November Neuroscience Round-Up for Mindful Leaders
By The Mindful Leader Team
How many projects should you work on at once for maximum productivity? This month’s Round-Up has the answer (it’s five), as well as the science behind achieving a mindfulness ‘high’, how breathing affects the brain, promising new treatments for changing epigenetic expression in teen trauma survivors, and even a new theory of consciousness. We have summarized the main ideas and key takeaways below with links to the full articles.
Your Brain Absolutely Can't Handle More Than 5 Projects at Once, New Science Shows
Productivity is the name of the game these days, but how many projects can we work on at once without sacrificing performance? New research suggests five. In an investigation spanning multiple years, researchers collected data from over 9,000 employees at a global manufacturing firm. When they analyzed the findings, they found a bell curve relationship between multi-project work and work performance. In other words, focusing on too few projects prevents you from reaching maximum performance, but so does juggling too many — the sweet spot? Five projects.
- Working on multiple projects at once can help employees develop efficient work practices and reduce idle time. Taking on too many projects, though, overwhelms the brain’s cognitive resources and can negatively impact performance.
- For maximum efficiency and productivity, try to work on five projects at once. If you have to take on more than that, the following tips can help you keep your brain from getting overwhelmed:
- Specialize – it’s easier to work on multiple tasks for something you’re knowledgeable about.
- Make the projects similar – the same solution can often be repeated over and over.
- Work with the same people – this can help you avoid social and emotional exhaustion.
Mindfulness training provides a natural high, study finds
A recent study published in Sciences Advances has found that mindfulness meditation practice can help people safely reach a brain state of self-transcendence and bliss, similar to that experienced during a psychedelic-induced ‘high’. It’s not just for pleasure, though – achieving this altered state of consciousness changes the brain in ways that work to effectively reduce one’s addictive behaviors. In this study, long-term opioid users were treated with either supportive psychotherapy or mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement (MORE) for eight weeks with the MORE treatment significantly reducing opioid misuse after 9-months follow up.
- Mindfulness practice increases theta waves in the brain, and these changes are associated with a state of self-transcendence characterized by a sense of oneness with the universe and intense feelings of love.
- The MORE mindfulness-based therapy reduced opioid misuse by 45%, which is double the effect of standard therapy approaches.
Scientists Have Developed a New Explanation for Consciousness
Consciousness, the subjective sense of oneself and one’s environment and surroundings, is difficult to explain and even harder to understand, but a team of Massachusetts researchers have a new theory that attempts to do just that. Developed together among a professor of neurology, a psychologist, and a philosopher, this new theory proposes consciousness as a memory system. They argue that consciousness originally developed as part of our episodic memory system. They believe it’s what allowed our unconscious brains to flexibly and creatively rearrange memories of past events to imagine the future and plan accordingly. If this is true, it means that a lot of our actions are made unconsciously, and we only think they’re being made consciously around a half second later.
- This new theory of consciousness indicates that most of our actions, including our thoughts, are not really under our conscious control. This could explain why we might have trouble sticking to a diet or stopping the never-ending stream of thoughts that keep us from falling asleep at night.
- Notably, this theory is compatible with many phenomena of consciousness not well explained by other theories, like the slow speed and after-the-fact order of consciousness.
- Under this theory, neurologic, developmental, and psychiatric disorders like Alzheimer’s, migraines, and schizophrenia can be understood as disorders of consciousness, although more research is needed in this area.
How Does Breathing Affect Your Brain?
Scientists are uncovering more and more about how breathing affects the brain and body. Back in the 1980s, neuroscientist Jack L. Feldman and his team located the region in the brain that sends signals to the muscles controlling our breathing, an area now called the preBötzinger complex (preBötC). Since then, he’s continued to explore just how the neurons in the preBötC control and regulate the breathing pattern, but there’s more and more evidence to suggest that breathing is also highly linked with emotion, cognition, and other behaviors like language. In one study, inhalation (as opposed to exhalation) resulted in faster identification of fearful faces and in another, inhalation was associated with better performance during a cognitive task. Importantly, many studies reported that the positive effects on performance were only elicited by nose breathing and not mouth breathing.
- Growing evidence suggests breathing may help set and regulate brain wave oscillations. Respiration rhythm seems to synchronize activity in brain regions involved in memory and emotion, and unsurprisingly, can affect performance on memory- and emotion-related tasks.
- There’s also evidence breathing may synchronize brain activity across different regions.
- While meditation is well-documented in its ability to reduce stress, improve cognitive performance, and even alter brain connectivity in older individuals, it’s still unclear the exact role breathing plays in this, isolated from other factors.
1-week group treatment program brings significant mental health benefits associated with epigenetic changes in teens with history of trauma
In a recent study, scientists found a way to significantly reduce trauma-related mental health issues, improve attention and awareness, and most importantly, trigger positive epigenetic changes (slight modifications to DNA that regulate which genes are turned on/off) in female teens with a history of childhood trauma. The key to their success was a weeklong group therapy program combining mindfulness, creative expression, and reprocessing of traumatic events. Specifically, the epigenetic changes were in genes associated with childhood trauma, including vulnerability to stress, neurotransmission, and inflammatory responses and behavior. This finding suggests a potential way to interrupt generational cycles of suffering, as it’s often these very epigenetic changes that get passed on to children of trauma survivors.
- The one-week treatment program involving mindfulness, artistic expression, and group therapy led to positive mental health benefits, which were associated with DNA methylation changes involved in gene regulation.
- While these initial findings are extremely promising, further research is needed to explore the longer-term impacts of the program, as well as how added group or individual support may enhance the positive benefits of a one-time intervention.