Full text of author and thought leader Ann Herrmann-Nehdi’s talk: One Thing to Know About Your Brain That Will Change Your Life at TEDxTryon conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: One Thing to Know About Your Brain That Will Change Your Life by Ann Herrmann-Nehdi at TEDxTryon
Most of us assume that we’re actually in control of our brains. But I’ve learned that most of the time we’re not; we’re actually on autopilot. Not really taking advantage of all of the great capability that our brains provide us.
But the good news is, we actually can take control. By knowing your brain’s patterns and preferences, you cannot only take control, but you can significantly expand your potential.
I know, because it changed my life, but this is really personal.
It started when I was very young, I used to come home after school and my father would strap electrodes to my head, and this equipment, an EEG electroencephalogram, in order to measure the level of electrical activity in the different parts of my brain.
Why? Well, he was a scientist by training. But he was head of management education at General Electric at the time and was trying to figure out a scientific explanation for creative thinking, in order to see whether or not they could really teach it to GE employees.
And so he started wiring everybody up, neighbors, friends, whoever he actually knew. And as a matter of fact, sometime later, in spite of the fact that I begged him to not do this, he actually even wired up my then boyfriend, now husband, to see what was happening in his brain.
Well, what he learned was important for GE, that you could, in fact, teach creative thinking. But since then, so much more the impact has been tremendous on thousands of people around the world who are actually taking control of their thinking for better results.
SO WHY ARE WE ON AUTOPILOT?
What’s interesting: the brain is actually by design, unbelievably lazy. And, you know, it’s really organized around learning patterns, and then trying to recognize those patterns so that it can be more energy efficient.
And it becomes like a pattern seeking machine, constantly scanning the environment, and this allows us to go on autopilot, which actually can be pretty practical, we can get into some preferred ways of doing things and not have to think too hard.
So for example, once you’ve learned how to write, most of us don’t have to think about which hand we’re going to use, when we’re going to actually write something down.
Or once you’ve learned how to drive, I would suspect that you go on autopilot, right? And maybe you don’t even pay attention to the last five miles or maybe even go whizzing past there, your normal turn for home.
So the downside of patterns is that when things change, which they inevitably do, we can get caught off guard. If by chance, you have to start learning how to use your non-preferred hand, like my son did when he had a weight training accident and had to take a big test. It was unbelievably draining for him to actually learn how to use that; he could do it, but it was draining.
Or even like me, when I have to change keyboards, maybe you’ve experienced this. And I think I’m hitting the delete key. And I realize, oh, in fact, no, it’s not the delete key. And I don’t even know where the delete key is, you can get frustrated.
So one of the best ways to understand patterning is through language. So even when we don’t know something perfectly well, once we studied it enough, we can actually decipher things that may not be perfectly clear.
So see if you can see what this says. “Quit stealing our letters”. Absolutely. Or even if you cover 50% of what you need to read. I bet you could still read it. Let’s see if you can read this. What does that say? “Good times are here”. Yeah, I guess both most of you got that correct; or did you?
No tricks here, right? Okay.
Well, this is what Daniel Kahneman, author and researcher calls the traps of fast thinking. And that is that we leap to conclusion, our brains kind of leap ahead, based on all the patterns and the biases and the preferences and experiences that we’ve had over the course of our lives.
Now, the antidote, which I’m going to recommend you try is slow thinking, which is paying attention to your thinking. What that does is it allows you to really wake up that lazy brain of yours.
The first step for you is Awareness; AWARENESS OF CONTEXT. Why? Context is what the brain looks for first in any situation. It sort of scans the environments for a pattern goes: oh my God, I see it, I got it.
And then those what to do, can make some assumptions about what to do. I don’t know about you, but sometimes assumptions have kind of led me astray.
I was in Vietnam with my husband visiting a major city. We were walking down the street and got hit with a torrential rainstorm. So I go running into a store to get something to protect myself and buy a Ponchos, right? All of us have bought Ponchos before. So I didn’t think this was a very complicated decision.
And as soon as I came out, my husband took one look at me and said, what’s with the window? And I was like, I didn’t even recognize that there was a window there in the first place.
And of course, I assumed that it was about my body, which of course it wasn’t, right? And so we didn’t really know what this window could be for until we decided to look up and look out and get out of our context.
And what we saw on the streets around us was hundreds of motorbikes with many people wearing Ponchos, I mean, you took a closer look at the punchy, you saw that the window was actually designed for the motorbike. Not for me, the motorbike for the light to shine through.
SO WHAT DO YOU DO TO BREAK OUT OF THESE PATTERNS?
Well, one of my favorite tools is something I call a mind hack. You’re basically hacking your brain’s autopilot. And it’s really useful to kind of get mentally unstuck or shift your perspective.
And so a great mind hack for this is something called assumption reversal. So my assumption was, it had something to do with my body. If you reverse that, and you say this window has nothing to do with my body, suddenly, it opens up your brain to think of new perspectives. So you can always use a mind hack to shift your thinking.
Now, the second step is to recognize what your preferred patterns might be. Now, a lot of people assume since I grew up with a researcher studying this stuff, I sort of instantly got it.
But it wasn’t until I was a young adult, working with other people that I started to really understand the implications of his research. I had volunteered for a community project, the fund-raising project, and had assembled a team and so we had an accountant. I had a retired drill sergeant, a school counselor and myself at the time an entrepreneur.
And we got together into one of those team meetings and most of us have experienced that. And by the end of the meeting, I thought, oh my god, what have I signed up for? Have you ever been on a team that feels like this? It’s sort of you feel like, everybody together annoys me.
Well, what was happening is that the accountant was completely focused on the numbers. Not a big surprise. He wanted to know what the payoff was going to be.
Meanwhile, the retired drill sergeant kept saying, well, no point in talking about the numbers when we don’t have a plan, what’s our process?
And our school counselor said, look, I know all these people we could be calling, why don’t we just call them? and I was there with all sorts of possibilities and new ideas and kind of like a fire hydrant of lots of possibilities. And so it was really tough and I thought to myself, gosh, what am I going to do?
I went home that night and said, Oh my God, of course, this is a perfect application of that research that my father was doing years ago. He discovered that, in fact, we actually have access to our whole brain, not the simplified left brain, right brain. And we have access to all different kinds of patterns, but we develop definitely preferences for some patterns over others.
So what I was seeing with this group is that we had the accountant completely focused on the payoff. We had the drill sergeant all about process. We had our counselor wanting to talk about people. And of course, I was there talking about the possibilities.
And my challenge was to get us all out of autopilot because we were just looking at the world through our own personal lens.
And so I had to stretch my thinking and bring the group together. And it’s interesting because the payoff was really worth it. In fact, we were able to double the amount of money that we expected to make. And in the process, we actually bonded as a group, which kind of surprised me.
Now, since then our research has shown that you can get up to 66% more effectiveness when you bring together different thinking.
BUT WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU DON’T HAVE A TEAM AVAILABLE TO YOU? So here’s a mind hack that you can use that’s really very simple, that thousands of people around the globe use every day. And it’s simply four questions you ask yourself when you’re faced with the big challenge, or a problem, or even something that is a big decision.
“Ask yourself what is really important to get into the payoff mode. Ask yourself, how am I going to do it to get into the process mode? Ask yourself who needs to be involved to get into the people mode? And then ask yourself what if this or that happened to get into the possibilities mode?”
But you know you don’t really have to do this by yourself, because we have a lot of different people around us. Why maybe even at home?
How many of you have a family member spouse or somebody like that, who is really a different thinker than you are? Let’s see. All right. So our research shows that opposites attract, and then we have to deal with the differences every day. Right?
And sometimes that shows up in interesting ways. So if you were to look at this little example, a person saying, I love you, and the other person says, do you have evidence to support that statement?
So this can be irritating, but we have a choice. Every morning at breakfast, you have an opportunity to invite that different perspective into your world and to embrace it.
So I encourage you to look for those opportunities with family. Now families are also really good at pointing out what we’re not so good at, you ever notice that?
Our blind spots, we all have our blind spots, I certainly have my own, being I’m not really a process and detail person. So yeah, I’ve missed a few deadlines in my time.
But what I’ve had to learn to do is to build in that blind spot into whatever it is I’m doing. And working with a large global company IHG, they decided to do this with their project management training. They had project managers who really struggled to kind of keep their eye on the big picture and think about all the possibilities.
And they knew from our research that drawing something actually helps open up that part of your brain. So they started their training by having them each draw something.
And at first, they felt really uncomfortable and kind of silly drawing and then they got used to it. And they saw how easily that shifted their thinking.
Or maybe a group of engineers I worked with, who were so into the technical aspects of their work that we completely forget the customer that they were building the product for.
And so what they did was they decided that every meeting they had, they would have to share a story about one of their customers. And just preparing for that before the meeting would shift their thinking.
One of my favorites is a college student I know who was really having a hard time getting their papers in on time. So he actually went out and found an app, that was really fun. And he would use it to actually get organized and started getting his stuff in on time and his grades improved.
Or a local business that really wanted to be for profit, but was not making any money. And they realized that they didn’t have a voice at the table to actually talk about the bottom line. And so they brought in a part time person in their meetings to make sure that they were focusing on the finances of the business and they actually saw their business improved.
It’s really up to you. On average, Americans spend 444 minutes a day; that’s 7.4 hours looking at screens. That’s TVs, devices, laptops, etc, that’s 3.7 months of your year in screen sub time.
It’s interesting because as you look at that, chances are I would suspect that some of that is on autopilot. Have any of you ever experienced that going online and then you look at your watch, and two, three hours have gone by, have you’ve experienced that? And you’re not taking advantage of this incredible system, you might miss something really important, like this little silly cartoon shows.
It’s up to you. It’s really up to you. You can take control of your brain. Be aware especially of the context that you’re in, recognize your patterns and your preferences, invite different perspectives to the table.
Manage your blind spots by building them in, be intentional about where your thinking time goes, choose to wake up that lazy brain of yours.
You know, in life, we can either kind of sit in the backseat of the car and kind of ride along on autopilot. Or we can move to the front seat, take the steering wheel and take control of this incredibly precious resource that we have.
So the one thing you need to know about your brain is for best results, use daily, you’ve got a whole brain, leverage it. Thank you.
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