It is hard to control the human brain

Sometimes it is hard to keep your brain under control. Because a lot of things are processed more or less automatically without requiring your attention. Which is good and probably even vital to survive.

I became aware of this fact this morning when listening to one of our radio stations here in Germany during breakfast. They have a little game running during which one candidate is asked tricky questions for 30 seconds and all he or she has to do is to respond and avoid three words: “Ja” (“yes”), “nein” (“no”) and “Bonn” ( the former capital of Germany ).

You would think this is easy to achieve. You have to concentrate for just 30 seconds and you have to apply a very simple rule: avoiding those three words. I tell you: most of the candidates fail. Because when asked a question – and of course the questioner knows how to do this the tricky way – those words simply flow into your response automatically and suddenly you lost. The point is you have to communicate in a very different way. Instead of letting your brain fire pre-defined response phrases you have to slow down and review each phrase before your allow your mouth to send it out. It is unbelievable how hard it is to do this, and even you do this your checking might be incomplete and you have escapes.

The rule looks simple at the beginning, but may be is a bit harder. The German word “ja” is part of other words like “jawohl” and often also used as a filler word, thus there are so many opportunities that you use it even you did not want to use it.

People are forced into a very unnatural communication mode to do this checking of phrases before releasing. It is not the way we communicate. If you get a question and you would like to answer “ja!” but then have to find an alternate response it is very hard to generate one, it takes time and the new response somehow will sound weird and artificial.

Reigh's Brain rlwat
"Reigh’s Brain rlwat" by Reigh LeBlanc.

A nice example of how tasks are automated in our brain. Think about how many things you do when driving a car without even realizing. You know how difficult it is when learning how to drive a car: you have to think through every task you perform. The automatic execution of tasks later on is a true indicator that finally you really learned how to drive a car. The stopping of thinking as a true indicator of maturity, experience, skill, professionalism ? Interesting thought.

Does it sometimes happen to you that during a meeting or phone call you say something which a moment later falls into the category of things better not said ? Blame your brain for this ! It has been doing too much in automatic mode instead of consulting your conscious.

While with some discipline you might learn how to control your language it becomes much much harder to control your body language. Not a big point currently in the world of web conferences and phone calls, but in a meeting your brain might generate a lot of messages through your body you actually don’t want to send out. But – why not ? Your brain may be less of a liar than your conscious, those automated responses may make you appear more natural and frank than your artificial responses and finally foster truth, openness and trust. Another interesting thought, don’t you think ?

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The myth about multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is bad, this is my opinion.

Nevertheless, "bild der wissenschaft" published a nice article about multi-tasking titled "The myth of multi-tasking" in May 2008 with some interesting and surprising findings ( and I added a few of my own additions here ):

  • The term multi-tasking comes from computer science and describes how an operating system performs "multi-tasking" by actually switching quickly between tasks to make it look like it would perform these tasks simultaneously.
  • Our brain can sense multiple sources simultaneously but can act only on one task at a time. Thus multi-tasking of a brain works the same way as in a computer operating system: through frequent switching. Switching creates extra effort, that’s why I hold to my opinion: multi-tasking is bad. At the end activities take longer and much non-value-add time had to be invested to simply swap thoughts in and our from active parts of your brain. And this swapping is a source of many errors.
  • When doing multi-tasking the productivity of our brain is decreased by around 40 %.
    "MULTITASKING" by akbar Simonse from Den Haag, The Netherlands
  • It is not scientifically proven that women are better in multi-tasking than men, even 80% of people asked during a survey would think so and some studies seems to indicate this. It is as strenuous for women as it is for men. Keeping multiple items under control like the three kids in the living room, the pot with soup on the stove and the phone call with a friend is simply a matter of training, men could learn that as well. As long as the kids and the pot are fine and don’t require any action the situation is under control, but as soon as the woman or man would have to act on multiple events multi-tasking would be required for the price of reduced productivity and stress. The best example I always like to mention: watch people trying to drive a car and having a phone call at the same time and you know what is meant here.
  • There are people who actually like that frequent switching and short periods of time to focus on one activity. These are typically people who can not focus on one thing for a longer period of time.
  • Companies should try everything to avoid multi-tasking for their work force. This would reduce the rate of errors, stress and the risk of employees to become sick ( of that or because of that ).
  • One hint here: check your e-mails only every two hours.