusive or competing thoughts occur because they carry a sense of urgency or salience, and they're sending internal signals that there's something else that requires our full attention. Those with increased cognitive capacity realize this, and they also know that to prioritize tasks requires a quieting of their mind. They identify unique emotional triggers, stressors, and intrusive thoughts that take them off task. We all do this at times, we all worry and find ourselves ruminating over stressors even when we know there is nothing that can be done about them this day. Learning to understand those distractors and suppress their effect is critical to enabling focus.
The best available research shows that the act of writing things down engages another part of our brain and increases the importance or “salience” of the task. When you sit and focus on writing, which involves a physical activity, it quiets the negative emotions, and also releases peripheral dopamine that is necessary for all voluntary muscle movement. This strategy filters out distractions, reduces background noise, and improves concentration by locking our focus on competing the task at hand.
Principle #3: Thought and Action Compete for Resources
Just like computers have core processors, the brain also has its own core processors consisting of specific neurons located on the cerebral cortex. They are aligned into vertical columns that are lined up in parallel next to each other. These columns together process trillions of operations per second across numerous interconnected neural networks. When a signal for cognitive activity occurs, a cortical column instantly activates and responds. When the signal subsides it deactivates to its resting state.
After each activation, a cortical column neuro-adapts by adding to skills and memories that continually improve its function. Shifting attention from one set of skills to another is dependent on one’s cognitive capacity to utilize previous experience and optimize the response. Imagine what would happen if a factory were designed to manufacture an automobile but without warning, the workers were instructed to manufacture ventilators. Chaos would ensure as the factory workers would not know what to do. To accommodate this change, they would have to refit and optimize all of the equipment to build ventilators. Obviously this is an extreme example to make the point—our brain doesn’t like big changes thrust upon it. Stress, fear, and anger inhibit its ability to focus on a solution for the problem. When you shift your attention from one demand to another, you are constantly repurposing your cortical columns. Too much, too fast, will exhaust for your brain and lead to burnout.
The brain is put together anatomically in different structures, and when it comes to productivity, it is the frontal lobes that are in charge. The human frontal lobes are where we process our complex, abstract thoughts; learn from experience or from the mistakes of ourselves or others; display judgment, insight, discernment and wisdom; and detect right from wrong. The frontal lobes also are what help us to imagine a better future and set up actions that will help us to strive for that future. But when all is said and done, it is a common mistake to think that we're only using part of our brain. Indeed, the brain works together as a complete organ to synthesize information and to prescribe a course of action accordingly. There are several networks of brain cells, or “neurons,” which come together across the artificial boundaries of the different brain regions. These networks work in different ways to serve your different needs. Some of these neurons are used in multiple networks. You can think of these networks the same way that you might think of a cell phone network. There are individual cells, small neighborhood nodes, larger regional stations, and very large hubs for large metropolitan areas. The networks of your neurons are structured in a very similar fashion in order to efficiently convey information throughout the different regions of your brain.
Four Important Neural Networks:
Default mode network. This network is what processes your thoughts and is most dominant one. It's called the Default Mode Network because it is what we tend to find ourselves using most of the time while we are awake. Whether you are using your imagination, planning a course of action, ruminating about certain events, fantasizing, daydreaming, or catastrophizing, your Default Mode Network is in full swing. For those of us who become overly consumed with planning, this part of the brain becomes particularly active. It's also the part of the brain that burns out the most in Alzheimer's Disease, possibly because when older people become inactive, they tend to sit and think much more than they actually take action.
Central Executive Network. This network is all about putting our plans into action. Execution is the discipline of getting things done, and the Central Executive Network takes those things that you've been planning in your mind and goes to work on getting them done. The order in which you do things is important though. This is where priorities kick in. For example, if your bladder is about to burst, your executive routine “how to empty the bladder” is going to take priority over your executive routine “how to brush the teeth.” Either way, many of the same cortical columns that are being used in your default mode network get re-purposed when your Central Executive Network kicks in. This is why it’s easier to batch your work than to constantly engage in set shifting. Too many demands on the Central Executive Network to switch sets will predictably lead to burnout, a topic for another time.
Place Cell Network. The brain contains specialized neurons that are responsible for the construction of our three-dimensional perception of space. These neurons use brain energy to store information about where we are, where we put things, and where our targets exist. This network probably explains why we sense a difference between reading in a book versus reading from a tablet or flat screen. A book has something a screen does not, three-dimensionality. When we pick up a book, our place cell network stores a mental map of that book in a way that it cannot for a scrolling screen. The same goes for when we write things down. While typing into a word processor still has value, it cannot replicate the effect of externalizing your thoughts and ideas into a physical store of written words. This may explain why the practice of journaling has made such a popular comeback recently. Journaling not only clears your mind of cluttered, unorganized thoughts, it gives you a durable, three-dimensional storage location that you can return to and add to at any time.
Insular Cortex. Switching between thinking thoughts and taking action is the job of this thin ribbon of brain tissue. It receives inputs from many areas of the brain, which coalesce to help you to make decisions. It also is the switch that toggles between the Default Mode Network and the Central Executive Network. The Insular Cortex has other roles and responsibilities, too, such as modulating your blood pressure and heart rate; processing and regulating emotions; predicting risks; and managing empathy and body self-image. This is a very busy part of our brain, as you can see. So the more we task it with shifting between thought and action, and the more it has to set-shift, the more strained it can become.
Principle #4: Execution is Easier When You Write Down the Process
First, it's important to know that there are three Elements to any task:
The Target. In many ways, the brain is a powerful target-seeking organ. Our senses show us where the target is, and based on our experiences, we get pretty good at knowing exactly what it is that we're trying accomplish. Of course, this is harder if the target is more abstract. It's one thing to toss a stone in the ocean. It's another thing if your target is at the end of it very complex series of tasks, such as landing a rocket ship on Mars. The more clear in your mind the target is, and the more well it is visualized, the greater the likelihood that you'll reach the target.
The Path. Ideally, the shortest path to reach the target should be the best. But we know that in life, this is often not the case. How many times have you set out to accomplish a task but instead discovered nothing but a series of obstacles in the way? Often the path is well illuminated and easy to travel. Other times it may be hazardous and full of distractions and blocks. The more familiar and well rehearsed a path, the easier it is to travel it, generally speaking. But clearing a new path to target can be extremely energy consuming. Much of what you do in designing and traveling your path requires a clear understanding of the obstacles and an intuitive approach to overcoming those obstacles. This is where the power of experience is so important.
The Duration. It's critical to devote the right amount of time necessary to travel the path. How long it will take for you to traverse your path to reach your target plays a role in getting things done. For example, it may take only seconds to retrieve a drink from the refrigerator. On the other hand, if your path is very circuitous and involves many steps, the duration naturally is going to be quite a bit longer. Estimating the duration well is going to be very important, because it will have a big impact on the resources that are needed for you to travel your path.
When you write down these elements, it becomes much more clear to your conscious mind what you really value and seek in life. Importantly, it also helps you to organize your activities better so that you don't spend valuable brain energy spinning your mind in circles. You'll see in the following sections just how precious your brain energy really is and how writing down your thoughts is an investment that will pay off dividends.
Principle #5: Brain Energy is a Precious Resource
We all know that the energy that powers our lives is a limited resource and does not come for free. This is particularly true for your brain. It's essential that you protect your resources to avoid brain failure and burnout, and the rules of supply and demand start with how we generate energy and remove waste products from the brain:
Energy creation. The cells in your body require a lot of energy to sustain their function. Your brain cells in particular require a constant supply of energy in order to function properly. Even though your brain takes up less than 5% of the entire body weight, it still uses more than 20% of available blood supply to provide the cells with oxygen and glucose, the brain's primary ingredients of energy generation. Usable energy is generated through a process of cellular fuel combustion known as oxidative metabolism. Inside each of your cells are small power plants called mitochondria. Just like an internal combustion engine combines oxygen and a fuel source (gasoline) to create energy, mitochondria combine oxygen and a fuel source (glucose) to create energy.
Waste removal. The "exhaust" that is put out by the mitochondria is in the form of carbon byproducts and free radicals. These build up in the brain, and over time they can actually overwhelm the brain cells and cause them to malfunction, and even to die. In order to clear this waste, the brain has an elaborate network of tiny lymphatic channels that drain out the toxic fluid and dump it into the veins, where it is cleared by the other body organs. In order for this "glymphatic system," to work properly, we must get enough sleep, for it goes into hibernation mode while we are awake, thinking our thoughts and taking action.
Principle #6: Writing Frees up Your Brain Energy
Thinking takes energy. Thoughts are things. They are made up of neurochemicals and require the movement of electrical energy, thus they take up mass and space in your brain. When you spin up your Default Mode Network, you're devoting extensive energy resources to create the electrical impulses and neurochemical reactions that are required to think your thoughts. Consider in your mind a recent stressful situation that required a lot of contemplation. Maybe you were planning a special event, or preparing for a job interview. You likely engaged in the act of imagining one after another scenario, anticipating questions and problems, preparing yourself for obstacles, considering alternative pathways, considering the impact of your actions on your relationships, and generating solutions. You can literally spend a whole day planning in your mind and be absolutely, completely exhausted at the end of the day.
Doing also demands energy, though it might take less energy than thinking. When we get busy, and the central executive Network goes into affect, we are taking action. And certainly, heavy physical labor or other sustained action can be extremely tiring as well. However, for certain actions, especially ones that are repetitive, these can take on an almost meditative quality and actually takes less brain energy than the process of thinking.
Because thoughts are things, it takes a lot of energy to maintain many thoughts going at once. Our busy lives demand so much from us, and it is possible that you may have a handful or even dozens of concerns all occupying your mind. You may be jumping from thought to thought, from one worry to another, knowing that there are many things that you need to do and just struggling to gain focus.
Holding many thoughts in mind is extremely inefficient and generates excessive waste products. While you are spinning up and down one network and then another as you jump from thought to thought, you’re making more waste products than necessary. So, not only are you unable to focus enough to get even one thing done, you also are filling your brain with the toxic byproducts of oxidative metabolism.
This slows you down even further, and eventually your frontal lobes will fatigue in what is known as “brain failure.” When this happens, your frontal lobes go offline, and your main mode of thinking becomes primitive, driven by the emotional, limbic brain. The quality of decisions and work product takes a big dive, and our relationships are easily damaged.
The extra strain on your brain eventually adds to your stress level, activating the fight-or-flight response and releasing a flood of damaging hormones. These damage your metabolism and can put you at risk for various health problems
When you write down your thoughts, you are benefitting several ways. For one, you're offloading them to an external storage system that frees up room in your brain. This makes it easier for you to be creative. It also makes it more efficient for you to switch into action mode so that you can bring your creations to life. By journalling, you are creating a three-dimensional map for your ideas that gives them structure and meaning. This makes your ideas and feelings explicit to your conscious mind and helps you to get clear on what is really important. Ultimately, writing things down is a highly effective way of managing your precious brain energy that contributes to your attention, focus, and concentration, enabling you to enjoy the better quality of life that the emerging Neuroeconomy promises for us all.
1. Your Brain was not Built for Multitasking.
2. Writing Improves Focus.
3. Thought and Action Compete for Resources.
4. Execution is Easier When You Write Down the Process.
5. Brain Energy is a Precious Resource.
6. Writing Frees up Your Brain Energy.
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