The way the human brain works has interested to me ever since high school. It’s a fascinating topic, still linked to many mysteries and whose study will undoubtedly create astounding insights.
What seemed back then simply an intellectual interest has become much more than that. We’re living in the age of information that exposes us to more and more data, news and 140 characters blocks, instantly accessible through the internet. Knowing how the human brain works is important to navigate our world and our time, to make good decisions or at least to avoid common mistakes.
More than that, most high paying jobs today are about conveying and processing knowledge, aptly named “knowledge work”. Marketing, management, software development, engineering, journalism, television, radio, writing, public speaking, movie making are all different types and to a different extent knowledge work. While they involve technical skills like foreign languages or programming languages, communication through sound, video or text, these become secondary to the abilities to process, filter, clarify and organize knowledge.
How To Improve
Therefore, a core question appears in the mind of anyone who wants to reach high paying jobs:
How can I learn to process knowledge better?
I’ve asked this question since high school, more than 20 years ago. I’ve tested different theories, and one has worked best for me. But let me start by discussing the alternate theory, one that’s so widespread that I hear it everywhere I go.
The Flawed Theory of Focus
It goes like this:
Flawed theory of focus: I want to do X, therefore I should do only X-related things and nothing else.
Replace X with whatever you prefer, and see if you believe the result. For parents, it can be “my child is good at maths and so he should only do maths”. For programmers it could be “I’m doing programming so should only read programming materials”. For many people it could be “I’m busy doing X so I won’t learn how to cook”. Or, I hear it lately as “my child shouldn’t learn how to write by hand since she’ll never use it in the future”.
This theory has an obvious flaw. It assumes that the parts of the brain that work for maths have absolutely no connection with the parts of the brain that work for reading, writing, painting, listening to music, gardening or cooking. Once you understand the basics of how the brain works, this flaw is obvious.
The ‘One Brain’ Theory
Here’s how I see it instead:
You only have one brain, and its most important asset are its inner connections.
Every time you do something new, the brain struggles to build new connections. Once built, these connections become easier to use, and they can become available in other contexts. The connections you keep using become stronger and easier to use, thus building your knowledge processing capacity.
Therefore, whatever you are doing has the potential to affect whatever else you want to do. Learning to cook can have the paradoxical effect of making you a better programmer. Writing by hand could help you navigate abstract concepts better. Washing dishes from an early age can improve your capacity to come up with smart solutions to problems.
Does this mean you shouldn’t study maths and cook instead? No, not at all. Of course you need to focus on a subject to master it. What it really means is that you should balance focused work with chores, art, reading, writing, sports, social activities etc. It means that you should consider any activity as a potential way to improve your knowledge processing skills, so useful for any type of knowledge work.
Theory that worked for me: balance focused work with as many other types of work you can fit in your schedule
Applying this theory leads to a few challenges.
First, it’s very difficult to predict what activity will help you with a specific problem or with your work in general. The effect will likely be invisible, that is you won’t be able to connect one thing that helps you in your work with one activity. We can hope that research will show results in this area, but I don’t expect much. The brain is a complex system; adding a connection or enforcing an existing connection to a system of 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections can have very unexpected effects.
Therefore, the best we can do is to try new activities or challenge our old ways of doing certain activities (have you tried washing dishes while staying on one leg? writing blindfolded? cooking without tasting, only by looking and smelling?) with the hope they will create useful insights for present or future challenges.
Second, your brain will fight you when you want to challenge it. The reason is simple: the brain consumes up to 20% of the total energy your body consumes, for an organ that accounts for 2% of your body mass. Therefore, your brain is lazy, which is another word for “tries to cut energy consumption”. Trying new things is hard at first, until the first connections are created, and it gets easier with time. If you plan to try new things all the time, you will have to put up a fight.
I cannot predict that this will happen to you, but my experience has been that trying new things gets easier with time. My assumption (completely unverified) is that once you build enough connections, the brain starts reusing some of those for other things.
Your capacity to process knowledge is given by the connections from the brain. You create and enforce connections by doing various and complex activities that involve all types of skills and all senses.
You only have one brain that is trained through impulses from the outside world. Balancing between focused work or deliberate practice and doing new activities or making usual activities more challenging is what helps grow your knowledge-processing capacity.
It’s up to you to bring your brain to its full potential.
Thanks Thomas Sundberg and Samir Talwar for feedback.