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Make your lizard brain happier at work

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Why do gloves have 5 fingers? 🧤

Because gloves go on our hand and our hand has five fingers.

Ok, pretty obvious. Just like gloves were designed with the hand in mind, our workplaces should be designed with our brains in mind. After all - it's (theoretically) our brains that are keeping us in our jobs!

Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, used this at the beginning of his amazing book - Brain Rules for Work. His book combines neuroscience and research to highlight the problems around our workplaces. They haven't been set up with our brains in mind. In fact, if you wanted to design an environment that was counterintuitive to how our brains operate, you’d likely design the modern office (or classroom!)

“The brain is shaped to respond with great productivity to certain environments and to other environments, with no productivity at all. If you’re designing a workplace and want to optimize output, you better keep the cognitive shape of the brain in mind.”

It’s like we have three brains in one: our lizard brain, our mammal brain, and the prefrontal cortex. The briefest overview:

  1. Lizard brain - keeps the lights on. Keeps us breathing, our blood pumping, our body moving.

  2. Mammal brain - responsible for the 4F's: feeding, fleeing, fighting, f*cking. Scans our environments for threats and rewards

  3. Prefrontal cortex - we use when we analyse, reflect, innovate, create, think deeply, etc. This is the most recent part of our brain to develop & makes us uniquely human - and is the part of our brain that enables all of those higher order thinking skills.

Let's think about how we can apply what we know about our brains into how we work. Why? Because what's good for our brains is good for our work.

Today, let's focus on our lizard brain. (Stay tuned for the other 2).

What's our 'lizard brain'?

Our lizard brains are responsible for keeping all the lights on. Why can we take a nap and still breathe? Because our lizard brain keeps our bodies going.

You don't have to think about your posture and yet you're sitting upright. (Note - if you just sat up a little bit and fixed your posture, it's because we brought the prefrontal cortex in to consciously think about something your lizard brain unconsciously does).

Our lizard brain was the first part of our brain to develop, hundreds of millions of years ago. It's also supremely uncomfortable with the modern work environment, which drains and exhausts our lizard brains constantly. (Refer back to Dr. Medina's quote above).

Challenges our lizard brain faces at work

We're inside and our lizard brain still thinks we're outside.

For 99.978% of human history, we lived outdoors in nature. 🌞🌴🌱 It's only been the last 1000 years that we've transitioned to a more indoor lifestyle. And it's only really been the last 300 years where most of our work has transitioned indoors. And it's only really really been the last 40 years where most of our socialising has transitioned indoors as well. 👩‍💻‍🤳

While the brain is continuously developing and adapting, it doesn't keep up with pace of societal change. So our brain still thinks and wants to be in nature, but most of us are everywhere but outside.

Our brains are used to much more movement than our current lifestyles.

Our brains developed at a time when we were walking about 12 miles a day 👣 🚶‍♀️- and now we're more sedentary than ever. 💻📺 Our work, connections and relaxation is largely inside and sedentary.

Most of us can have fresh food delivered directly to our doors with a few swipes and clicks of our thumbs. 📲 Pretty wild when we think about it!

But our brains are a muscle like any other - and it needs a LOT of oxygen to fuel it! More movement, more oxygen! More movement and a healthy body contributes to more energy for all of our deep thinking (aka work!). There's definitely something to be said about the healthy body, healthy mind mentality.

But how many of us are guilty for sitting for hours on end at our computers? (Or on our couches?) 🙋 I know I am! If your work is office-based or computer-heavy, you might find that you aren't moving enough - and our lizard brain hates that.

The 'artificialness' of our day-to-day life can overwhelm the lizard brain.

How are you reading this blog? Phone or computer right? That's not part of the natural world.

Artificial lights, being indoors, looking at screens - all of the artificial aspects of our lives threaten our lizard brains on a small, but constant scale. You know it's not great, because prolonged screen use makes our eyesight worse. Zoom fatigue is real, people! And there's a neuroscientific reason for it.

Ways to help our lizard brains at work:

Move throughout the day. And more than you might think you need to. We weren't meant to sit at desks for 8 hours a day. So, don't! Try getting up at least every hour. At least. Need to ponder or brainstorm? 👣 Do it while walking - it's good for you AND better for your thinking!

“One of the greatest predictors of successful ageing, they found, is the presence or absence of a sedentary lifestyle.” -Dr. John Medina

Leave the building, go outside and connect with nature. You know how people say, 'stop and smell the roses?'🌹🏵️ Follow that advice! Whether you go outside and take five deep breaths or walk five blocks, it all helps the lizard brain!

Get more indoor plants! 🌵🌵🌵🌵 Is it really that easy? Apparently yes. Our lizard brains still long to be outside, so bring some of the outside, inside. We like the colours green and blue for this reason too - so use more of these colours where possible!

Take more breaks! Tony Schwartz's research highlights that our maximum focus time is 90 minutes. Maximum. And that's when you're really in the flow. This means, at least every 90 minutes we need to take a break. Take different types of breaks & integrate them into your workday. How to do this? Check out these Tea & Toast notes on breaks!

WFH and online lizard brain tips:

^^ All the above and:

Give yourself a commute. One of the great things about our commute is it helps all three of our brains shift into the necessary focus for work. But now that our commute might be 6-shuffle-steps to your WFH-desk, we've lost this. Whether you walk up and down the street, have a coffee outside, or just walk to your mailbox and back - do something that signals your workday is starting.

Remove your background filters on Zoom / Teams.💻💻This is one of my big pet peeves, and I finally have the evidence to explain why. Being online is already hard because it's unnatural. It's tiring. Please, for the love of all people, turn off your filtered backgrounds. That awful blur background is exhausting for everyone's brain. I understand why people do it - but it's draining and counter-productive!

If you run a company or are a leader, consider how you encourage or support the actions above. For the rest of us, let's continue to build awareness of what our lizard brains need at work and take accountability to implement these actions.


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