Normally around here I tend to focus my energies and strategies by writing about helping children at as young an age as possible to understand and manage their learning differences. But countless thousands of individuals with dyslexia were never diagnosed or accommodated in their younger years. That includes middle schoolers, high schoolers, college age students and adults. What can be done for them? For the rest of us?
Your Brain at Work, a book by David Rock, offers many helpful strategies for optimizing brain function that translate well for dyslexics. It features a creative approach: it is written as a play, featuring a husband and wife as they traverse their workday. Each scene plays out twice, once sub-optimally, and secondly with optimal brain principles at work. In addition, the brain is represented as a stage on which the performance of life takes place. There is a director for this play, and we learn how important a strong directorial presence is in “overcoming distraction, regaining focus, and working smarter all day long.”
This book highlights the fact that tiny changes in how we approach our work (and our struggles to do so) can make a huge difference in life. And although this book is not specifically written for people with dyslexia, it contains many useful brain management strategies for all of us, including dyslexics. These strategies certainly won’t make dyslexia go away, but every single thing we can do to free up bandwidth in the brain will help.
The first scene of the play features Emily starting her day as many of us do: checking email. Within minutes, she gets embroiled in all the attention-hungry scenarios of that world and becomes so depleted that she cannot prioritize her day. The re-take features Emily embracing the fact that her attention and focus are finite resources, and taking charge of how she wants to use them. In a word, prioritizing first. The compound effect of that “mundane, unsexy, unexciting, and sometimes difficult daily discipline” changes her life. Prioritize first, then do the most important task, before you get sucked into the email/Facebook/Instagram vortex. Rock adds, “Learning to say no to tasks that are not among your priorities is difficult but very helpful.”
One of our biggest brain drains is staying constantly plugged in to texting and email and social media. We see this in scene three, which explores the science of “dual-task interference,” aka multitasking. Interestingly, in a University of London study, researchers measured the reduction in mental capacity caused by constant texting and emailing: astonishingly they found that it caused an average drop in IQ points of up to 15 percent! That’s three times higher than the effect of smoking cannabis! (Not suggesting that either!) How ironic that what so many of us think of as productivity tools can actually—if not carefully used with good judgement—make us into a virtual stoner. Hardly the place from which to do our most productive work.
In this section of the book, the author introduces us to the term allostatic load, which is a measure of stress hormones and other factors relating to a sense of threat. Too much of an allostatic load leads to a “constant and intense mental exhaustion.” And too much texting and emailing greatly increases our allostatic load.
I invite those of you with dyslexia, which requires so much additional effort to get things done, to ask yourselves, “Do I really need one more reason to feel constant and intense mental exhaustion?” If not, how about unplugging on a regular basis? In connection with this, Rock observes, “The surprise result of always being on is not only its negative effect on mental performance, but it also tends to increase the total number of emails you get. People notice you respond to issues quickly, so they send you more issues to respond to.”
Now we get to the intermission of the play and meet the director. The director makes sure the show is a success by constantly monitoring the performances, doing re-writes when called for, and staying true to the message. The neuroscientist’s definition of our director is mindfulness. Rock quotes scientist Daniel Siegel, “With the acquisition of a stabilized and refined focus on the mind itself, previously undifferentiated pathways of firing become detectable and then accessible to modification. In this way we can use the focus of the mind to change the function and ultimately the structure of the brain.” In other words, we can learn to make choices about where we direct our attention.
Here’s the thing: by understanding your brain, you increase your capacity to notice your experience, whether it’s the high dopamine level of a novel experience, the small attention bandwidth of your stage, or the fatigue of struggling to read or write. We can’t change what we can’t see, and we need the big-picture perspective of our internal director to intervene when necessary and help us make tiny shifts that lead to big gains in productivity.
How? Practice, practice, practice noticing your own experiences. Rock emphasizes the importance of minimizing unmet expectations, since these generate a stronger threat response. He states, “with any brain function, the important thing is firstly to minimize threat. Only once you have minimized threat can you focus on increasing possible rewards.” Threat, a.k.a. emotional arousal, is a constant in a dyslexic’s life: we always feel pressed for time and wonder if we’ll be able to meet deadlines and other expectations with our current bandwidth. What tool can we use for this scenario?
Enter reappraisal. Reappraisal is the term for emotional regulation that we can access as we choose how to interpret a life event. Something happens, and we instantly jump into fight or flight, worst-case-scenario land. Our brain goes down the rabbit hole of, “Oh, no! I’m struggling (or failing) again! I can’t ever do anything right! This is so unfair—it sucks!” OR, we can allow our director to notice that we are feeling fear, but then change our interpretation of that emotion. Maybe we just need a break from that task. Maybe we didn’t rest well last night. Maybe our blood sugar is low. Maybe we didn’t prioritize that morning, and so have let unnecessary tasks gobble up our bandwidth. None of these is terminal. We just need to re-set, respond appropriately, and move forward. Rock cites the scientific definition of reappraisal: it’s the switch from a limbic dominance (that panicky, reactionary, powerless victim-mode part of the brain) to our highest self that lives in our prefrontal cortex, the part that says, “Ok, this is hard, but what do I need to do next?” Rock calls reappraisal the killer app for our well-being and performance.
What if this skill were taught in school right alongside the basics? What if every parent could model it for their kids? Methinks a lot would change.
In short, I found a lot of useful tips in this book that helped me re-think some things I experience, and hopefully these notes will help you or the dyslexic in your life do the same.
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