January 21, 2018 – Book Review, The Leading Brain

Book Review – The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance by Hans W. Hagemann

Why did that bother me? Why do I let the little things bother me?

Why can’t I control these emotions and  how can I change this to be the person my dog thinks I am?

Gnōthi seauton (Greek for know thyself) One of the most important skill a person can have is knowing themselves. Hagemann’s book really helps you take a look at why you think, do, and act in certain ways.

The book talks about what makes us tick in plain language with just enough science to make it geeky (which I like). He details the biology of the decision process, which is great, but he also gives you the “so what”.

The first part of the book talks about the brains infrastructure and how the infrastructure works. He discusses the roughly 1 trillion nerve cells in your brain. Those nerve cells are called “neurons”, and look like a Rorschach test. Different neurons have different functions, but each looks relatively the same. Although these neurons are tightly packed like a rush hour subway train, they don’t actually touch, or physically connect. Instead, they maintain a distance in between called synapses and chemical messengers called neurotransmitters (more about that) to cross the remaining distance. Each neuron has sending/receiving capabilities. Imagine these neuron’s with their axons and dendrites as a bunch of telephone wires. The big difference is instead of just facilitating conversation, these telephone wires control every action, reaction, and emotion that you experience.

What we do creates pathways or a direct wire. This ability to create pathways allows our action, reaction, and emotions to be flexible. Imagine these pathways like a road – the more its used the more familiar it becomes (think habits). Examples of this are tying your shoes, or brushing your teeth, these activities which have become habits, happen with relative to no thought.

These pathways are controlled by hundreds of neurotransmitters, but of these only three are influencers. These, what the Hagemann calls the “DNA of Peak Performance”, are Dopamine, Noradrenaline, and Acetylcholine. Its worth looking at these for a minute.

Dopamine: The “Fun Chemical”. It is what provides excitement, usually resulting from doing something new. Hagemann points to this importance of novelty when they say: “This explains in part the enthusiasm you may feel when you start a new project and why the thrill isn’t usually as strong after you’ve been working on it for a while”.

Noradrenaline: The “Survival Drug”. Regulates your alertness and attention, and is at an optimal level when you’re slightly over challenged. This is why it is so important to get out of your comfort zone.

Acetylcholine: Our “Focus”. Hagemann points to babies, and how they’re always alert of their surroundings. This is why this period is called the “critical period of neuroplasticity”, since they’re soaking up everything around them. As we get older we can’t keep up with this alertness, and instead this alertness is operated manually. We flip this switch by releasing dopamine, and the specific applications are exercising, making a conscious effort to focus, or when we’re exposed to something new.

The example Hagemann uses is a camera. Noradrenaline points you in the right direction. Dopamine helps you zoom in, and acetylcholine lets you focus until it’s just right.

That’s just a taste.  Highly recommended if you are curious about why you do things and what’s happening under the hood.

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