Personal Growth
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Personal Growth

Your Three Brains and How to Use Them

The technologists continue to tell us that knowledge work will be threatened by algorithms and neural networks. We who do thinking for a living used to feel safe from the threat of automation replacing us. But computer programs are becoming smarter. How do we make sure we outpace their continued growth, and retain the value of our thinking?

Easy: we have three brains we can use!

I’ll bet you’ve been walking around thinking you’ve just got one brain to work with, haven’t you? Well, according to Dr Theo Compernolle, the author of Brain Chains, we actually have 3:

Making the Most of Your Minds

So you have these three brains. They have separate functions, but you can derive great benefits from allowing them to do those functions to serve your purposes. Here are some tips to help you do just that.

Rest your Reflex Brain

Your reflex brain is active nearly all the time. You can’t help that. That’s why it’s called the reflex brain; it has been hard-wired through thousands of years of human existence to act automatically. For the most part, simply having enough sleep so that your reflex brain is not taxed by the barrage of sensory experiences around you should help you to get the most out of it.

Resting also allows the hormones that work in your reflex brain to rebalance, such that you’re not kept in fight-or-flight mode by excess cortisol pumping through your body. That kind of heightened state then steals power from your reflective and archival brains, which is most definitely not good.

Take Frequent Breaks

This is not the same as sleep or rest. Breaks are simply when you’re not engaged in conscious thought — the kind you mostly do with your reflective brain. Your reflective and archival brain share the same processing power (via your frontal lobe). So when you’re engaging in focused thinking and concentration, your archival brain is not getting its chance to do the work of connecting and processing what you’ve taken in.

We often refer to breaks as “down time” — a hold-over from the days of measuring output in manufacturing. But unlike workers on an assembly line, we are still doing valuable work when we’re taking a break. When we take a break our archival brain kicks into gear. It makes connections between things we’ve just taken in and solidified pieces of knowledge in our minds already. It’s the mental processing done here that is most responsible for creativity, innovation, and outside-of-the-box ideas. But it can’t happen without making time to rest from the focused concentration that happens in your reflective brain.

Do Prep Work — A Lot of It

The archival brain is one that takes inputs and does the work of connecting and processing. So you have to enable it to do that by doing prep work; the more, the better. There are a few things you can do to ensure this happens.

Your archival brain is all about making connections and processing stuff. So feed it the informational fuel and context it needs to do that effectively. Prep work is the way to do that. It’s not necessarily focused work — it’s more superficial, or review-like (preview-like, as well). It’s a way to do a bit of focused work, but to tap the archival brain a bit and get it primed to do its important work.

Separate Mercilessly

This concept is probably the most overlooked when it comes to really getting the most out of your three brains. You need to enforce separate time and space for each of them to work at their fullest potential. Much like a bodybuilder or athlete training different muscle groups while others rest, you need to exercise your brains in isolation regularly, to push them for the most benefit.

You simply cannot do focused reflective-brain work with the TV or radio going, and a bunch of visual stimuli buzzing about. You may think you have done it, but just wait until you’ve tucked yourself away in a quiet, secluded space for a period of time to do focused work. You will know and appreciate the difference. Do yourself the favor of taking the time to do it.

Also, when you take the breaks that your archiving mind needs, break of the shackles of focus. That’s right — I’m telling you to carve out physical space and time to not focus. The perfect avenue for that is menial tasks — chores, your commute, a run. So long as you don’t head out with the intention of thinking through something (where your reflective brain is engaged), your archival brain can freely roam and process. Remember, your archival brain shares power with the reflective brain, so be sure to really turn off focus and concentration to get the full benefit of your archival brain doing its important work.


You have 3 brains: the reflexive, the archiving, and reflective. They all do different work, and they all need separate time and space to do that work. Understanding the work they do, and respecting their need for separate time and space is key to being really good at learning and coming up with great ideas.

Did these tips help shed light on the elusive business of thinking effectively? Consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter Woolgathering. It’s one email per week, with great ideas to add value to your life and work.



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Mike Sturm

Creator: — A simpler personal productivity system. Writing about productivity, self-improvement, business, and life.