You are a lot smarter than you think you are: clear these misconceptions

This article was first published on LinkedIn on 11 January 2016.

All human beings in the world have a brain — at least a physical one. Understanding the organ has a significant impact on our productivity, happiness and well-being. Here are a few of the misconceptions that prevent us from using the brain to its potential.

Myth 1: Stress is not healthy for your brain.

Fact: A moderate amount of stress is the perfect recipe for optimal brain performance. See the diagram below.

Moderate stress results from your goals being stretch assignments (stretching you mentally or physically or both). It is when stress starts getting chronic or goals start feeling impossible to achieve that stress gets bad for health.

Myth 2: Our brains are born with a fixed intelligence and that is our destiny. We are either smart or not.

Fact: The human brain is one of the most flexible organs in the body. While there is no denying that we are born with some personality attributes and natural strengths, other factors like social and cultural conditioning, positive reinforcement, association, life experiences and healthy practices like meditation have a far greater role in what your brain — and you — turn out to be. Leadership, management, public speaking are skills that as learnable as walking and talking. What’s important is your desire to succeed in a particular area: with the right desire, anything is achievable.

Myth 3: It is important to sleep 8 hours each day to get adequate rest.

Fact: Age is just a number — and so is the number of hours of sleep. What’s more important is whether the sleep is peaceful or disturbed. A peaceful sleep isn’t one in which you see sweet dreams of conquering earth or winning a million dollar lottery, but one that starts with shallow sleep, followed by alternate cycles of slow wave and REM — Rapid Eye Movement sleep(deep sleep). Most of peaceful sleep occurs during the slow wave state. One test of adequate sleep is when you wake up naturally experiencing an internal feeling of being relaxed and rejuvenated.

You cannot control these sleep cycles or the number of hours of sleep consciously, but following simple practices will help you sleep better.

(A bit of trivia on sleep: The human body clock runs on 24 hrs and 11 minute cycle, not a 24 hour cycle. Left undisturbed, a human being will get up 15 minutes later everyday than the immediate previous day.)

Myth 4: The purpose of sleep is to provide rest to your brain.

Fact: It is only the conscious part of your brain that rests during sleep. Your sub-conscious part is more active and works harder during sleep than during its wakeful state. Sleep is the time for the sub-conscious to consolidate memories of tasks undertaken during your wakeful state and associate them with pre-existing ones: this leads to a long-term memory formation. Additionally, if you go to bed positively thinking about a problem, the sub-conscious will integrate facts, memories and experiences stored in your brain to generate altogether radical solutions to the problems — hence the term “sleep on a problem”.

If you are serious about complex problem solving and strengthen your memory development, make your brain work smart by giving it a daily sleep session (Not a 48-hour once a week sleep) in a peaceful setting.

Myth 5: The human brain can multi-task like a super-computer: Many people assume that the human brain has all the parallel processing capabilities of a super computer — this is a major justification cited for multi-tasking.

Fact: The human brain is far more advanced than any super-computer, and yes indeed it can multi-task better than any super-computer. Right now, you are breathing, blood is circulating within your body and all your vital organs are working under the watchful eye of your brain even as you are reading this article. But here is the catch: except for reading the article, ALL other tasks listed earlier are being executed by the sub-conscious part of your brain. See the brain image on how Multitasking destroys productivity

You can productively do just ONE task consciously.

Myth 6: The brain craves rewards- reward is more important than work.

Fact: Dopamine is neurotransmitter chemical that is a part of the individual reward circuit of the brain — when released, it gives a pleasurable feeling to a human being. Activities like enjoying great food, exciting games, engaging learning and recognition due to success in a field results in the release of dopamine. (Recreational drugs also release dopamine. Nicotine releases dopamine within 10 seconds of a puff. (Smoking and recreational drugs are so addictive because a human brain will do anything to experience a pleasure).

However, here is the catch, while the final reward does give some pleasure, real dopamine is released in the brain while performing the actual work in anticipation of the reward — the confidence and the positive expectation from undertaking fulfilling work is much more dopamine-friendly than the actual reward itself.

Success is indeed a journey, rather than a destination.

Myth 7: The brain naturally views others as competitors: the cut-throat competition in the corporate world is natural.

Fact: Oxytocin — another neurotransmitter in the brain — is the messenger of trust, bonding and empathy. In professional setups, building bonds with colleagues with shared values creates a trustworthy environment, reduces feelings of unhealthy competition and increases collaboration and partnership because of the release of oxytocin naturally. It all starts with making an effort to view our colleagues as partners in our success than as competitors who will rob us of our success.

The pleasure of personal success is enhanced manifold by building such trust and by helping others succeed.

Myth 8: The brain is a logical computer and emotions are an after-thought: it in inappropriate to display emotions in public

Fact: The truly logical device in the world is a computer but it isn’t alive. The blend of emotions and rationale is the true differentiator of a human brain and what separates it — and you — from computers. There is no task that doesn’t need a combination of emotions and rationale. Display of genuine emotions — including the perceived negative ones like frustration, doubt, insecurity — is what makes you human and increases your relatability to colleagues.

True leaders wear their emotions on their sleeve.

Myth 9: The human brain needs as much energy as its size

Fact: The brain is just 2% of the body weight but consumes nearly 25% of the energy — it a energy-hungry organ. Be sure to consume your leafy vegetables, avocados, berries, protein rich food and nuts to provide it the energy to power your life and dispel other future myths. And that will keep your smiling all your life as you reach your potential. While on smile, here is another fun myth.

Myth 10: Your smile is totally in your conscious control

Fact: See image on the left from Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes Error”. The smile that shows up naturally on your face when you listen to a lovely joke is completely different from the one that you put on when someone “says Cheese”. In the former case, the natural smile is executed using the anterior cingulate cortex (in the sub conscious part of the brain that is outside conscious control). When you try to smile consciously for a snap, you are trying to control this using your zygomaticus muscle controlled by the conscious part of your brain — it can never be the same as a natural smile. This is the same as trying to control your breathing consciously: possible, yet cannot as perfect. (If your bodies were designed to survive only if you breathed consciously, you wont survive beyond a few minutes).

For the genuine smile, recall a joke or a really pleasing incident and voila: you have that perfect shot. And what’s more pleasing that knowing that you are a lot smarter than you thought you were. Smile please.

Smiling? Not yet? Please drop a note in the comments box so that I can understand your perspective.

Raja Jamalamadaka is a thought-leader in the field of organization effectiveness and neurosciences and is a coach to senior industry executives. He is a technology veteran, mentors founders of startups and sits on the boards of several startups in India and US. You can read some earlier articles here:

How to stay relevant in a dynamic job market

How to sustain professional success

Don’t stand on your Oxygen pipe

How to be Happy in Life