'Your Brain at Work' (Reseña del libro de Davis Rock)

Imagine the power of consciously harnessing the workings of your mind to improve your thinking, control emotions and better interact with others at work. This is what this book is all about. The book is structured like a story, with two characters facing work challenges in 4 Acts. Act 1 is about the fundamentals of thinking. Acts 2 and 3 build on the model on which the book is based, the SCARF model, the five primary rewards or threats that are important to the brain (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness). The author provides tools to manage them for controlling our emotions, collaborating with others or facilitating change. Act 4 is about facilitating change.

Increasing the elements of the SCARF model is a powerful tool to improve performance. Think about someone who makes you notice what is good about you (raising your status), who is clear with his expectations of you (increasing certainty), who lets you make decisions (increasing autonomy), who connects with you at a personal level (increasing relatedness) and who treats you fairly.

Act 1: Fundamentals of thinking

You were born with the capacity to create internal representations of the outside world in your brain: maps. Conscious thoughts take place in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex and involve 5 basic activities:

• Understanding: creating maps.
• Deciding: activating and choosing maps.
• Memorizing: holding map in attention long enough.
• Recalling: searching a map and bringing it to prefrontal cortex.
• Inhibiting: trying not to activate a map.

Conscious thoughts consume high levels of glucose and oxygen and therefore the brain has a limited capacity to carry them.

Routine activities (those repeated at least 3 times and automatic), on the other hand, are located in the basal ganglia and consume low levels of glucose and oxygen.


Manipulating info

The brain can only hold in mind and manipulate 1 representation of a visual object, 1 new idea, 3 to 4 ideas, 2 variables to make a decision.


Doing taks

You can focus on only 1 conscious task at a time and switching between tasks uses energy. Multi-tasking is however possible with embedded routines.


Avoiding distractions

Maintaining a good focus on a thought occurs not so much how you focus, but rather how you inhibit the wrong things from coming into focus. Half a second before a "voluntary" movement, the brain sends a signal called an action potential. 0.3 seconds before you are aware of it, the brain takes the decision. After this point, there are 0.2 seconds during which you are aware of being about to move, but have not moved yet. It is during this time that you can inhibit the action. Once the action has started, stopping it is very hard.


Reaching peak performance

Peak mental performance requires just the right level of stress, that is, when you have intermediate levels of two important neurotransmitters, adrenaline and dopamine, which relate to alertness and interest. You can consciously manipulate the level of both.


Problem solving

Sometimes you reach an impasse, a connection you want to make but can´t. In these cases, to be more creative requires switching off your linear processes and recombining the maps in your brain in a different way (having an insight, characterized by the lack of logical progression to the solution, but instead a sudden "knowing" regarding the answer).


 Act 2: Staying cool under pressure

Controlling emotions

The brain is much more than a logic-processing machine. Its purpose is to keep you alive. For that, a part of the brain called the limbic system classifies the world around you into things that will either hurt you or help you stay alive and accordingly is constantly making toward  decisions (curiosity, happiness, contentment) or away decisions (anxiety, sadness, fear), driving your behavior, often quite unconsciously. Emotions are automatic responses to dangers or rewards.

When overly aroused, the limbic system impairs your brain functioning: it reduces your ability to understand, decide, memorize, recall or inhibit, makes it harder to think about your thinking, make you more defensive and mistakenly class certain situations as threats. This is why controlling emotions is key.


Managing uncertainty and lack of autonomy

Making predictions is a fundamental brain function and the foundation of intelligence.
This is why a sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control both generate strong limbic system responses.


Managing expectations

Expectations are the experience of the brain paying attention to a possible reward or threat. Expectations alter the data your brain perceives, fitting incoming data into expectations and ignoring data that don´t fit. Expectations active the dopamine circuitry, central for thinking and learning.

Met expectations generate a slight increase in dopamine, exceeded expectations a strong increase but unmet expectations generate a strong threat response.



Act 3: Collaborating with others


The brain automatically classifies people, determining unconsciously whether each person is either friend or foe. People you don´t know tend to be classified as foe until proven otherwise. Being connected to others in a positive way, a sense of relatedness is a basic need for human beings.  This is why you need to work hard at creating connections to create good collaboration.



Fairness is a primary need for the brain. A sense of fairness in and of itself can create a strong reward response, and a sense of unfairness can generate a threat response that lasts for days and impairs your perception and your ability to think.



Status is another primary reward or threat. Status is relative and a sense of reward from an increase in status can come anytime you feel "better than" another person (or your former self when you improve your golf handicap). Status explains why people stay away from any activity there are not confident in, or why people don´t like to be wrong. Many arguments at work and in life have status issues at their core.

A feeling of high status help you process more information with less effort.



Act 4: facilitating change

Changing behavior

Traditional ways of trying to manage change and improve performance do not work:

• Performance reviews and feedback in general creates an intense threat response.
• The problem solving approach focuses on problems and is not effective for finding solutions.
• Providing suggestions may threaten the status of the person receiving them.

The most effective way of getting people back on track is bringing them to their own insight.


Changing culture

Change is hard. But the brain changes all the time. What changes the brain is attention. When you pay close attention, many brain circuits become connected up in a larger circuit to complete a specific task.

All you need to change culture is focus other people´s attention in new ways long enough.



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