How to use brain priming to improve your productivity and quality of life

spring cleaningThis simple 3 step formula will allow you to design life strategies based on your own unique neural network of associations and experiences. Brain priming, where “exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus”, is essentially the firing of neurons that are linked in your brain. This happens automatically and below the level of conscious thought. For example, student subjects primed with words related to the elderly left the experiment walking slower than the control group.

But we can make brain priming an active, rather than just a passive, process. Self-priming before an activity and extending that stimulus throughout its duration can help us tackle difficult tasks with more energy and improved perspective by taking advantage of the brain’s existing network of linkages. And what task could be more difficult, more intimidating, more soul destroying, more ‘oh-gawd-why-me’ agonizing than… cleaning the house.

Brain Network MapStep 1: Identify the activity and hypothesis your initial linkages (concepts, associations, emotions). Try to be as honest and intuitive as you can. You can use the diagram above as a model. It shows a simplified network of what, in reality, is quite a messy bit of between-the-ears business. But I’m a sucker for symmetry, both in my men and in my visual aids.

Step 2: Identify the positive (encouraging links are in blue) and negative (paralyzing links are in red) connections/associations. The positive links are your Gateway Connections.

Step 3: Identify sensory and memory recall experiences that will stimulate these same positive attitude/energy bundles of neurons. Here’s where it gets fun! Get psyched to try a tough new recipe by Youtubing with some Anthony Bourdain… Wear a tie and watch ‘Report on Business’ TV before an economics exam… Give your partner a massage before asking them to do the dishes (maybe I should have tried that one)… Go ahead and get creative! Engage your network strategy and keep those areas lit for as long, and as intensely, as possible. In this example, cute underwear (just don’t ask about the ‘in control’) and Janis Joplin’s rockin’ blues link to my three positives about cleaning. Cleaning the bathroom Note: ‘setting the stage’ has an extra semantic bonus with Joplin. Joplin and panties also have their own web of interconnecting linkages (shown in green) to directly counteract the original red negatives, thereby overriding them.

And because any scientific strategy is best served with a completely gratuitous selfie, I offer you hard-core proof that this brain priming formula will make even the most intimidating task suddenly… dare I say… far more enticing.

So hard to pick a toothpaste when all patterns end in sex or death

trauma in the toothpaste aisle

We process the world through pattern. Our brains filter the sensory madness of our culture through ever narrowing channels of meaning and importance. But let’s be honest, whatever your program of associations, all patterns end in either sex or death. Sex extends our genetics through time and is the only motivator on par with avoidance of death – the eventual, inevitable endgame to all sequences of decisions.

I’m paralyzed in the toothpaste aisle. I feel my temperature rising, my palms getting sweaty. Why the hell does my amygdala have to get involved! It’s just f*&^king toothpaste! The eternal struggle: buy my ‘usual’ and save myself some cognitive calories, or engage in a complex multi-variable algorithm steeped in conflict between conscious and unconscious influences and motivations. Do I want short term gains like fresh breath and whitening? Both driven by the ever tempting promise of getting laid. Or do I go for long term investment with tartar control, enamel repair, and preventing gingivitis (the villain in so many bacteria-in-the-bloodstream early death horror stories!)? Then there are the ‘do it all have it all’ formulas, the ‘full-time working mothers’ of oral hygiene. But like Sheryl Sandberg, I’m suspicious there’s some unspoken compromise that just might result in a root canal somewhere down the line. I grew up using Colgate… its red is so soothingly familiar… but ProNamel’s packaging looks so reassuringly clinical… and Aquafresh has… Oh for heavens sake!!

Pavlov’s dogs were trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, but his subjects would often begin to drool far earlier in the experimental sequence: approaching the experimental apparatus, when lab assistants entered the room, etc. Our own programming wakes with us in the morning and maps the day into expectations and associations. Our circuitry can be as rigid as rail lines, and neuroplasticity involves the same taxing bureaucratic nightmare of time, energy, and ego as engineering Calgary’s West LRT line. Change is hell. With sex or death being their axiomed ends, we must confront our patterns at their beginnings, especially ones as powerful as those involving ‘the paradox of choice’.

I should have visualized a game plan and anticipated my distress. It’s too late by the time I’m standing here feeling like an idiot for being so overwhelmed by freakin’ toothpaste! At this point, metacognition is my only hope. I calm my breathing and my head begins to clear. My prefrontal cortex takes charge. “What’s the worst case scenario,” I ask myself. It’s just toothpaste! And four magic words follow the analysis: “I can handle it.” I engage a new pattern and apply the retail version of my good-girl-bad-girl personal philosophy, and come home with two tubes – ProNamel and Aquafresh – and ‘spit’ my time between. What can I say? I’m now a proud personal hygiene polygamist (but hopefully not “till death do us part”)!

New hunter/gatherer theory on why men love watching playoff sports

jonathan quick la kings
Kopitar’s got the puck, passes to Carter for a sweet little one-timer – Elliott never had a chance – Kings score!!

The man beside me explodes off the couch with a terrifying “YAAAAAAA” Viking battle cry of testosterone madness that shoots me straight into an adrenaline panic. Fight – give him hell for freaking me out? Or flight – escape to the kitchen and (relative) safety of doing the dishes? Or try a new game this playoff season and turn this moment into an impromptu anthropological study…

Note: I love sports… PLAYING THEM! Don’t let my blonde ponytail and figure skates fool you, I’m competitive as hell and I’ll battle you into the boards until I get the puck or until one – or both of us – is bleeding. But men seem to get the same high from just watching tiny figures frolicking around on a screen. Ya, I know there are some women who get off on it too, just like there are some women with gigantic natural tits who authentically enjoy the taste of beer, but those genetic hybrid freaks should stop reading this and go out and mate with the head honcho at the local pub and leave the rest of us to our jolly gender generalizing.

Ok, so for men to get so passionate about playoff sports, two things must be happening in the brain:
1) Ongoing sensory engagement
2) Ongoing emotional involvement

hockey brain notesI get out my notebook (once a nerd always a nerd…sigh, and to take a picture of said nerdiness is, I suppose, taking it to a whole new, almost scary, level) and ask my male specimen some very scientific questions about his hockey viewing experience – on the commercials of course! In contrast to my own ever shifting tunnel vision, he describes being able process the entire screen’s on-ice action as a whole, while keeping track of who’s who and what they might do in present/upcoming plays. He also has the rules and play history on automatic recall. Hmmm.
watching sportsIt’s generally accepted (because what’s any theory without some good healthy generalizing) that for hundreds of thousands of years humans lived in small groups, with men mostly chiefing, warring, and hunting for meat, while the women gathered edible vegetation, reared the children, and maintained the social structure of the tribe. Starting with this evolutionary background, let’s identify the commonalities across three similar planes of ‘man reference’ that could produce the two brain prerequisites noted above and account for our test subject’s (ok, my test subject because I’m sure not sharing him, not even for science!) qualitative viewing experience: the plains of Africa, a medieval battlefield, and the LA Kings slaughtering the St. Louis Blues in game five…

Man reference plane commonalities:
1) Ability to track herd/army/team as an entirety while picking out weak links and anticipating individual/group behaviours
2) Sustained sensory/emotional involvement to maintain motivation towards final kill/win/goal
3) Death (or death of team’s season by elimination) must be risked for brain to warrant such high caliber emotional/attentional involvement/payoff
4) Strong allegiance to specific tribe/king/team through shared history and/or ancestry – loyalty engages emotion and motivates risk taking
5) Auto recall memory for history of success and specific rules of the hunt/battlefield/game help ensure repeat kill/victory/win
6) Short term goals (emotionally and physically) important to overall victory: multiple spearings lead to enough prey to feed tribe, multiple skirmishes/battles lead to overall war victory, multiple goals lead to ‘best out of 7’ and next playoff round

Reality TV face-offThus, the mystery is solved. Men love watching the playoffs because they are men, evolutionarily speaking. We can now apply a similar formula to explain to my horrified man specimen, why, as a woman, I’m helplessly unable to change the channel whenever I ‘accidentally’ click myself into The Real Housewives of Vancouver.