(By Deborah L. Jacobs)
“A certain amount of stress can definitely increase performance in future stressful situations, so when you find yourself in your next acutely stressful situation, remember that your brain will be hard at work translating today’s agony into next week’s triumph.“
We humans are the only creatures that actively study our own minds, fine-tuning our thought processes for greater efficiency and accuracy. We strain for the slightest mental advantage over the competition. It can be enormously stressful.
New brain science breakthroughs can boost your productivity and reduce the stress. Here are four insights from experts on how to turn high-pressure situations into problem-solving victories.
1. List the things that are bothering you. Ed O’Brien, a social psychology researcher at the University of Michigan, recently led a study in which he asked a group of volunteers to come up with lists of specific experiences that would make them happy, and ones that would make them unhappy, if they occurred within the next year. He asked the same participants to rate (on a scale of 1 to 10) how difficult it was to fill up their lists, and how likely their predictions were to come true.
O’Brien noticed a striking correlation: The more difficulty volunteers had filling the list, the less optimistic they were that their dreams would come true.
That leads O’Brien to suggest an unusual solution for anxiety: Come up with as many negative predictions as you can, until you run out. Spending too much energy trying to keep your spirits up by dreaming up positive predictions can leave you feeling let-down when things don’t go as planned, he explains, but casually thinking about the bad won’t limit your ability to enjoy the good.
2. Turn stress to your advantage. The stress of the daily grind can sometimes make us feel like rats in a maze. But a new a study by Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of neuroscience at Berkeley University and Elizabeth Kirby, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, reveals that even rats in a maze derive some measurable benefits from exposure to moderate amounts of stress.
They found that the brains of rats who had spent many hours immobilized in a box (hmm, sounds familiar) started generating newborn nerve cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure crucial for formation and retrieval of memories. What’s more, those new neurons became especially active two weeks after the acute stress, suggesting that the brainy benefits of stress take time to emerge.
“A certain amount of stress can definitely increase performance in future stressful situations,” says Kaufer. So when you find yourself in your next acutely stressful situation, remember that your brain will be hard at work translating today’s agony into next week’s triumph.
3. To increase accuracy, seek distraction. Our brains are flooded with much more information than we can process at any given moment. Research by David Creswell, associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, showed that there’s a benefit to goofing off.
Creswell’s latest study tracked human volunteers’ brain activity as they quickly looked through lists of attributes of fictional cars and apartments, one of which included many more positive attributes than the others on the list. The first group of participants got two minutes to ponder their choices. A second group had to make snap decisions right away, and a third group played a distracting memory game for two minutes, then made their purchase decisions afterward.
Participants who had been distracted for a few minutes picked the top cars and apartments – those with the most positive attributes – with much greater accuracy. So if you’re struggling to make a complex decision, try distracting yourself and letting your brain’s unconscious processing hash out the details. (See too, “Wasting Time Can Make You A Star At Work.”)
4. Seek diverse viewpoints. We make decisions by accumulating evidence. Each new fact we learn weighs our decision a little (or a lot) in one direction or the other. The same process is constantly taking place in the trillions of synapses that link your brain’s neurons to one another.
Neurons and networks of neurons “start with extremely noisy signals,” says Carlos Brody, associate professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton University. “Each neuron has to take these signals, filled with all kinds of background noise the environment, and biases from memories and previous thought processes, and accumulate evidence for one decision over another.”
Brody’s most recent study started with a memory test: He placed rats between sets of two tiny speakers, then played a series of clicks that alternated at random between the left and right sides. The rats were trained to turn toward the side where the most clicks had played. Brody also put some human volunteers through a similar test, involving flashes of light on two screens.
Both rats and humans responded more accurately when they were given more information, even if that information was filled with random noise. What this tells us, Brody says, is that “you’ve got to make sure you’re taking in enough actual data to balance out the noise.” In other words, make sure you’re listening to all the sides of a story, until a clear signal resolves out of the conflict.
These various studies suggest that even tiny changes in the way you frame or process a high-pressure situation can make the difference between confusion and confidence. The most exciting brain breakthroughs of all might be those you discover for yourself.
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