Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ask Two Questions

I'm enjoying emails from folks who attended the Lend Me Your Brain workshop yesterday. Many thanks to UMass Med School Disability Evaluation Service for setting that up!

One of the topics we address in the workshop is the business of Asking Two Questions. And that kind of ongoing personal inquiry is possible to the extent that our executive functions are well-developed and trained.

The prefrontal cortex is that part of the brain we believe supports the "executive" functions. The capacities to choose, inhibit, weigh consequences, and delay gratification are executive skills that improve with neurological maturity and are fully on-line in our early to mid-20s.

The executive functions distinguish an 18-year old from a 10-year old. Good executive functioning may also distinguish excellent college freshmen from more average students, and high-functioning middle management staff from their more average coworkers.

Less than 10% of a dog's brain consists of prefrontal cortex. Over a quarter of the human brain, on the other hand, is dedicated to managing these cognitive skills. Essentially, the "older" part of the brain - the part we have in common with most other animals - is responsible for determining "what is." The room is cool, that guy's wearing a red sweater, the cup of coffee is steaming, etc. Mice and turkeys and cats can do the "what is" part pretty well. But humans are uniquely skilled at determining "what might be." And that's the purview of the prefrontal cortex.

That's 25% of your brain dedicated to imagining (creating a mental picture) or self-talk, or otherwise thinking of a reality that has not yet happened. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex works magic. Creates experiences out of pure idea!

So we're walking around with, basically, these two brains. The "what is" part and the "what could be" part. And at our best we're asking ourselves Two Questions.

Those Two Questions are "Am I having fun right now?" and "Is this what I've set out to do"? I'm convinced that each of us is here to do and be and have something pretty specific. And if I'm doing what I'm here to do, experiencing what is mine to experience, I'll be motivated and focused and engaged. And everybody around me will benefit from that, too, just like I benefit from being the people I've known who are truly living On Purpose.

I love it when I'm able to say yes to both those questions. I'm engaged, happy, and aware that I'm doing the very best thing right now.

Often I'm doing something fun or interesting but it's that second question, "Is this what I'm here to do and be and have?" that gets me. There's an episode of "The Office" followed by another episode. And another episode after that. And it's fun to watch that. But at a deeper level I'm fairly sure that watching a lot of TV is not what I'm on the planet to do.

But the toughest answer to the Two Questions is when I'm honestly not having fun (filling out tax forms, waiting in line at the cleaners) but I'd have to say "yes" to the second question ("Is this what I've set out to do?). Because it's important to me to wear clean clothes, and to avoid tax penalties (and avoid jail, and generally be a good citizen!).

If you know anyone with executive deficits (maybe someone with ADD/ADHD or a survivor of brain injury), you might have noticed that this is someone who's much more likely to just ask the first question. "Am I having fun?" is only half the conversation we need to be conducting with ourselves, on an ongoing basis.

Hope you're having fun right now. And hope you're living the life - right now - you're here to live!

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