What’s it about?

Despite all the scientific breakthroughs made in recent decades, we still don’t fully understand the human brain. However, we have discovered some important neuroscientific facts. Backed by research, helpful examples, and exercises, Activate Your Brain (2015) shows you how you can use this knowledge to make the best use of your brain and live a more fulfilled and mindful life.

About the author

Scott G. Halford is an Emmy award-winning producer, author, and speaker on topics such as achievement psychology, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking. He was inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame in 2014 and his previous books include Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success and Senseless Acts of Beauty.

The brains of humans and apes have only minor variations, but these differences are significant:

Ninety percent of everything we know about the human brain has come in the last 20 years, yet we’re still a long way from fully comprehending it. But one thing we do know is that human brains aren’t all that dissimilar from those of our closest animal relatives, chimps.

Our brain is organized into three main sections, each with its own set of functions, two of which are identical to ape brains.

The reptilian brain is the initial section. This part controls the body activities we don’t have control over, such as breathing and sweating.

The mammalian brain, on the other hand, is continually scanning our environment for danger or reward. It’s also our brain’s emotional center, dealing with emotions and memories.

The third section, which humans share with apes, is what distinguishes us. The prefrontal cortex, or the human brain, is seen here. The prefrontal cortex handles the reason, analysis, and management of emotions arising from other sections of the brain.

Imagine the mammalian brain as a kindergarten, where everyone is free to do whatever they want. The turmoil is brought under control, and order is restored when the preschool teacher – the human brain – walks in.

Our animal and human brains must communicate well with one another, or we will continue to be victims of our impulses. Say your boss is disrespectful to you, and you feel compelled to slap him in the face — this is the mammalian brain’s knee-jerk emotional response.

If you take a moment to think about it, hitting your employer would not only be a career setback, but it may also result in a lawsuit. So you decide to relax. This is your prefrontal cortex performing its job and stopping you from acting impulsively.

Chemistry has an impact on our emotions, but we also affect our chemicals:

Even the most basic tasks might feel like insurmountable challenges, such as showering or walking the dog. It’s all down to the chemistry in your brain.

Brain chemicals regulate our mood, and our brain needs precisely the correct amount of them to function correctly. Furthermore, the chemical cocktail required can fluctuate regularly, such as when we receive terrible news or have a stormy night’s sleep.

We also require particular brain chemicals to assist us in scanning the environment for potential threats and reacting appropriately.

When we are threatened, for example, our brain releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. While both have helped people survive throughout evolution by improving their focus, they can be damaging when daily pressures overwhelm you, causing diabetes, cancer, and immune system inadequacies.

Then there’s dopamine, which makes us feel good; norepinephrine, which makes us want to accomplish something; and oxytocin, which makes us trust and bond with others.

Fortunately, we have some control over the chemical composition of our bodies and thus our emotions. In most situations, we react in one of two ways: we approach or avoid.

Take, for example, your job. Are you a person who enjoys going to work? Or do you drag yourself there grudgingly to escape being homeless?

The good news is that you can change your attention to a more positive one and fool your brain in the process. When you look at the bright side of things, your brain produces fewer stress hormones and more rewarding hormones, which will inspire you and help you achieve your goals.

Let’s say someone decides to go on a diet to reduce weight. If they view the diet as a form of deprivation – no more chocolate – they are less likely to succeed than someone who identifies the diet with a healthy, attractive body, opting for approach over avoidance.

Being in control makes us happier:

Many things in life come with no promise of success, whether a marriage or a desire to relocate to another nation. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is not the solution. Expecting or waiting for everything to be perfect might undermine your self-confidence and make you feel insecure.

All of these things have to do with control, or rather, the lack thereof. Fortunately, there are strategies to bolster your sense of control and boost your self-assurance. Begin by altering your mindset.

According to scientists, people are either internally focused, feeling they are in control of their fate and able to change things, or externally oriented, believing they are helpless and blaming others for what occurs to them.

To keep your focus on yourself, think about what you can do to create changes and attain your objectives.

Let’s say your firm posts a job that you’d love to undertake, but an MBA is necessary, and you don’t have one. Instead of condemning the firm, you may discuss some viable alternatives with the HR manager.

Another method to reclaim control, particularly if you’re frightened of failing, is to plan for everything that might go wrong.

So, if you’re worried about what might go wrong during a presentation – for example, if your file won’t open or if you forget a crucial part of your speech — mentally practice how you’d manage each scenario. This can help you show to yourself that you’re capable of handling even the worst-case scenarios, as well as enhance your self-assurance.

Being in command also makes you feel fantastic. When you’re confident in your ability to handle a situation, your brain releases dopamine instead of stress hormones, which lifts your mood.

Willpower, attention, and reasonable goals are required to achieve your objectives:

When was the last time you had a strong desire for something and received it? A bit of willpower was likely involved. Will is critical to success, and it has been proved that those with solid willpower achieve tremendous success.

In the 1970s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted research that demonstrated this. Mischel locked several kids in a room and warned them not to eat a marshmallow that had been placed in front of them.

Successful people are also known for their ability to focus and control distractions.

Contrary to popular opinion, our brain is not designed for multitasking: it can only focus on one activity at a time. As a result, when we “multitask,” we’re switching back and forth between different tasks, which not only raises the risk of making a mistake but also wastes time.

As if that weren’t terrible enough, a 4.5-second interruption triples the number of errors made in the activity at hand, and one hour of well-focused time is equivalent to four hours of distracted time.

Once you’ve established your resolve and attention, it’s time to learn how to set specific goals.

People do better when they are observed, according to a study. All the more reason to tell your pals about your objectives!

Second, don’t create long-term goals that are too lofty. Break down your big ambitions into tiny portions since immediate gains are significantly more motivating. Set a goal of losing ten pounds in four weeks if you want to lose 60 pounds in six months. When you reach it, your brain releases dopamine, which encourages you to keep going.

Our brain controls who we trust and bond with, but we still have a say: 

Do you like people-watching at airports and cafes? Do you enjoy snooping around the office?

You’re not alone; we’re hardwired to be interested in others. But what about building trust and developing relationships?

Let’s look at how our brain decides who we should trust and bond with.

Every time we engage with another human being, our brain changes a little bit and reshapes. This is most likely why the number of people with whom you can maintain a steady social relationship is restricted, usually about 150.

When we meet someone for the first time, our brain produces a dangerous response, making us nervous and eager to make the greatest possible impression. This threat reflex fades as we get to know the other person better, and our oxytocin levels rise. When people trust and emotionally connect, oxytocin is released.

But what variables contribute to our ability to trust and bond with others? Reliability, kindness, humor, and shared memories are all values that we hold dear.

All it takes is more frequent thanking, high-fiving, or hugging – if appropriate! According to one study, basketball teams that offer more high-fives and back slaps perform better. As a result, oxytocin is produced, which presumably promotes team trust.

Another successful strategy for increasing trust is the active-constructive response. This entails expressing positive interest in what others have to say and providing helpful feedback.

If a colleague informs you they’ve secured a big client, for example, don’t just reply “Great!” and then point out how much effort this will entail. Instead, say something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s fantastic news!” I know you’ve been debating it for a long time. It’s great to know it’s paid off!”

Collaboration is the key to success, and it’s a lot easier than you might believe:

Several studies have demonstrated that when we’re alongside others, we’re smarter. On each particular topic, teams provide better results than anyone expert. We should endeavor to work with others more.

On the other hand, working with people should not be a chore because it not only boosts our productivity but also brings us delight.

We feel more joy and happiness when we achieve a goal with others than when we reach it alone, and this is because our oxytocin levels rise when we are with others. Joy is multiplied when it is shared.

According to several research, coactive working — working on independent projects in the same office while sharing information – boosts pleasure and productivity. On the other hand, the most satisfactory outcomes come from interactive work, in which individuals collaborate to reach a common goal.

So, how can we improve and expand our collaboration?

Solicit feedback from your coworkers as soon as you begin working on a proposal. Not only will you benefit much from their advice, but you will also strengthen your relationships’ trust and intimacy. Why? Because when people ask for aid, we find them to be more pleasant and trustworthy. When you ask for assistance from others, you will appear more reliable and friendly to them.

Keep in mind that collaboration does not imply complete agreement. It is to be expected that people will hold opposing viewpoints. Just remember to discuss ideas respectfully and don’t think yours is the best! We all have various approaches to challenges, and by discussing ideas, you may find the best combination of solutions for each scenario.

Finally, remember to use constructive criticism to critique ideas rather than people and provide specific, actionable suggestions.

There are several strategies to increase your brain health, and most of them also improve your overall health:

Do you enjoy solving cryptic crossword puzzles or doing sudoku puzzles? Great – these activities aid in the reshaping and growth of your brain, lowering your risk of dementia.

This type of cerebral exercise is excellent, but what about physical activity? We all know that physical activity is beneficial to our overall health, but did you realize that it also benefits the health of our brain?

Exercise releases a substance called a brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which aids in the growth of our brains, increases the quality of synapses, and repairs damaged cells. When we participate in mental activity, the same thing happens.

If you exercise often, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the satisfying sensation you get after a good workout. This is because your brain is releasing hormones that help you feel less anxious and more confident.

But what if you despise sports? Begin small. It makes a difference even if you get off the train one station early on your way home.

You must also eat and drink enough of the right foods to maintain a healthy brain.

Your mental health and productivity are dependent on your brain’s energy levels, which require glucose, oxygen, fat, and micronutrients to function correctly. Feelings of exhaustion and bewilderment can result from a lack of these items.

After that, you must consume water. Water makes up 75% of our brains, and dehydration causes our gray matter to slow down. That means you’ll need to drink plenty of water every day if you want to think quickly and stay focused.

Finally, choose natural foods over processed foods. You can also choose foods that are beneficial to the brain. Berries can help with memory; apples can help synapses link better; cocoa can help prevent stroke, and nuts and seeds can help reduce cognitive decline.

Rest and sleep help your brain work better and prevent it from stress’s detrimental effects:

Do you ever feel like you can’t get away from your daily stresses? Now is the moment to gain a grip on them. Many brain illnesses, depression, and dementia are linked to chronic stress.

Fortunately, there are techniques to reduce stress and maintain your brain in good shape. Sleep is one of the simplest methods. We process the information from the day and store the pertinent pieces in our memory when we sleep. Getting enough sleep also enhances our cognition and emotions, making learning and creativity easier.

On the other hand, sleep deprivation causes our brain to become overloaded with the stress hormone cortisol, causing memory issues and a reduction in our ability to learn.

Resting and “mental wandering” during the day and sleep are beneficial to the brain.

By getting enough rest, you can slow down the deterioration of your mental health. Awake rest is essential for your brain since it allows you to relax without accomplishing anything constructive. These pauses are necessary for your brain to work correctly, and they help you be more productive, so don’t feel bad if you spend a whole day reading or walking your dog!

Another reason to relax is that when we’re preoccupied, our subconscious mind works on our problems in the background. Our subconscious mind is an excellent problem solver. That’s why we frequently have brilliant ideas in the shower.

So, whenever you’re attempting to wrestle a problem to the ground, put it down, go for a walk around the block, and return to it later.