Seattle-based Brain Rules for Work author John Medina helps organisations understand what neuroscience and evolutionary biology tell us about power, productivity and what he calls “the afternoon sleepies”.
05:30 I’m a lark so I get up at about 5:30 and go at it. A chronotype is simply: when are you best cognitively? Larks are morning people who like to go to bed at 9:30pm. Owls – late chronotypes – would not go to bed until 3am if they could. Their best cognition is between about 9pm and midnight. We think you’re born with it.
06:00 I have a to-do list that I rarely don’t accomplish. I have seven active projects so I make sure tasks are small enough that I have a sense of pushing the ball forward throughout the day. Project one is political: what does power do to the brain that screws so many people up? It’s horrible. Almost immediately you lose the ability to read emotional information. Given enough power for a longer period, you lose the ability to empathise then to understand the consequences of your actions. “Self-perceived mating value” increases; a politician thinks they’re sexually hotter than they are! Research literature shows it helps to warn officials, particularly folks starting out. It’s called “prophylactic education”.
07:30 Legal and mental health consulting. I break every 90 minutes, based on Nathaniel Kleitman’s basic rest-activity cycle. If a subject’s intense, I’ll break every 45 minutes.
09:00 Architecture project. If you were to build the emergency room of the future, you’d have a door that says Staff Only and staff who open it are launched into a Japanese garden with a waterfall and plants. The brain starts responding to that positivity in as little as 200 milliseconds. What the Brits call “green exercise” changes error rates and productivity. The Japanese call it “forest bathing”. When switching between projects, I look at something strongly visual – infographics or graphic novels – as a cognitive palate cleanser.
10:30 Hopefully I’m a nice guy but for education projects I’m regularly called in to scold. Why aren’t the cognitive neurosciences at the table of how we design education systems? It’s not like you can teach a pancreas calculus! Child development projects sometimes slam into the legal system: what do the cognitive neurosciences say about how you can aid those first five years of life, given they produce a trajectory a kid usually can’t quickly off-ramp from? No priority comes close to making sure a child feels safe. My heart breaks for kids in refugee camps. We’ll be paying for geopolitical screw-ups for years.
12:00 I take a brisk, three-mile [close to five kilometres] walk. I’m overweight but you don’t need to be in shape to get the cognitive benefits of exercise. Research literature demonstrates you need 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. Lunch is also evidence-based – a Mediterranean diet.
13:00 “Glittering caves” time. I survey 20 or 30 journals a week. Because my thing is the molecular biology of psychiatric disorders, I have to be versant in behavioural work, anxiety and depression.
14:00 Coffee nap. Being an early chronotype, I don’t need a morning coffee but I do get the afternoon sleepies. I drink a cup right before a 20- to 25-minute nap because it takes that time to metabolise the caffeine in a way that you actually get the burst. You schedule the nap 12 hours past the midpoint of your previous night’s sleep. So if you went to bed at midnight and got up at six, the midpoint is 3am; wind it out 12 hours and at 15:00, you take a nap. If the body’s prone, the brain will relax. I get up and can go until 9pm, easy. [See box, right.]
14:30 I’m consulting with Microsoft on how to ease the transition back to the office. The big one is: be patient. Social skills are skills, potentiated when practised and capable of eroding when neglected. Even extroverts can use a break from social interaction after about three hours.
16:00 Email, planning. When researchers ask 80-year-olds about what they remember most, they reminisce about things from when they were aged 15 to 29. Nobody knows why but between those ages – and not at other ages – your brain gives you a big fat dopamine lollipop. So if I get stuck at the end of the day on a paragraph I can’t write or data I can’t make sense of, I’ll read some Tolkien or go on eBay to look at toys I once had and suddenly I’m thinking: I could try this! I use a “reminiscence bump” like a shoehorn.
18:00 I’ve been married for 41 years. Brain Rules got started after I saw a headline – “Modern brain science can teach you to tell how someone will vote” – in a magazine. Peer-reviewed literature is the only information I allow into my practice and I get so sick of the mythologies: “You use only 10 per cent of your brain”; “There’s a right-brain and a left-brain personality”. These are mythologies! I threw that magazine down. My wife said, “You can throw magazines. Or you could tell people what we do know and don’t from data that’s randomised, blinded and repeated on a regular basis in non-competing laboratories.” I’m the luckiest man on earth.
22:30 Sleep is not necessarily energy-restorative. [Harvard professor] Robert Stickgold found that during sleep, you replay the things you experienced that day. So if you have a problem, you can capture that your brain is more rhythmically active at night. I draw the problem and look at it as I fall asleep. And by golly, when I wake up and start drawing again, mostly I’ve had an insight.
On the clock
John Medina says an afternoon “coffee nap” will not keep most people awake into the wee hours, providing they limit their overall caffeine intake. He adds the immediate rush many of us experience on our first sip is “almost entirely psychological”. The aromas signal to us an amphetamine hit is coming; the physiological kick-in won’t happen for 20 to 26 minutes. “The coffee nap is a thing that’s actually been measured,” says the molecular biologist, “and it works like a son of a gun.”