Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Book Summary: Your Brain at Work – Part 1

By David Rock

HarperCollins Publishers

(The summary is mine based on excerpts, the graphics are not from the book).

Making decisions and solving problems relies heavily on a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the last major region of the brain to develop during human evolution and occupies a mere 4% to 5% of the total volume of the brain. The prefrontal cortex holds the contents of our minds at any one point; this is where we hold thoughts that are not being generated from external sources or from our sense organs.


Five functions make up the majority of conscious thought, namely:

1. understanding – holding thoughts / concepts in attention long enough to see how they connect to other thoughts and concepts

2. decision – where we hold two concepts / thoughts in our attention, compare them to one another and make a value judgment or choice between them

3. recollection – calling to attention thoughts / concepts from long term memory

4. memorization – to hold a thought / concept in attention long enough for it to get lodged in the long term memory

5. inhibiting – keeping certain thoughts / concepts from intruding into ones attention


Conscious mental activity involving a combination of one or more of the above 5 is extremely resource intensive and consumes metabolic resources at very high rates. This places limitations on the use of the prefrontal cortex – it is energy intensive and hence subject to fatigue. Prioritizing the use of this ‘thought engine’ is therefore very important. However, ‘prioritizing’ itself is a very resource intensive use of the prefrontal cortex because it involves imagining and moving around concepts of which we have no direct experience – since it deals with mental activities to be done at some point in the future. Also prioritizing makes use all the above 5 brain functions – understanding new ideas – tasks and projects, making decisions, recollecting, memorizing and inhibiting all at once! Prioritizing work in a knowledge economy involving conceptual projects can be very mentally taxing.

A few suggestions to making this more efficient and less taxing;

1. Using visuals: The visual cortex is activated when we see actual pictures or use metaphors or stories – generate a picture in the mind’s eye. Visuals are rich in information and yet relatively easier for our brains to manipulate

2. Writing: Getting some key concepts / information out of our heads and on to paper

3. Delegation

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