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>>David Rock: When I'm not talking about the brain, I'm working with senior executives
from many large organizations and many technical people. I find my day job is kind of translating
what might be thought of as soft skills for a technical audience to, to understand how
to optimize processing.
So that's enough about me.
I want to talk about these four surprises.
The rational is overrated; massively overrated.
The emotions, we got emotions backward.
Social issues are primary; literally primary.
And attention actually changes the brain.
We're gonna spent most time on the probably the first and second and a bit, and a bit
on the third.
I'm gonna stop after each and see if you have questions or comments. And if I go too fast,
you can slow me down. If you want me to speed up, it's Google. I can speed up as well. Just
say: "get to the point." We can do whatever you like.
The rational is overrated. What do I mean by that? Let's do, give you a little, a little
When you're trying to hold information in mind; you try and actually hold information,
you're gonna start using your prefrontal cortex, PFC for short. I shorten it so it takes less
space in your PFC.
When you try to hold information in mind which is to understand, decide, recall, memorize,
inhibit; when you try to do that, you've gotta use your prefrontal cortex, which is a very
limited region of the brain.
Those of you who drove to work today, you didn't really use your prefrontal cortex to
drive here. You're using deeper regions that you can use without thinking. Like you can
drive without having to think about where you're going, if you've gone somewhere a lot.
If you're actually consciously thinking, you've got to use your prefrontal cortex. And this
is where the trouble begins.
Let me do a little experiment. What's - just call back, call an answer
out - what's one plus one?
>>Voices in audience: Two.
>>David Rock: No prefrontal cortex, right? No effort.
What's ten plus ten.
>>Voices in audience: Twenty.
>>David Rock: No prefrontal cortex.
What's 56 plus 175?
>>David Rock: Laughter. No one wants to do it.
Okay. Do you get that - like why don't you want to do it? Why don't you wanna do it?
Because you've got to put in a bit of effort. You've gotta actually stop other things you
might be thinking about because when you use this process it becomes a serial process;
you can do one thing at a time.
You've gotta use effort and did you sense like a little bit of like a "Uh, oh. Don't
take me there." Like "I'm not going there?"
It's a subtle threat. The reason it's a subtle threat to have to think, is we evolved at
a time when resources - metabolic resources - were really limited; war and famine; we
lived to 20 at best; and so we're, we're kind of rewarded for minimizing mental resources.
It's very easy, in this country in particular, to make an absolute fortune basically helping
people put in less and less effort into any particular thing. Have you noticed that?
It's really difficult to kind of do the opposite. And in many ways Google exists because it
helps people find things with less effort, as well.
Okay. And you can measure that in milliseconds.
So using this cortex in, when you have to do an addition, we sort, we sort of avoid
it. We go: "I don't really wanna do that." It's a threat response. And that threat response
does something. So we kind of don't do it very much. And this is a bit of a, bit of
Now let me give you the metaphor to understand it.
If the amount of information you can hold in your prefrontal cortex at one time - sometimes
it's called working memory and it has other titles - if the amount of information you
can hold in this region is equivalent to say a cubic foot; a cubic foot, then the amount
of information that the rest of your brain holds is equivalent to about the Milky Way.
So they're kind of different. Do you get that sense? Right.
It's a little, disambiguous to say, but they're really massively different and this explains
a tremendous number of life's experiences. 'Cause what we do is we, we firstly try to
avoid using this region of the brain. We do things that we know how to do well, rather
than doing something differently.
And anything that we do do a few times, we quickly start to embed the pattern so we don't
have to think about it. And essentially when you're tryin' to make someone think, like
tryin' to change a pattern or change a system or install some software or do anything, you're
gonna get this threat response, because people are gonna have to think and we, they're attuned
So it explains a tremendous amount. But this is, this rational resource is what people
put so much kind of credence into. We've really got to be rational and Spock, Spock was all
about really being deeply rational. It turns out that rational is really, really overrated.
And it's overrated in two ways: firstly, what you can do with it; and secondly, it's actually
not how we solve most problems. The rational is not how we solve most problems, which I'll
come back to.
But there's some studies showing that every time you do a little math puzzle like that
or any conscious decision, you actually use up a limited bucket of resources.
Every time you make a decision, solve a problem, your blood glucose goes down and you performance
on the next task goes down. So it's a really of limited resource that depletes very quickly.
And you can actually start to look at this and, and sort of pull apart three types of
thinking that we do. And start to treat this resource of your, your prefrontal resource,
as something that you've got to kind of manage.
So Level 1 thinking is, is basically stuff like one plus one. You don't have to think.
And isn't it fun deleting emails? Does anyone else get joy deleting emails?
It's wonderful, isn't it? It's like: "Ah." You know I fly a lot and one of the things
I love to do when I'm flying, if I really can't do anything else, is delete. And one
time I was on a long flight. I saw the bottom of my email inbox.
Isn't that incredible? Just like never happens.
Anyway so you can do that without thinking.
Level 2: scheduling a meeting. You've got to hold things in mind: what time; where;
who; when. Maybe five seconds, ten seconds.
We're at writing a pitch; writing some coding; building a plan; building a strategy; that
takes a lot of glucose and it takes a lot of effort energy.
Now what many people do, they get to work, they do number one and then number two first,
and then they've got very little energy left for number three. And their brain actually
becomes tired and noisy. And I'll talk about the noisy in a moment.
And they become really, really ineffective. So the sort intuitive approach that we have
to tackling our day is wrong from the brain's perspective.
So this is one of the first things, the rational is overrated. It would be really rational
to get to work, start working on emails and work through. That's really rational. That's
not how your brain really wants to work.
Now, there's kind of a question that I pose to people often, and it's sort of one of the
questions in the book which is: if you truly respected attention as a limited resource,
what would you do differently?
If you really accepted that you've probably only got a few hours of really quality deep
processing time, Level 3 activity, what would you do differently, if you really like thought
about that? And it's, it's quite an important conversation to, to have, I believe, in an
organization that's processing a lot mentally.
Now, here's the challenge though: most problems we solve are not solved rationally. And in
the lab we see that the PFC not only isn't the source of the solution, but it's actually
the source of not finding the solution.
The prefrontal cortex rational resources actually stop you solving problems a lot of the time.
And in the lab we see that about 60 percent of problems that people solve, they actually
can't explain how they solved them. It's just, you have that experience all the time. You,
you, you walking to work and suddenly you get an idea. Where'd that idea come from?
You weren't working on anything. Where did it come from?
You're in the shower; you're on the treadmill; you're doing something and suddenly you have
this, this answer coming to you. Why couldn't you have that when you wanted to? You know
that feeling? Why couldn't you have solved that problem when you; well you can if you
understand your brain a bit better.
And it turns out that the very thing that you normally use to solve problems, is the
inhibitor of solutions if the problems are complex. It's the inhibitor. Your prefrontal
cortex is the inhibitor.
And there's a whole framework around this that I won't go into too far, but there's
a study of insight now - about the last five years there's been a study of insight and
this was published in my last book that a few people here have been reading called Quiet
Leadership - and you can actually now understand how insights occur.
And I'll give you just the Cliffs Notes, kind of the most valuable piece: and that is that
in order for insight to happen, you actually have to stop thinking. You have to stop any
form of, of, of conscious mental deliberate process to have these insights.
And the, there's a couple of complex reasons for that, but let me give you a demonstration
of it first, and let's see, kind of how you go with this.
This is a simple puzzle - you've basically got five words there: "Time flies like an
arrow." And they, it normally means time moves swiftly in one direction. Time goes straight
ahead; time goes forward.
Can anyone think of a different interpretation of those five words? Like quite a substantially
different interpretation? Anyone think of one? Over here.
>>Voice in audience: If you are keeping track of flies, fruit flies, and you are trying
to time them using [unintelligible].
>>David Rock: Very good. So that was a record for that answer. So you guys have very good
hiring processes, because of
people never get so quickly to an answer like that. Anyone else get one?
Yeah. Over here.
>>Voice in audience: Some, some type of fly called a time fly [unintelligible]
>>David Rock: Very good. Okay. Anyone else get one? Absolutely.
So what does it require to come up with these different solutions? What does it require
You've got to kind of dampen down this solution in your brain. You've got to consciously
- it's pretty easy to do with just five words - much harder to do with a complex project.
But you've got to actually dampen down the existing solution and go, and go: "I'm gonna
think about this fresh. I'm gonna unlock the word time in this sort of structure it is;
in the sentence structure. I'm gonna reimagine it." Okay? And I'll give you, I'll give you
five of them.
Check the speed of flies the way you would time an arrow.
Check the speed of flies only if they are similar to an arrow.
Check the speed of flies the way an arrow would.
Time flies (a type of fly) are fond of arrows, which you got.
And there's some more if you get subtle, but many people have tremendous difficulty with
this, because they're not experienced at dampening down their own thinking. And clearly you guys
have developed great cognitive control; you know when it's time to kind of stop thinking
one way and try thinking another way. It's a very, very important capacity for maximizing
So insight involves stopping thinking about the problem, and allowing a completely different
solution to come through.
And this is a summary of Mark Beeman's research on insight and they see an Alpha wave which
is, you can see the purple line up there - the Alpha wave is the brain going into idle
just for a couple of seconds. The good news is it's not two months; it's two seconds.
But when you put the brain into idle it's like putting a car into neutral, and things
just kind of can come through.
The basic signs of this is a little complex to explain in a short time, but essentially
a thought like if I say: "Picture an elephant." If I say: "picture an elephant" that's gonna
be a connection between millions if not billions of neurons. And the electrical activity given
off as that circuit creates, is quite high. It's kind of a lot, it's like a high amplitude
electrical activity on an EEG.
But if you're trying to solve a problem, the solution that your brain comes up with in
your unconscious - it's your unconscious that solves it, not your conscious mind. The solution
might involve a circuit between only a few thousand or a few tens of hundreds of neurons,
and so there's a lot less electrical activity.
And electrical activity means arousal, and it means dopamine, and you need to be able
to notice spikes of dopamine to be able to notice information.
So put all that together you basically get the fact that if you're operating really with
a loud brain all the time, you're not able to see the subtle signals. And it's like you
don't kind of hear a quiet cell phone at a loud party, if it's really, really loud.
So the ability to have these insights very much comes from this ability to quieten down
your overall mental activity at any time. And people who can do that, people who have
strong cognitive control, which you can tell on a scanner before you give them a task;
those people have a lot more insights.
The other thing that I can tell you about insights that's kind of surprising is basically,
and, an answer to the question of where they come from. Where they come from is weak associations.
If you wanna have insights you've got to practice detecting weak associations.
And there's a story about this which is a true story; it involves a monk so, but it's
not an apochryphal story; it's a real story with a monk.
This monk went into Mark Beeman's lab to test out kind of what happens when he has insights.
And he went into the machine and he, he tried to solve problems with insight and he didn't
really solve any. And that was very unusual.
And Mark said to the guy: "What, what are you doing? What strategy are using?" And the
monk said: "I'm really focusing on the problem." And Mark said: "Right. Don't focus on the
problem. Focus on being unfocused. Focus on letting anything come into your attention
on being actually completely unfocused." And what happened was the monk became an insight
And this ability to detect weak associations is really, really important. And there's a
very, very strong correlate between this and anxiety and happiness. The more anxious you
are, the less of these weak connections you notice. And the more happy you are, the more
of these weak associations that you notice.
And we think it's because you literally open up your field of view when you're happy, and
you close down your field of view when you're unhappy. And that occurs internally and externally.
So the table tennis table and the pool table and all that stuff where you just kind of
goof off and just have some fun, that turns out to actually be very useful for complex
If you can shift yourself from anxiety to happiness, you'll get a pretty substantial
shift in the total number of problems you'll solve from insight.
So that may be explaining a few things that you already know, but to, to kind of summarize
this idea, we, we, we significantly over emphasize the rational. And it turns out that our rational
resources are very limited; a few hours a day. And our rational resources are not used
to solve most problems.
And so, just, I'll just pose a question to you before we go on. A question to you is:
what does this explain that you already do and what does it suggest maybe you do differently?
That's a kind of a question I pose for you, or you can pose a question for me. We'll just
see if anyone has any questions or comments before we go on to the second one.
Over here. From a neuroscientist. Fantastic. I get a immediate threat
response. You're gonna give me a pop quiz. Okay.
>>Voice in audience: How does flow fit into this?
>>David Rock: Flow is an interesting phenomenon, obviously.
Generally what happens with flow, is you're using deeply embedded circuits that you don't
have to think about much to use. But you're using them in a slightly different way.
So you're doing something you know how to do really well, but you're doing it slightly
differently in a way that's really stretching you. So it's not completely uncertain; what's
happening is you're getting a positive feedback loop of dopamine because novelty creates and
new circuits create dopamine, but you're not having to put in all this effort to create
this, this wide scale new circuits, you see that?
And so you get this lovely, positive feedback loop in dopamine that happens. So if you're
doing something really difficult that's brand new, you get a lot more norepinephrine or
noradrenalin, more of a threat from the uncertainty in that way.
Yeah. Anyone else?
Yeah. Over there.
>>Voice in audience: [unintelligible]
>>David Rock: Well not really, much given it's only a cubic foot in terms of the information
it can hold. They think of it as kind of the, the caretaker of the building. It does a little
sweeping around the edges and kind of keeping things tidy and, I mean it does a lot of things;
it's the only region of the brain that actually is connected to every other region.
And you guys had Dan Siegel here, he's one of my favorite people in the world. And he
talks about the model of the hand where the prefrontal here is connected to the whole
brain, and it's really the only region of the brain that has a braking system. This
is one of the important functions; braking as in stopping not breaking.
It's the only region of the brain that has a braking system in it. So you've got all
these brain regions which are huge, which are like Milky Way sized for thinking; for
emoting; for moving; for all these different functions, and you've only got one brain region
which is the right and left temple that is, is in the prefrontal. It's called the right
and left ventral lateral prefrontal. And this region is involved in stopping both motor,
motor functions and thinking and feeling and everything else.
So it's, it's your task, it, or it's your structure for inhibiting automatic responses,
is one of the things that we think. And, and, and actually deliberately, it's, it's for
many other things, but that's one of its really important functions.
Without that you're an automaton. If you don't activate your brakes, you'll do whatever your,
your fears, and motivations will have you do, which is often not in your or everyone
else's best interests, to put it mildly.
The other thing that the prefrontal cortex does is very unusual; a lot of primates don't
have much. It allows us to imagine. So if you think of this as a stage; you think of
your prefrontal cortex as a stage, putting aside the braking structure, what you actually
do is you get information from several places. You can get information coming in right now
and hold it on your stage, and compare it to existing information in your brain; and
understand a new idea as a result.
And that's kind of cool, but other creatures do that a bit. What you can also do though,
is you can get information from inside your brain and combine it with other inside information
from inside your brain, and make up something completely new.
So you can take info from long term memory and you can combine them in different ways.
So you basically get this kind of playing field where you can do stuff. They call it
sometimes a mental sketch pad.
And so you've got this ability to imagine and make stuff up; and that includes imagining
what it's like to be you; imagining what it's like to be other people; imagining all sorts
of things. And those are two sides of the same coin, as well, by the way.
So it, I think those are the two really significant things. You remember it's dramatically smaller
than the rest of the brain, but the braking system is really important so that you actually
regulate automatic functions. And the other one is so that you can actually invent and
And this issue of regulating is, is, is really significant because your capacity to regulate
emotions, which is where we're going; it's a nice segue question. Thank you.
Your, your capacity to regulate emotions is absolutely essential to success in life. Has
anyone heard of the marshmallow experiment? You might have heard someone talk it's a
- where like a few more minutes on that is many extra scores in your SAT. That is pure
self regulation. It's pure right and left ventral lateral prefrontal activity that's
enabling you to, to dampen down other things.
So this ability to regulate emotions is really critical.
Now the thing with emotions is we have them backwards, though. And we've, we've really
completely misinterpreted how to manage emotions in the wide of society. I'd say people whose,
who are successful in this organization probably would not have this problem where you wouldn't
But the wide of society we tend to have it backwards.
Let me give you a little primer. You've, I'm sure you've heard about the limbic system.
I won't do Brain 101, but the basic thing to know is it's extremely skittish. Your limbic
system is constantly on the lookout for potential threats and it does something very interesting.
I'm gonna turn, I'm gonna turn this one on and do a little drawing here.
You got that working? There we go.
I'm gonna do a little drawing here. This is a, not an anatomically correct drawing in
any way, but if this is your, your, your prefrontal cortex here, you've got the deeper limbic
The limbic system is making a decision every moment about everything that you interact
with in the world. So every book cover that you see, you decide: "Hey that's, that's good.
I'm gonna go toward that." Or "that's a kind of a threat. I'm gonna stay away from that."
It's a potential reward or it's a potential threat.
You do that with every chair: "Oh that chair looks comfortable. That chair looks dangerous."
With every person. You actually do it with every phoneme; every sound.
And your brain does it with nonsense words that have absolutely no meaning. They classify
them into reward or threat. And it's a very important overriding principle. In fact, it's
probably the only major organizing principle of the brain according to a metastudy of thousands
of brain studies.
The organizing principle is firstly minimize danger; secondly maximize reward. That's the
Companies have organizing principles, don't they? Minimize costs; maximize revenues. The,
some parallels there.
Anyway, with the limbic system it's dramatically more likely for you to go the threat state,
because you brain's kind of evolved at a time when the people who were hypersensitive to
threat survived, basically. You've probably heard that.
But what's fascinating is the difference between the threat and reward.
And if this is, if this is a reward and this is threat and this is time; you're walking
along the street to work in the morning, and assuming some of you walk, and you're walking
along to the street, the street and you see someone that you really like. You don't, you
don't stop and think about them, you just see them, you notice them. In that moment
- this is time in seconds - your brain will slowly kind of get a little slight reward
response, and it'll start to taper off. A little reward response.
For those of you, it's a little low and a little technical challenge there.
Then you're walking along and you see someone that like attacked you last week at work
- not physically - but they just said your ideas were crazy; which turns out to be actually
as bad as a physical threat for your brain, but we'll get to that.
Anyway, what happens is, you, you see that person and you go "woof." And you go straight
down immediately, and you don't just go down faster you go down much deeper; you stay down
much longer; and it, it takes, it's much harder to displace.
So the statement bad is strong than good doesn't do it justice. Bad is stronger, longer lasting,
deeper, harder to move and all the rest of it. Which is why when a really tragic situation
happens like last week, something difficult, terrible news, the only people who are really
happy are media conglomerates who know that it's gonna get a lot more people's attention.
Because this - literally bad gets attention. This is what this is about. Attention goes
to the negative.
So, this is an important function to understand, because your brain's gonna go to the negative
all the time and you might say: "Well, so what. Why does that matter?" Well the reason
that matters is this limbic system has a very important function of keeping you alive.
But I'm just gonna draw this here. This is the threat response and this is the reward
response. This is, sorry, threat and reward. There we go. So you can see it there.
It's easier to hold things there then hold it in your mind. Less, less glucose to process.
So what happens is the degree of activation of this limbic system, which can be either
threat or reward, and this is activation, right? That's a lot of activation; a little
bit of activation.
The degree of activation of your limbic system is the degree of deactivation of your prefrontal
And it turns out that even a small thing like seeing someone that you don't like much, has
quite a measurable impact on your ability to solve problems and make decisions. And
the more this is aroused, the less function you have here.
So this can go very quickly from a cubic foot to a cubic inch, or even less.
And it's really remarkable how this happens at such low levels.
And I'll give you one story I write about in the book. It's a study of two groups of
students completing a maze; it's just a piece of paper.
One group of students, the, the maze has a mouse in the middle and piece of cheese at
the end. The other group there's a mouse and an owl. And there's no priming deliberately
involved; the experimenters just say: "Complete the maze and then do some creativity experiments
And the differential in problem solving afterwards was about 50 percent. There's about a 50 percent
better problem solving ability in the people going for the cheese.
So this is like an amount of threat you can hardly even sense, you don't even know it's
there, has a very profound impact on all sorts of things.
And the other thing to know is that's deliberate problem solving, but also the unconscious
problem solving, the insight, that little bit of threat creates a lot of noise; and
your brain needs quiet to solve problems.
So what we need to do is learn to regulate emotions and this is where we get it backwards.
This where we get it backwards, because in society we tend to do the exact opposite of
what we need.
And let me give you a little context.
This is from actually James Gross from Stanford who's down the road from here. He's the founding
father of emotion regulation research, and his work's been repeated by Kevin Ochsner
and other neuroscientists in the last five years and some fascinating findings.
What we see is that when you experience a threat, things change. When you experience
the moment when it's sort of something kicks in, your world changes. What happens is this
gets aroused and this goes down.
By the way, it happens with strong positive threats; it's just they're much rarer.
Does anyone here play poker or willing to admit to it? Anyone here? A little hand in
the corner, there you go. What happens if you get like two aces on the flop?
>>Voice in audience: I think I [unintelligible] a smile.
>>David Rock: You start internally smiling and you feel, you feel pretty good. Have you
ever lost a lot of money getting two aces on the flop?
[talking in audience}
Have you ever noticed like, yeah. Yeah. Most people I've spoken to who've played it until
they learn this trick, what happens is that you - the strong positive actually inhibits
your, your processing, and you miss things that you wouldn't normally miss. You become
like too happy, and too happy actually isn't a really good state. What you wanna be is
just to the right of neutral for maximum processing.
Remember I, this session is about maximum, optimizing internal processing. You want to
be just to the right of neutral. Just slightly positive.
So what happens is when an emotion kicks, in everything changes; strong negative or
strong positive; strong negative more likely. You've got three choices you can make at that
One is the one my six-year old does very well, which is to let the emotion out. We all came
out like that didn't we? We came out kicking and screaming. And then we learn to what?
We learn to suppress. We learn to push it down, which is to try not to let other people
feel, see that you're feeling it.
One of the funniest things in the world is watching a six-year old try to pretend that
you can't see what they're feeling, when you can absolutely see what they're feeling. It's
Anyway, you try to, you try to suppress the emotion, and the other technique which we'll
talk about it is cognitive change.
Cognitive change requires the very thing that diminishes very fast when an emotion kicks
in. So you may only have one or two seconds to use a cognitive change strategy when a
threat response kicks in, because your square foot which is your braking system is needed
for cognitive change.
That square foot shrinks fast like in fraction of a seconds it's going really fast downhill.
So let me explain this to – well firstly let me tell you about the challenges of suppression.
When you suppress an emotion actually your limbic system stays as battle gets worse;
your memory goes out the door and you make other people uncomfortable. People's blood
pressure goes up; even third parties that know nothing that's going on.
So suppressing emotions has a terrible cognitive effect, and it's really the worse thing to
do and it's the very thing that most people do.
Cognitive change strategies, on the other hand, there's no impact on arousal, no change
to memory and no effect on others.
So they're very, very good, but they require being aware of internal states quickly.
If you're someone who doesn't know what you're feeling anytime and you sort of oblivious
to that and you're thinking about the world, but you never think about what your states
are, it will be very difficult to use cognitive change strategies.
So what are the two major ones? Well firstly let me tell you the two major ones put on
the brakes automatically whether you mean to or not. And the two cognitive change strategies
activate this more and this less. So they reverse the, the seesaw that's the
The first one's called labeling; emotional labeling. It's where you define an emotional
state in a word or two. You define an experience without going into the story of it. If you
go into the story it'll make the emotion worse.
The ironic thing is when people are polled, people say: "I don't want to talk about emotions
'cause it's gonna make them worse." And so we instead suppress.
But actually in the lab we see that when you speak about an emotion and just label it in
a word or two, even when you have no idea you're in an emotional regulation task, it
automatically puts on the brakes and automatically dampens down the threat response.
So you're in a meeting and you're feeling just weird and something's going on and you
just go: "Ah. I don't know what's going on." And then you go: "Oh. That's right. I'm hungry."
[laughs] "That's why I can't focus."
That's a kind of gross example of the situation. And suddenly you feel more able to focus by
knowing that you're hungry or, or "I'm angry" at this person over there; it's really taking
up cognitive resources. And as you put words on, it decreases it.
If you can say that out loud, if it becomes part of the culture to say it, you activate
a stronger braking network and it dampens it down even more then just thinking it. Because
speaking is more attention density than just thinking.
So that's one strategy; it's not what we do in society; we do the opposite; we generally
suppress with a terrible cognitive load as a result.
The other strategy is one that anyone who wants to make it as a leader in any organization
has to develop. It's called reappraisal; it goes by other names like reframing, recontextualizing,
and all sorts of things. In the lab we call it reappraisal. It's what you need for strong
It's very simple; it's changing your entire interpretation of an event.
So you're driving to work – we seem to have a theme of driving to work today - I've been
doing a lot of traveling, can you see, can you tell? And you're driving to work and you,
you hit some traffic and you suddenly find you're absolutely stopped and you're starting
to get really anxious. And you notice it and you say: "Hm. I'm gonna have to reinterpret
this or I'm gonna have a really bad day." And you go: "How could I do that?" You've
got to use your resources fast. You go: "Gosh. What kind of opportunity could I turn this
into?" And if you don't do it quickly you won't see any opportunity in it, you'll only
see a threat.
If you do it quickly you can go: "I know. I'm gonna call my mother and have a great
chat with her. I'm gonna use the time to do something really great. Or I'm gonna use the
time to pull over and do some yoga, which I really wanted to do; I'm gonna really get
into that." Like it's, it's changing your interpretation of the event.
The other night I was at the airport and for the second day straight my plane was massively
delayed, and I had a big presentation the next day and I reinterpreted and said: "Oh,
cool. I've got two and a half hours, totally unplanned of total down time undisturbed where
I can plug in and just like really get some things out." And I just focused and really
got some things out.
So you all do that. You wouldn't survive in this kind of organization without a strong
capacity. The trouble is, people who are logical and linear say: "No. I wanna deal with the
data. I just want to grin and bear it. I want to suppress." Men are more likely to do that.
"I, I don't wanna make up stories and reinterpret, I am gonna see things as they are." That's
not so good and I'll show you the evidence.
There's a study of about several hundred people by James Gross actually. He classified people
in just very simple [unintelligible]. He said: "What do you do when a strong emotional hit
comes along? When a strong emotional experience comes to you, what do you do? Do you suppress
it or do you invent a different story and reinterpret it?"
And he then measured them on all sorts of scales and the middle line is the average.
I should probably point this one it's hard to see all of it.
Middle line is the average. And what he found is people who suppress more, significantly
below average on optimism, environmental mastery, positive relationships and life satisfaction.
The people who reappraised more were significantly above average on this side.
The only definer whatsoever was do you suppress or do you reappraise?
It's a sig - excuse me - it's a really significant determiner of success as a leader, or even
just as a team member because you get strong emotional hits all the time.
If you're someone who suppresses, your problem solving ability is gonna go down every time;
your memory's gonna go down; other people won't like you. If you learn to reappraise
Now one of the coolest things I ever heard and it blew me away so much - I sort of had
to lie down for an hour - was that the more you understand about your brain - listen to
this - the more you understand about your brain, the more you can actually reappraise
all sorts of internal strong threats that come along.
Because you can go: "Oh gosh I'm so crazy. I'm such an idiot why did - oh hang on -
that's just my brain." You can actually recognize internal experiences and reappraise them as
brain functioning, not you; as things that are something that you can change, but you
change the interpretation. And you shift from a threat state towards that you start to see
Question over there.
>>Q:Yeah, what about the third [unintelligible] you know
>>David Rock: Yeah. Expression. The question was what happens to the third access? What
if you express?
Well, that will depend. I have got an actor friend, and she expresses all the time; it's
great. If you express, if you just get pissed off and you express, that's fine, but it's,
how should we say, it's maladaptive in the workplace.
[talking in audience]
You also notice you'll get fired fast because no one wants to work with you. Expression's
fine if it works for your environment. It's just nonadaptive.
As a leader what you'll want to express all the time is your intense desire to throttle
your employees because they're not doing what you want.
You won't have many followers pretty fast. So expression's fine; the emotion may pass;
it may go; but it stays in the people around you. So that's often not so good.
I want to get to the third piece, because we've got little time left and then we'll
- I think this is where it kind of comes together.
Let's bring this together into this, this final piece which is that social issues are
And, and we really, as I say, we've really got emotions backward. We tend to actually
do exactly the wrong thing to manage them. But there's even bigger insights from the
brain about social issues. And it's quite surprising.
Has anyone here heard of Maslow, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and the triangle? It's
really great. It's really organized. There's a really teeny, tiny, small problem which
is it's kind of wrong. And it's right in many ways, just to honor his work, it's, it really
But Maslow sort of says primary needs are primary, and that's what we focus on first;
like food and water and shelter. We've gotta have that stuff. Social needs - where does
he put those? Right up there. That's not how your brain functions.
How your brain functions is social needs are primary needs. And the experiments on this
from the social cognitive effective neuroscience field are phenomenal.
Let me give you a little, a little metaphor. Let's say - what's your name again?
>>Voice in audience: Johnny.
>>David Rock: Johnny. Let's say Johnny you come to work and on the way to work you, you
sort of trip and you hurt your leg and you got a little bit of pain. Then as you try
and focus on a coding project or something, every few minutes the pain will take over
your attention because it's an alert signal; it's a threat response saying your life is
in danger; focus on this pain. And so you won't be able to focus as much.
Now if you then take some aspirin which inhibits the pain in five different pain regions, you
will be able to focus more because the threat response goes down. So pain is the threat
response saying you're in danger, do something.
Now if, if you don't fall like that, but you're on the way to work and someone says to you:
"Hey, I, I, think there's a real problem with that project that you worked on." And you
decide that that means, maybe incorrectly, you decide that means that they're putting
down your work, and saying that you've made a mistake. You're gonna get also a threat
response. And you might feel really angry and actually in a kind of pain.
And what's really surprising is that if you also then took an aspirin, that pain would
also diminish and you would see diminished activation of the same five pain regions as
if you were feeling physical pain.
And in placebo controlled studies, we've seen very clearly that social pain activates the
same regions of the brain as physical pain; and social rewards like even saying to someone:
"Good job" in a computer voice to a simple task, activates the dopamine reward center
more than money.
It's insane. It's not rational.
But the brain is deeply, deeply social.
Now it does make sense and here's how. If you're a wolf, you get resources from the
wild; so you've got great wiring for smell, smelling a dead carcass a thousand feet away.
My daughter can smell chocolate from the other room, but she can't smell a carcass across
the suburb. Right?
But you don't get resources from the wild, do you? Where do you get them from the moment
you're born? From other people.
So you've got massive circuitry for other people; for reading their intentions. That's
one of the biggest ones. For reading their goals, intentions, their emotions. Can I trust
or distrust? You've got huge scwaves. At six months old you detect - there's jealousy,
all sorts of things.
So we've got massive amount of social circuitry and I summarized a whole ton of the social
neuroscience hap - that's been happening into a paper that's been currently one of the most
popular papers out there in, through the business world called "Managing With The Brain In Mind."
And it's a summary of the major social threats and rewards that are actually driving our
behavior. And these are actually the brain's own goals, when it comes to the social world.
The first one is, is status.
The second one is certainty.
The third one is autonomy.
The fourth one is having taller white boards.
The third one is relatedness.
And the final one is fairness.
I'll put this up on screen so you can see this. It'll be a little bit easier. I didn't
think ahead that far for how low that would go.
Status; certainty; autonomy; relatedness; fairness.
Let me just put this up on screen so you don't have to hold it in mind. It'll be easier to
Here's how it works.
Your brain keeps track of pain and when you experience pain, you get a threat and it keeps
track of pleasure. When you experience pleasure you want more of it; you go toward it. It
keeps track of domains like water, like temperature. Your brain keeps track of a whole series of
environmental domains, using the primary reward and threat circuitry.
Your brain also keeps track of these social domains using the primary reward and threat
circuitry. When you feel like there's more food coming you get rewarded; less food you
get hunger. When you feel like your status is going up, you feel fantastic; when you
feel like your status is going down because bad is stronger than good, you feel like death.
When you feel like certainty is going up, you feel pretty good, when you feel more certain
about something; when you feel uncertain, you again feel like pain is coming, 'cause
bad is stronger than good.
Uncertainty activates a threat response in a big way. Even ambiguity lights up the limbic
system in a big, big way. Just a little ambiguities.
Autonomy; when you sense that you have choices; a small stressor becomes - sorry, when you
have, when you detect you have choices a big stressor becomes small.
When you think you have no autonomy, you just gotta do what someone else wants, a small
stress becomes really big.
And finally fairness which is kind of self explanatory, but fairness, fairness in and
of itself is activating either a reward or a threat.
Now in study after study after study from about 400 different neuroscientists working
on these and other fields, what we've seen is that these threats and rewards are very,
very overwhelming and much more than people realize. Much more than people realize.
So, Yeah, question.
>>David Rock: Related, um, you, I so did. Sorry about that. Uncertainty, suddenly rises
Relatedness is a decision that you make about: "Are you in my in-group or my out-group?"
And you make very different decisions when someone's in your in-group. You actually,
you don't feel pain of someone in your out-group; you don't feel empathy. When someone in your
out-group speaks to you, you don't really listen to what they say; we know that intuitively,
but in the lab you actually don't create maps of what they're saying; you use different
circuits to actually hear them.
When someone's in your in-group you do experience their pain; you do actually see what they're
seeing. You actually see what they're saying, literally. Your occipital lobe lights up;
you see what they're saying.
So it's friend or foe; it's trust or distrust. It's a decision we make with people. And by
the way, foe is the default. So we automatically decide that, that everyone is a foe until
proven otherwise, with a couple of exceptions. One is really attractive or familiar people.
Babies, there're all, everyone stares at babies. And the final one is if you've had too much
And in that case everyone is your friend – maybe not everyone - but in some instances,
you suddenly feel like able to talk to strangers. You know that feeling? You go to a party,
don't know everyone, you're freaked out; have a few drinks; I talk to everyone. You've shifted
from foe to friend.
Now this is very important for collaboration because you don't collaborate well at all
with people that you think are foes. Even a slight foe, you'll get very poor collaboration
compared to if people think that you're a friend.
So, now you put this together; you see a whole bunch of things. There's a tremendous amount
to say about this, but the biggest two seem to be status and certainty. Although everyone's
different; everyone's individual. You can't maximize them all at once because too much
certainty is no autonomy.
But it's about recognizing ahead of time kind of what's going on. And using this to improve
This concept of workplace engagement, of being really into what you're doing, means that
people are experiencing rewards, they're on the right-hand side. That's what engagement
Engagement is a brain that's making new connections; has lots of dopamine; is experiencing flow;
and it's going for these kinds of status rewards.
Now, what does that explain?
Well first thing let me just say this: if someone comes up to you at work and says,
"We need to talk about that project." What's that feeling that you get in your stomach?
It's like, ooh, it's like a jolt, it's a threat.
And what about if someone says to you: "I need to give you some feedback?" It's a jolt,
right? It's like a little, it's a concern.
That's the status threat. Status is kind of the scary one. We don't talk about it much,
but status is really driving our behavior massively. And I'll tell you why.
When we feel like we're sma - it's about better than or worse than - when we feel like we've
gone up in status in the communities we're in - and it's not about Rolexs and houses
it's just about number; agreed pecking order. When we feel like it's gone up, we get a wonderful
reward and when we feel like it's gone down we get a very intense threat.
The same with the expectation. We feel like it might go up, we get a nice reward; we feel
like it might go down we get an intensely strong threat. So we really, really avoid
threats like we avoid pain.
And so we avoid things where our status might go down. And where this plays out is you get
this tremendous push back when you try to change anyone in any way.
If I want to change you in any way, I've gotta start with the premise that there's something
wrong with you, and I've got more information, or I know something, and immediately you're
gonna get people pushing back, 'cause it's a status threat. You see that?
It'll happen with your kids; it'll happen with your partner; it'll happen at work; it'll
happen everywhere. When, when you try to chance someone you get a big status threat and a
certainty threat as well, of course.
Now, what about - there are two things that are pretty much guaranteed to create very
true and full emotional responses that sort of overwhelm you.
One is the threat of physical violence. If you think you're about to be physically attacked,
you're gonna have pain; you'll stop everything and freak out and really freak out. Right?
You know you do that.
Now the other one is the expression: "Let me tell you what other people have been saying
[talking in audience]
It also activates, maybe not as intense as real physical violence, but it activates a
really strong threat response and it's also known as the Performance Review.
"Let me tell you what others have been saying about you and what's been going on here."
It's a very threatening response.
So we've got to work out how to mitigate that and we try and do that. And it's also known
as you're getting some coaching now you've gotta watch out for that because people will
go, what have people been saying about me; why am I getting coaching? Unless you reframe
that, it's quite dangerous.
So as someone who - in this room some of you manage people; ask someone who's a manager.
It really, really plays out because it's very easy to be very logical and when you manage
someone, tell them all the things that they should be doing, which impacts this status;
and to not provide clear expectations and to micromanage and to not trust them, and
to not be open.
And you get a jackpot; you get a negative jackpot, which is not so good.
So it's very easy to drive people crazy as a manager, and you may have experienced that
with your managers when they don't let you have autonomy and they, all that stuff sends
people really crazy.
Now when you're experiencing lots of rewards, your world is bigger. You actually perceive
many more layers of data; you perceive more width of data; you perceive more information
because you've got more prefrontal function and more insight capacity.
So this is not a small thing to minimize threat. Minimize threat in these social ways are really
Now, what about when you find a project that is kind of yours and you can make your mark
and you think it's a project that's really cool, and maybe it sort of helps the world
in some way, even just a small world, like your team? What if it sort of like improves
and rights a wrong in some way? Then you get passionately behind that. That's what deep
Now deep engagement actually involves people who feel like they're increasing their status;
and they're increasing their certainty by fixing something that was uncertain; and they're
increasing their autonomy by actually doing something, taking action; they're increasing
relatedness because you can't do this alone, you gotta connect with others; and they're
increasing some unfilled, or decreasing some unfairness. And you start to get the positive
So the more you can focus on how what you do makes a difference in the world, the more
you'll also get that. Then the more as an organization you focus on how what you do
makes a difference in the world, the more the organization gets these positive rewards
So there's a whole bunch of layers that you can look at this framework on, and if you
wanna know more about this, I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna say buy the book 'cause you'll
get an immediate threat response and class me as an out-group rather than an in-group.
But I will say that I'll send you a paper, I'll send you this paper, just drop your card
up here if you wanna kind of read into this more.
There's a paper called "Managing with the Brain in Mind"; anyone who wants it, drop
a card and I'll - you'll get one email shot from me - you won't go on a database - you'll
get one email shot with this and some other links to other resources.
Okay, so the social is primary and it really has a huge impact. Social issues are primary.
The final thing to say, then we've got five minutes of questions - the final thing to
say is that attention changes the brain.
Attention actually does change the brain. It changes it in seconds, it turns out. Not
just in months or weeks or days or hours. It changes it in seconds.
The trouble is, your attention normally goes to the negative; that's where it always goes.
If you wanna focus your attention on the future, on something uncertain, it's tricky if you've
got a threat response because the space shrinks.
If you wanna focus your attention on a goal, you need to, to be kind of feeling safe first,
because attention won't go easily there. But as you focus attention on things that are
intangible which require a lot of space here, you actually thicken those circuits and you
start to see those pieces of the world become alive.
So attention changes the brain, but what you gotta do is develop the capacity to control
And I wanna finish with this one idea that really the more you understand the brain,
the more you become able to control your attention and make attentional choices.
And it's almost like this issue of, of kind of the brain as a Swiss Army knife. And the
more you're able to understand what's in this brain of yours, the more you can actually
go: "No, I'm not gonna be problem focused now, I'm gonna be solution focused. No, I'm
not gonna be driven by status here, I'm gonna focus on the organization's goals. No, I'm
not gonna be thrown by all this uncertainty, I'm gonna actually quieten my mind down for
So the more you understand your brain, the more language you have to make difference
choices. The only trouble is, the brain's a little bit more like that.
So you want to practice this and all this. But there's tremendous benefits from very
short amounts - like a week - of starting to practice just noticing, noticing what your
brain's doing. For a few minutes a day is having very measurable impacts on all sorts
of mental functions and, and, and processes there.
So I'm not an advocate for tryin' to teach people to do long term attention training.
There's tremendous benefits in literally a few minutes a week of practicing different
So I want to wrap up with this one statement, is that it's possible to optimize internal
data processing; and one of the ways to do that is by understanding your brain better.
The more you understand the brain, the more you can minimize that threat response; maximize
the space in your prefrontal cortex and maximum insight problem solving.
Thank you very much.
We've got a couple of minutes for questions, if people have any questions. One over there.
>>Q: How, I wanted to ask a question about [unintelligible]
>>David Rock: There's some mics. We'll use those mics. Thank you very
>>Q: In the, in the dichotomy between reappraisal and suppression -
>>David Rock: Yeah.
>>Q: how do we evaluate something like, I'm thinking of a Buddhist monk who's extremely
serene, is that extremely suppressed or extremely reappraised or something -
>>David Rock: I think they've practiced staying in a toward state.
There's a funny quote that comes to mind for me from the Dalai Lama, which someone asked
him - I don't know if you've heard this - someone asked him: "Why are you always so
happy?" He said: "Because it feels better."
In other words, he's, he's kind of doing a reappraisal; he's constantly choosing to be
happy, choosing to look at situations and choosing that kind of compassion, that happiness.
And it seems that anything you do over and over becomes easier to do and becomes more
of a, of a trait not just a state. So that kind of training is, is what happens.
So I think there's subtle distinctions and you've got to kind of find the differences
in your own, in your own brain. But you can - it's very obvious to external person or
do some skin conductance technology or to a scanner, it's very obvious and to ourselves,
when we're suppressing and the emotions are still there, versus when we've actually changed.
And one of the troubles with reappraisal - though it's fabulous - it's really hard
to do on your own, because it takes cognitive resources.
And I'll give you a trick. If you need to reappraise and haven't got much time and you're
overwhelmed, the cheapest form of reappraisal is humor.
When things are tough and you go: "Oh, I'm just gonna laugh at this." What do you do?
You actually completely reduce the threat, the stress dramatically, don't you?
So in an extreme emergency, laugh and it shifts you from a threat to a toward state. And that's
one of the ways that you can, you can manage this.
>>Q: Hi. I walked in a little bit late, so you'll have to forgive me if you covered this
at the beginning.
>>David Rock: David is my name. That's where I started.
>>Q: Okay. A friend of mine forwarded me your paper "Neuroscience of Mindfulness".
>>David Rock: Oh, right. The, the
>>Q: The article that you did.
>>David Rock: The article. Yes.
>>Q: Yeah. And I was trying to paraphrase it for somebody and I did a bad job and I
wanna see if maybe you could help me out.
>>David Rock: Oh fantastic. I've got one minute to explain the "Neuroscience of Mindfulness."
>>Q: Oh. Sorry.
>>David Rock: Awesome.
>>David Rock: I'm gonna do it.
>>Q: You talked about basically kind of the brain's in two modes. There's a -
>>David Rock: Let me explain it. Basically that you have two ways of experiencing any
moment. One is called the direct experience circuitry. You're taking in data right now.
Right now you're taking in data - not focusing on it much. But you could actually stop and
take in data like the sound of my voice going: "Oh." Just hear me saying "Oh." You could
listen to that data. When you listen to that data and focus your attention on it, you dampen
down what's called the narrative circuitry, which is all the stories and thinking.
They're two separate circuits. And when you actually can focus on direct information coming
in right now, you actually then perceive more information in all senses; and you stop the
kind of story and threat and rambling that goes on; but more importantly you see more
choices. And this is both in the external world and in the internal world.
So when you're able to distinguish between directly taking in data and story about data,
you become much better at cognitive control.
And you can practice that for just moments every day. You can practice that in the shower
for ten seconds a day and you'll get benefits. You can practice it anywhere; the start of
What you just want to do is focus on any kind of incoming data and see how long you can
focus your attention on it, and notice when your attention goes back to the narrative,
which is story.
>>David Rock: So you're tasting some food; notice yourself tasting the food and the flavors,
and then notice yourself thinking about something else entirely and go, "ooh, narrative" and
come back to tasting.
And the more you can split, see these things, the, you develop this great cognitive control
that really helps you with many other ways.
The article is called "The Neuroscience of Mindfulness". It's been one of the most popular.
I had a whole lot of Buddhist put a fatwa against me, which I only say half jokingly,
although if you're gonna have a fatwa it's probably the best religion to have one -
by. But interestingly, the Dahli Lama sent a, re-Tweeted it and thought it was fabulous.
Because they, they thought it's really important for people to understand mindfulness.
I sort of said something as important as being aware of internal states shouldn't be tagged
to any religion.
>>Q: All right.
>>David Rock: And I kind of said that's really a problem that it's being tagged to that religion,
and everyone should develop the capacity to notice internal states. That's how you optimize
data processing. It's the only way to optimize data processing.
So it's kind of a controversial one, but the "Neuroscience of Mindfulness." I'll send that
as one of the links.
One last question.
>>Q: Thank you.
>>Q: Just, you were talking about the direct experience thing, reminds me of, I've done
a lot. My mom's an art teacher,
>>David Rock: Yeah.
>>Q: Most of my family are artists. I'm sure you've heard of the book Drawing on the Right
Side of the Brain.
>>David Rock: Yeah. It's a great book. Yeah.
>>Q: Which, which reminded me a lot like the whole way that that sort of gets you to push
down your sort of representations of the world and just look at the -
>>David Rock: And just experience directly. Absolutely, and that right half is a little
bit more about direct experience: body and emotions and directly; and the left is more
about language and verbalizing.
In schools we tend to teach the left massively and not the right.
I'm involved in a project with Dan Siegel, we're both on the board of a school, kind
of a showing a whole other way of building education and, it is more about the right
as well. Yeah.
>>Q: Right. So I have, it, have you - I don't even know what my actual question is here
- but just about, have you looked at sort of artists and the way that they're, they
work while they're doing their sort of thing?
Because, you don't like any sort of a
>>David Rock: You know -
>>David Rock: I think issue shows up everywhere.
>>Q: Okay. Sure.
>>David Rock: And whether it's an artist or a kite surfer or a table tennis player or
a coder, somebody's doing coding, whatever; many people have experienced this feeling
of like taking in data in real time and how amazingly energizing it is and how much more
information you have and how much smarter you are; how much more creative you are.
Many people have experienced this and they become so excited by it, they become evangelists
and build a whole body of knowledge, but it's essentially people discover the impact of
the direct experience circuitry, and you notice a lot more information about the outside and
the inside world. You notice many more things about internal visceral states.
It has nothing to do with meditation, it has nothing to do with a religion; it's simply
your ability to control your attention to optimize data processing.
And I think, especially for senior executives who have massive amounts of data to process,
I think it's extremely important that they develop these muscles, in any organization.
That they develop these muscles to be able to shift between these two states as needed.
And it's not about being in one or the other all the time, it's about being adaptive and
being able to know when you need to be in which state.
So, I think it's extremely important.
With that, I want to thank Ming and the whole team putting this on. And for you and your