I’ve always been curious about the mind: Where does it come from? What is it, really? But more important, how can we make it stronger? In Descartes’ Meditations VI, his famous quote cogito, ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am,” implies the existence of a distinct, nonphysical thing, or the mind. He posited a distinction between the mind and the brain, and that each person is an internal res cogitans, or a thinking thing.
Though we still don’t have a solution to the mind–body dualism debate, this relationship compels us to understand the structure and function of the brain so we can infer how the mind works. While this can be useful in analyzing consumer behavior at scale, or user demographics, it can also be used to intentionally design our own mind, not only to increase productivity and efficiency but also to explore all of the possibilities of human capacity and ability.
Evolution of the brain
Many people agree that the brain is the physical correlate of the mind. The triune brain model is one framework for understanding how it’s organized, and this model is composed of three parts: reptilian, paleomammalian, and neomammalian.
The oldest, most primitive layer of the brain is reptilian, which includes structures like the brain stem and cerebellum. They control basic survival behaviors that are usually automatic, such as physical reflexes, breathing, and heart rate.
The second layer is paleomammalian (old mammal), which is comprised of the limbic system, regulates a variety of critical functions for our survival, and is unique to mammals. It includes the hypothalamus and amygdala, and plays a major role in emotion, attachment, and learning.
The third layer is neomammalian (new mammal) and is found in primates. This is the fun part: the organizational system that’s most complex and developed in humans. It contains the cerebral cortex and the four brain lobes—frontal, temporal, parietal, occipital. In humans, it allows for complex sensory, linguistic, motor, and social abilities. It’s also home to our higher cognitive processes, including logic, creativity, language, imagination, and executive control.
These systems are highly dependent on one another—their hierarchy and interplay can give us insight into what makes us tick, think, and behave the way we do.
So this is great and all, but how is it useful?
Insight 1: Evolution “builds” brain structures and systems onto existing ones
A lower brain system that’s functioning properly is a prerequisite for higher systems. More important than each system operating independently is the integration and the interaction among them.
Let’s use an example of sleep. Most of us have had an all-nighter or several consecutive nights without enough sleep. We probably weren’t as delightful during the day—maybe a little cranky, more forgetful, a bit impatient. It can be useful to think of sleep as a performance enhancer. Consistent, quality sleep isn’t just good for your physical health but is also implicated in your ability to think clearly, process information, and connect disparate ideas. A functioning lower (reptilian) system, which modulates your sleep, is necessary for the higher (neomammalian) system to build upon and work.
Applicable to the workplace, studies show that successful, effective leaders tend to have greater integration of neural activity across separate brain regions, meaning they’ve become more adept at using their whole brains in an orchestrated manner. They’ve developed wide neural networks, strengthening the communication pathways among the regions. Behaviorally, this may show up as an ability to connect and inspire people to believe in a greater goal and pursue actions that align. Or it may show up as having an ability to motivate people to do their best work. Neurologically, it’s only after having strengthened the individual brain regions and systems that you have a foundation for generating connections among them, resulting in greater neural harmony.
Practical application 1: Design your habits of the mind through intentional routines
Practicing and strengthening your routines through a process called habituation will lead to behavioral plateau, mastery, and expertise. Eventually you’ll perform these things automatically, without having to think and without having to use valuable neural energy. Once fully automated, your routines won’t interfere with, and are optimized for, your capacity for performance, memory, and mood. With energy freed up, you’ll have more energy to focus on other things: learning, creating, playing, imagining, innovating.
Insight 2: Humans are not rational decision makers
Empathy and emotional awareness are key not only for functioning as a healthy individual but also for making smart decisions.
The standard economic theory assumes that consumers and decision makers will act as rational beings—that economic decisions are removed from emotion. From behavioral economics, we know this theory to be false. Humans do not make rational decisions; they make irrational ones, influenced by invisible forces such as cognitive bias and emotion.
And there’s neural support for this. If the limbic system is malfunctioning (in other words, not managing emotions properly), it actually overrides the higher cortical systems, inhibiting functions such as planning, logic, decision-making, reasoning, and creativity.
Furthermore, studies in neuroeconomics have shown that when economic decisions are being made, neural activity actually occurs both in the limbic system, such as the insula and amygdala, to process potential costs and rewards, and in the prefrontal cortex, which acts as the decider, evaluating the cost–benefit information provided by the limbic system. The brain systems for emotion are indeed active and engaged when making economic decisions. We need emotional awareness to think rationally and make sound judgments.
Practical application 2: Design the connections of your mind through human relationships
Constantly build, stretch, and refine your emotional muscles across a broad spectrum. One way is through the relations cultivated with others—getting a wide range of perspectives, opinions, personalities, and feedback. Another way is to put yourself in a variety of environments and situations. They should make you feel a bit uncomfortable and expose you to novel stimuli, thereby stretching your mind.
Insight 3: Creative ability is what makes humans unique
One of the many functions unique to humans is the ability to imagine and create, which is neurologically validated through our understanding of the brain structures.
For example, the brain structures and systems that are most complex in humans (or that exist only in humans) evolved to have extensive bidirectional connections to almost all other regions of the brain. They essentially manage, moderate, or are implicated in every activity. It’s fascinating that most of these signals are inhibitory—controlling one’s impulses and delaying gratification are two of the greatest human abilities.
Regarding creativity, you can’t innovate on command. As much as we’d like, we can’t control when (or even if) we’ll have a true eureka moment. The neural correlates of creativity stem from the default mode network (DMN), a system that allows ways of thinking that are more fluid and nonlinear. It’s worth noting that this “mind wandering” mode and the systems that are most active when engaged in overt tasks—the “central executive” mode—are mutually exclusive. When one is on, the other is off.
This means that to create, you need time—no distractions, no objectives—to simply ponder, to decide whether to take a leap and try to do something you’ve always been afraid of, to be immersed in your own thoughts and all of the possibilities, to see and seize opportunities.
Practical application 3: Design constraints that expand the possibilities of your mind
Be intentional and design constraints in your life that maximize the possibilities of the unknown—the element of randomness. Once you understand some of the building blocks of the mind, you can experiment and play with them to design a framework for functioning and flourishing. It could be a matter of figuring out what the inhibitory signals in your life should be. It could be the type of stimuli you’re exposing your mind to. It could also be identifying which skills/areas to develop expertise in, to free up cognitive energy.
Many of the most creative people we know—such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, John Lennon, Vera Wang, Steve Jobs—were able to successfully cultivate their ideas because they had the time and space to do so. They had already built, refined, and operated within their own organizing systems—constraints of some sort—which freed their mind to wander.
By better understanding the structure and inner mechanisms of the brain, we can become better informed about the habits, connections, and constraints of the mind. Hopefully, these insights will spark ideas for how to design the building blocks of your most powerful asset—and, by extension, create space for fostering relations that matter, move in nonlinear ways, and achieve your full potential.