The human brain is the most complex living structure in the universe, so aren’t we lucky that each and every one of us owns one! What we need to be able to do is understand how our brains work in order to make the most of what we have got.


Neuroscientists recently discovered that our brains have neuroplasticity which means our brains can change and keep on changing. So it is up to us to make our brain change for the better and to keep it as healthy as possible to help us in pursuit of excellence.


A concept that science no longer supports is that we are either right or left-brain thinkers as neuroscientists have discovered that we have integrated brains ie both sides of our brains are used most of the time on a variety of tasks. The only instances where there are unused regions of the brain are those in which brain damage or disease has destroyed certain regions. Science writer Carl Zimmer explained in an article for Discover magazine: “The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship. The left hemisphere specializes in picking out the sounds that form words and working out the syntax of the words, for example, but it does not have a monopoly on language processing. The right hemisphere is actually more sensitive to the emotional features of language, tuning in to the slow rhythms of speech that carry intonation and stress.”


In one study by researchers at the University of Utah, 1,000 participants had their brains analyzed in order to determine if they preferred using one side over the other. The study revealed that while activity was sometimes higher in certain regions, both sides of the brain were essentially equal in their activity on average.


It is interesting to note that over a 24-hour period, 100% of our brains have been put to work to a varying amount of degrees. If the myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains were true, people who suffer brain damage as the result of an accident or stroke would probably not notice any real effect. In reality, there isn’t a single area of the brain that can be damaged without resulting in some sort of consequence. Also our brains use 20% of the body’s energy, which is a huge proportion of our energy intake.


Another little known fact that I find fascinating is that our brains work 20% more during sleep than when we are awake. A lot of the brain’s activity takes place in the subconscious mind and also during sleep. So what do our brains work on whilst we are asleep?


The importance of sleep


Most importantly during sleep our brains get rid of the toxic poisons that we create when we are awake and active such as cortisol, which is known as our stress hormone. Cortisol can be quite debilitating if we have too much of it over long periods. In work there are many occasions when our cortisol levels may increase such as being asked to justify our actions or working with difficult colleagues or simply being left out of a meeting or not been asked to lunch with the rest of the team and we start wondering why.


It is extremely important to get between 6 and 8 hours sleep so your brain can keep itself clean and healthy. Therefore if you decide to stay up late cramming for those tests and exams or watching a late night film and therefore being deprived of enough sleep it means that your brain is operating with toxins floating around which are poisons that prevent you from thinking clearly. Similarly you may have an important meeting to take minutes at in the morning and unless you get enough sleep you will not be able to operate at your full intellectual capacity, which is often needed whilst taking minutes or organising complex meetings and events etc.


Too little sleep over too long a time can be associated with headaches, depression, diabetes and even to the extent of dying earlier! Sleep does more than allow your brain to wash away toxins as it is also an important part of the memory and learning process.


During sleep your brain tidies up ideas and concepts that you are thinking about or have been learning. It erases the less important parts of memories and simultaneously strengthens areas that you need or want to remember. During sleep your brain rehearses some of the information you are trying to learn, going over and over neural pathways to strengthen and deepen them. Sleep also makes a difference in your ability to figure out difficult problems and understand what you are trying to learn so your brain is working for you even during sleep.


If you go over what you are learning just before you sleep and set your mind to dream about it, you have an increased chance of dreaming about it and learning whilst asleep. Dreaming about what you are studying can substantially enhance your ability to understand and it consolidates your memory into easier-to-grasp chunks.


Babies need around 16 hours sleep a day and adults need 6-8 hours for brain optimisation. Due to the way we work today and due to everything getting more complicated and faster, sleep deprivation is quite common. Every day there seems to be twice as much work and half as much time to complete it in and people are depriving themselves of sleep in order to get everything done either by working late or going in early, or both. This is detrimental to your health and brain maximisation as is not taking breaks during working hours as your brain needs to rest.

One great way to rest your brain during the day is to develop a 10-minute mindfulness meditation habit. The best way I found to get started with meditation is to use an app called Headspace – which is free for 10 days – for 10 minutes a day and you are guided through every step.


Sometimes it can appear that a sleep-deprived person can in fact deliver the exact same results as someone who isn’t sleep deprived but the difference is, the person who is sleep deprived can lose focus at any time. If we are not sleep deprived and we start to lose focus our brain can compensate for that and increase attention and shift your focus back. If we are sleep deprived, our brain cannot refocus.


Sleep-deprived workers may not know they are impaired or notice the decrease in their performance. The periods of apparently normal functioning could give a false sense of competency when, in fact, the brain’s inconsistency could be responsible for them making critical mistakes.


Sleep is needed for the regeneration of neurons and for forming new memories and generating new synaptic connections. After periods of extended reduced sleep neurons may begin to malfunction, visibly affecting a person’s behaviour.

The temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex is associated with the processing of language. During verbal learning tests on people who are fully rested, fMRI scans show that the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex is very active. However, when people are sleep deprived there is no activity in the temporal lobe resulting in the inability to speak properly eg a monotone voice, speaking slowly, slurred speech, stuttering and not being able to find the right words. However, even severely sleep deprived people are still able to perform to some degree on a verbal learning test because the parietal lobe that is not active in well-rested people during verbal learning tests, compensates slightly for the absence of the temporal lobe and starts to work instead of it. However, it doesn’t do as good a job because it is not as adept at this role but it is amazing how our brain will try and compensate for us.

The 5 stages of our sleep cycle

Stage 1 – is the lightest stage of sleep, the transition phase, where you feel yourself drifting off. If you were to forget about the alarm clock and allow yourself to wake up naturally, Stage 1 sleep would be the last stage before you fully wake up. You don’t spend too much time in Stage 1 sleep, typically five to 10 minutes, just enough to allow your body to slow down and your muscles to relax. If you have to be woken up by an alarm clock then really you haven’t had all the sleep you need and should endeavour to go to bed earlier.


Stage 2 – is the second stage of sleep and is still considered light sleep. Your brain activity starts to slow down, as well as your heart rate and breathing. Your body temperature falls a little and you’re beginning to reach a state of total relaxation in preparation for the deeper sleep to come.


Stage 3 – is the start of deep sleep. During stage 3, your brain waves are slow, although there may still be short bursts of faster brain activity. If you were to get awakened suddenly during this stage, you would be groggy and confused, and find it difficult to focus at first. This stage can last from 5-15 minutes.


Stage 4 – This is the stage when you experience your deepest sleep of the night. Your brain only shows slow wave activity, and it’s difficult to wake someone up when they’re in Stage 4 sleep. The first stage 4 sleep in the 90-minute cycle is usually about an hour and lasts around 5-15 minutes in the rest of the night cycles. This is the time when the body does most of its repair work and regeneration.


Stage 5 – This is the stage of sleep when you dream. It is also referred to as REM (Rapid Eye Movement or “active sleep”. During REM sleep, your blood flow, breathing and brain activity increase. Your brain is about as active as it is when you’re awake. Also it is useful to know that during stage 5 the muscles in your arms and legs will go through periods of paralysis. Scientists speculate that this may be nature’s way of protecting us from acting out our dreams. Sometimes people have woken up in this state for whatever reason and found that they can’t move and feel like they are still asleep but awake at the same time, they sometimes feel like someone is sitting on their legs. If this ever happens to you all you need to do is wiggle your toes and you will come out of it.


The first period of REM sleep of the night usually begins about 90 minutes after you start drifting off, and lasts for about 10 minutes. As the night passes, the periods of REM sleep become longer, with the final episode lasting an hour or so.


Babies may spend as much as half of the time they’re asleep in the REM phase. For a healthy adult, Stage 5 occurs for about 20 to 25% of the time you are sleeping, and decreases with age.

REM sleep stimulates areas of the brain used for learning and memory. When a person is taught a new skill their performance does not improve until they receive a good night’s sleep, 6-8 hours. One thing we should remember is that without enough sleep our brains deteriorate.

The constant changing of synapse connections in your brain proves that you are not the same person after a night’s sleep or even after a nap. It’s as if you went to sleep with one brain and woke up with a new one!


Naps improve your brain’s day-to-day performance

The prefrontal cortex regenerates during the first stage of sleep, giving a person the ability to feel somewhat refreshed even if it’s only a short 10-minute nap but a nap should be no longer than 30 mins maximum.


Studies also show that 10 minute power naps improve memory. In one study there were two groups – all participants memorized illustrated cards and then had a 40-minute break. One group napped and the other stayed awake. After the break both groups were tested on their memory and the group who had napped performed better retaining on average 85% of the cards, compared to 60% for those who had remained awake.


Neuroscientists have found that the hippocampus in our limbic system is responsible for the first recording we make of our short-term or working memory, which can easily be forgotten especially if the brain is asked to memorize more things. Sleeping and even taking a nap pushes memories into the neo-cortex where the brain stores more permanent memories preventing them from being overwritten and forgotten in the hippocampus.


2 Sleep more and be less sensitive to negative emotions

Sleep helps our bodies to recover from the day and repair themselves, and helps our brains to focus and be more productive – it’s also important for our happiness.


Sleep affects our positivity because negative stimuli are processed by the amygdala (which needs to stay more alert for our survival as it is our threat response mechanism); positive or neutral memories are processed by the hippocampus and sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. So lack of sleep results in people being able to recall negative emotions but failing to recall pleasant memories.


Of course, how well and how long you sleep will affect how you feel when you wake up, which can make a difference to your whole day.

How sleep affects moods

With insufficient sleep during the night, many people become agitated or moody the following day. Yet, when limited sleep becomes a chronic issue, studies have shown it can lead to long-term mood disorders such as depression or anxiety.


The benefits of sleep are extensive and can make a difference to your quality of life and of those around you whether at home or work. Therefore, it is vital to place a priority on getting plenty of consistent sleep so you wake up in a good mood with boosted optimism and positivity, and ready to make a difference – and, ultimately, live a longer life.


Remember you need to manage your energy as well as your time. For a good nights sleep you could develop a ritual before bed and you should completely disengage the last activity of the day from the rest of your day by for example reading a fictional novel and enter a different world and mind set and then be ready for a great night’s rejuvenating sleep. Also making yourself tired through a hard day’s work mentally and physically will help make you sleep well.


It is not good for you to keep using a snooze button in the morning – a much better idea is to set your alarm a little later than you normally would, (as your time must allow it if you consistently hit the snooze button every morning). In this way you will be able to make sure your sleep cycle is not interrupted and you will get a better sleep.

Working/short-term and long-term memory

When I look back at my childhood and night school and think of learning French and Spanish I am drawing on portions of my brain involved in long-term memory but when I am trying to hold a few ideas in mind to connect them together so I can understand a concept or solve a problem I am using my working or short-term memory. Sometimes I need to bring things from my long-term memory into working memory so I can think about it.


We need to keep repeating information so that it stays in our short-term memory like for example, a phone number until we have a chance to write it down or input it into our long-term memory. Repetition is needed so that your natural dissipating processes do not take your memories away. You may find yourself shutting your eyes to keep anything else intruding into the limited slots of your working memory while you concentrate.


When you are working on something new you are using your working memory to handle it. If you want to move the information to long-term memory it often takes time and practice. Long-term memory is like a warehouse: different kinds of long-term memories are stored in different areas of the brain. For example if you went for a walk in the countryside, you might remember the weather, the people you were walking with and possibly what you talked about. You may have had a delicious ice cream and can remember the taste as it was so good after your long, hot walk. The information making up this memory would be stored in many parts of your brain – in the areas dealing with sensations of temperature, taste, face recognition and language.


The long-term memory storage has room for billions of items and there can be so many items that they bury each other so it can be difficult for you to find the information.



Spaced repetition

To help with the process of learning and to move short-term memories into long-term memory, you can use a technique called “spaced repetition”. This technique involves repeating what you are trying to retain over a number of days rather than repeating 20 times in one day. When you first put information into long-term memory, you need to revisit it, practice and repeat it at least a few times to be able to find it later and it has been proven that spacing this out over a number of days will help you retain the information.


When you take tests or are working on a project and want to remember things don’t get frazzled if you can’t remember – go on to the next part and leave your subconscious brain looking for the answer and it will pop into your mind later and you can go back to deal with it.


What you need to do to maximize your brain for excellence is to use self-directed neuroplasticity by building self-awareness, which is the foundation for success in every area of life. You need to make sure you constantly and rigorously observe yourself so that you notice (as a detached observer of yourself) what you are thinking and feeling and what that means to you in any given moment. This is crucial because you can only make new and more constructive choices when you are conscious of the ones you are making now.

Just as putting short-term memory into long-term memory requires repetition, rewiring the way you think and act also requires repetition to create better ways of working, living and sleeping.

Sue France FCIPD/INLPTA is passionate about the development of all Assistants, having been one for over 30 years. She has owned her own training company since 2009 working in over 36 countries with thousands of assistants, both face-to-face and virtually ... (Read More)

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