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Brain Insights: you don't know what you want for dinner, do you drink gin or take a walk?

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Brain Insights: you don't know what you want for dinner, do you drink gin or take a walk?

Brain Insights cognitive load and ego depletion

Wife: "What do you want for dinner?" 

Husband: I don't mind you choose.

Wife: "Do you fancy a curry?"

Husband: "Up to you, I don't mind."

Wife: "Would you prefer Chinese?"

Husband: "I don't mind."

Wife: "Fine."

An hour later, they are sitting down to eat fish and chips.

Wife: "You're picking at the fish, are you not enjoying it?"

Husband: "It's fine; I just really fancied a curry."

Wife: Takes husband's fish and chips and throws them in the bin.

What brings us to freeze when trying to make a decision or solve a problem? There are two things: cognitive load and ego depletion. Being more aware of the forces squeezing your brain juices will allow you to become more productive and happier. Find out how.


Brain Insights: David's story

I was trying to produce a brochure for our new Insight Space. We were in COVID-19 lockdown, and my nine-year-old daughter is asking for help with her maths. My wife is managing a COVID-19 project producing data for the government, which puts heavy demands on her time, and I am supporting her by keeping the flow of tea, coffee and toast going. So, there I am, in front of my computer trying to design a brochure. Two hours later, and I had laboured to produce something that I convinced myself was good enough. I sent it to Julie. Julie promptly let me know that it didn't fit our brand. She was right. 

I can't tell you the level of frustration I was feeling. I'm creative, but I couldn't solve the problem. It was as if my brain was frozen, and I found myself getting more and more frustrated - I'm also stubborn when faced with a challenge; like a dog with a bone, I can't let it go. Then, my amazing wife asked me that fateful question, "what do you fancy for lunch?". Lunch! Arghh!

Luckily, I'm old enough and wise enough to understand what I'm experiencing. I proposed going out for a one-hour Good Walk. I didn't speak for the first ten minutes. Fifteen minutes of idle chatter later, and my brain began to defrost. After three-quarters-of-an-hour, my mind had solved the challenge of the brochure. I got home, had some lunch and produced my best work. 

Ten years ago, I would have stayed in front of my computer and driven myself and my family crazy while I battled to solve the challenge, all the while failing to recognise that my mind was the blocker. I would have wasted hours acting like a bear with a sore head. My mood would transfer to my wife, and we would both need a glass of gin to take the edge off. The gin would unfreeze my brain. Then, just as I was relaxing and getting ready for bed, my mind would light up, and I would send myself into a frenzy writing ideas down. Can you guess what happens next? I can't sleep. Either that or I wake up in the night needing to get things out of my head. The next day, I'm tired. I'm sure you can see that this is anything but a good cycle of behaviour.


Brain Insights: The Three Forces of Cognitive Load

The trigger for me stepping away from a task and taking a Good Walk is a feeling of brain-freeze coupled with an irritation that sits deep in my bones, usually my arms. What's causing this feeling is cognitive overload. 

Three forces place a load on your cognitive processing ability. Imagine taking a gentle stroll around your house and compare that to having to complete a marathon every day for five days. In the former, the load is light and doesn't require much preparation or fuelling; the latter places an excessive burden on your body, which requires months of physical and mental training. These two examples represent the problem-solving or decision-making extremes we face almost every day. 

Brain Insights: Cognitive Load & Ego Depletion
Brain Insights: Cognitive Load & Ego Depletion

The first force squeezing your brain is the problem load (intrinsic load). Imagine your brain to be a sponge filled with brain juice, where the juice is the fuel needed for your brain to function. Easy problems hardly cause any pressure; barely a drop of water escapes the sponge. However, more complex or novel issues increase demand, forcing more juice out of your sponge. How long before your brain juice runs dry?

Tip: reduce the problem load by simplifying it, break it down into bite-sized chunks.

The second force draining your brain juices is a building load (germane load). If I asked you to solve a routine work challenge, you would find it easy because you have already built a mental model for tackling the problem. You access your pre-fabricated model, check that it fits, and away you go. Easy. However, when facing a novel challenge, you have to build a mental model from the ground up, and that takes energy.

Tip: reduce the building load by hooking into past experiences and adapting or re-using your learning.

The third force is the noise load (extraneous load). Noise can take different forms, from the way information is structured and presented to you, through to poor communication. The noisy force can include distractions, such as my daughter tapping me on the shoulder to help with maths while I'm trying to design a brochure, and the effort required to dampen down the noise squeezes your brain juices even more. 

Tip: reduce the noise load by asking for clear and accessible information


Brain Insights: That drain you feel is Ego Depletion

Three forces squeezing your brain and draining the juices that keep you going, so what happens when you run low on brain juice? It leaves you weak or depleted. Welcome to the concept of ego depletion.

"[Freud] thought the ego needed to have some form of energy to accomplish its tasks...[He] was fond of the analogy of horse and rider, because as he said the rider [the ego] is generally in charge of steering but is sometimes unable to prevent the horse from going where it wants to go" (Baumeister et al., 1998, p. 1253)

Ego depletion suggests that we all have a limited supply of cognitive energy, and it decreases with sustained high-energy use; the brain doesn't get the opportunity to recharge and, therefore, becomes depleted. 

When you experience ego depletion, you struggle to make decisions or resist temptations. You might have avoided eating chocolate all day because you want to experience a healthy-eating lifestyle. However, ego depletion lowers your resistance, and you succumb to temptation, devouring that bar of chocolate lurking in the far recesses of your cupboard. Your brain acts to protect itself by shutting down until recharged or faced with a threat. 

So, there you are, your brain drained of energy, and your significant other asks, "what do you want for dinner?" Your brain doesn't consider it to be essential and focuses on recharging. To help, it provides an automatic response that deflects the decision: "I don't mind, you choose."


Brain Insights: ditch the gin and take a good walk

Your challenge is to recognise the forces squeezing your brain dry. Then, do yourself a favour, ditch the gin and take a Good Walk. Save the gin as a reward for a job well done.


Insights: be aware of the opportuities created by your limitations

As a leader or manager, you need to be aware of the skills you need to motivate and develop a high-performing team.

To help, we have designed an Insight Space to help discover and develop opportunities in your skillset.

We also show you how to use brain insights to improve engagement, productivity, engagement, wellbeing and creativity as part of our Good Workshops programme. Get in touch if you would like to know more.

Good Life Work Project
Dr David Griffiths & Julie Hayward

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