Hey, this is Jennifer Tribe and you’re listening to Frankly IT, episode 82.

Before we jump into today’s episode with neurologist and biohacker Dr. Mary Rensel, I wanted to share the news that I’m stepping down as host of the podcast. Today is my final episode. It has been a true pleasure and honour to have hosted this program for the last 3 and a half years and I have learned so much along the way from our guests and from you, our listeners.

Frankly IT is going to take a pause while the team gets ready to welcome a new host. So stay tuned, stay subscribed, keep following and the show will be back in your earbuds before you know it.

Now my guest today as I mentioned is a neurologist who works with companies on optimizing productivity by nurturing that big old wet noodle in your head, your brain.

Today we’re talking about how you can optimize your brain as an IT pro to get more done and feel better doing it.

Let’s go.

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Interview With Dr. Mary Rensel, Brain Ops Group

Dr. Mary Rensel, Brain Ops Group
Dr. Mary Rensel

Jennifer: Hi Mary, welcome to the show.

Mary: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Jennifer.

Jennifer: We’re here today to talk about biohacks for your brain that will increase your productivity. And this is a topic that I myself am very passionate about. You are a neurologist, obviously a lot of experience in this field. So off the top, what are some key things we need to know about brain function in the context of work?

Mary: Well, I think just first to stop and link those two things. Right. So when we have these days, these crazy work days and they’re filled with trying to care for others or get to work on time or finish a project, we want to kind of step back and say, you know what, there are things that I can do to if you want to say, manipulate or optimize, you know, our brain power so that we can focus when we need to focus, think big, when we need to think big. We like to divide those and say our health is on one side and our work is on the other side. But these two intersect definitely in our brain productivity.

Jennifer: And are we talking at all about, you know, people have probably heard a lot of talk about cortisol, the stress hormone, and dopamine and adrenaline and different chemicals in the brain. Is that kind of what we’re talking about as well?

Mary: Yeah, let’s just think of the brain itself and what it is. So it’s only a couple pounds, but it’s incredibly metabolically demanding. So it needs a lot of good nutrition. It needs a lot of good hydration all throughout the day. So I know a lot of folks would be like, you know what, I eat dinner or I eat a sugary thing in the morning. Well, that’s going to be gone in an hour and the brain’s kind of left to fend for itself and kind of find energy and calories where it can. But it’ll work more optimally if we actually think about and learn a little bit. I’m not a techie person like you guys that I want to know everything how my iPhone works, but I want to know how to optimize it. So I want to know what I can do for my workday to make it focus and be productive so then I can enjoy my day when I’m done with work.

Jennifer: OK, so let’s talk about those things that we can do. What are some basic tips for using your brain for a day of good work?

Mary: A really interesting study showed that how rested we are or are not, our level of sleep that we get, determines how we perceive the world. So there was an interesting functional MRI study. So that’s when folks volunteer to go through a study and they look at what part of the brain lights up and certain activities. And one of them, when they would look at pictures and they assessed what emotions they thought they saw on the faces. If the people were sleep deprived, they thought they saw anger more often. And if they were well rested, they could see a wider range of emotions.

So first we have to say, what are we doing for our brain? Number one, if you want to say sleep, we could start there. That’s a really important one for brain productivity. It’s the time when the brain kind of refreshes, renews, washes itself and then and then makes us ready for the next day. So we have to think of the day, the 24-hour period of our day also, to optimize the brain. So what do you do in the morning? Do you go right to the basement and get on your computer or do you get some sunlight? Because that will tell your brain, hey, this is morning, I need… this is the beginning of my day. So that it knows to get tired in 12 hours.

There’s a framework that we use in BrainOps and that’s called CLE. We’re from Cleveland, Ohio. So we talk about the CLE framework. So we talk about connections. So how do we connect with other humans? Because that matters for how our brain works. We’re all isolated more than normal because of Covid. But do we have any intentional plans to put some humans in our day in some way? Because that kind of wakes up our brain and makes it optimal. And that’s something we have to have a strategy for, because it doesn’t happen very naturally these days. And then how we live, what we put in our days, our lifestyle matters, and then our emotional processing matters, like we talked about the one study related to sleep and emotions. But when we are working at a team, the more the team has a relationship climate, if it’s a positive climate, that the team kind of knows each other and respects each other and has a shared vision, that team will be more compassionate toward each other. They’ll be more productive.

Mary: So, yes, when you say like cortisol and stress, when those are high, when there’s chronic stress, we don’t think as well. We don’t think at a higher executive functional level, we don’t perceive things. Our emotions are negative or impaired literally by chronic stress at times.

Jennifer: I have heard of studies, more on sleep deprivation that said, when you are sleep deprived, to a certain extent, it’s like you’re operating as a drunk person.

Mary: Right. Yeah, exactly. And that’s after one night. That’s not like it’s going to take a couple of years to get there. A lot of people are working hard. They have many responsibilities at work and home. Tthey think, well that’s fine, I’ll just cut my sleep out this week and sleep later and that’s not OK. You have to make that a priority to kind of hit those work goals, to know that your level of perception and cognition will be high. You have to put that all together. And stress, you know, stress isn’t bad in and of itself, stress is normal, stress makes us get up and feed ourselves and shower when we need to and get out of a burning building.

So stress is fine. It’s just when it’s chronic at a high level, that’s when it can affect your work productivity, your perception of things. You just won’t see things that you might if you had a lower level of stress, because we can kind of trick or enhance or optimize our neural processing, our neuro levels. So if we want to get into more of a positive phase, depends kind of what you need to do, what your day is looking like. If you need to focus on a project, you have to say, OK, I’m going to really focus. That’s your you know, they may say that’s your stress time. That’s your time to focus on that one project. You may not notice things going on around you, but if there’s also time you have to back up and see what’s going on around you so that you can plan and be creative. That’s more the positive emotional time.

Jennifer: Yeah. This toggling between maybe like a technical brain phase and an emotional brain phase. And I think for people in technical careers, that can seem particularly challenging. So can you provide some tips on that toggling back and forth or when one might be appropriate over the other?

Mary: Right. So if you really have a project, a deadline, you’re working on something and someone walks by. You don’t even see them. You didn’t even hear them. Or someone in your family is like, hey, hey, I’m trying to talk to you. You don’t even notice because you’re so focused on a study, you’re focused on your project. And that’s fine for a while. But when we do that, we might miss larger cues in our environment to help us creating and perceiving what our next moves should be. So if we’re always focused, narrow, narrowthat could be a high stress level if that’s always where you are. So you have to kind of back up.

An easy way to do that is if you want to take three times throughout your day and write down three emotions you’re feeling and what you were doing. Just three words, three emotions, three times. You know, maybe you want to do breakfast, lunch, dinner and write down what you were doing, just so you have some insight in your own person what is going on. Because the more intuned we are to how we feel, then we can learn how to kind of preemptively adjust that to say, you know what, I’m always angry at lunch. You say, well, how was your morning? Did you rest? Did you work out at first?

There’s been some interesting studies that if you know you have a busy day, if you get a good workout in, you can delay or decrease the level of stress you’re going to feel on your busy day because you can preemptively almost like, quote unquote, feed the neurons with some really great what are called neurotrophic factors. So those are factors that support the nerves and their function. So that’s a good thing to know is, what supports your nerve function. And one of them is demanding things of them, which one of them is exercise and one of them is a healthy diet and then focusing on projects and being creative.

Those can be the same thing or those can be different things. The creative mind is more of the positive emotional focus and that you want a wider view where you’re looking at a wider view, not just a narrow only at one project, so that to get there, some people need to, you know, maybe they have a pet, they slow down a little bit, pet the cat, pet the dog. Maybe they take a walk in the woods because it will turn on different senses. It’ll bring new senses into the brain, away from the keyboard, away from the project. That’s one way to manipulate, like you said, to toggle back and forth between those two states.

Jennifer: You mentioned identifying things that feed our… was it nerves you said?

Mary: Yeah, there’s a factor called the neurotrophic factor. It feeds it supports the nerve, the nerve functions. And we want a lot of those because those help our nerves work faster and more efficiently.

Jennifer: And how do we identify those? Is it just what makes us feel good?

Mary: Yeah, it’s sometimes, you had that day at work and everything went well. It was a busy day. You got a lot done, but things went well. And you think, well, why was that? Maybe it was because you took three minutes to do the gratitude or you talked to a friend and you thought, wow, that person was very kind. You know, you felt some compassion towards someone. So if you can turn on some positive emotions or physically move. When you physically move, you demand things from the nerves in the brain and those turn on and increase those factors. So those are ways to kind of get yourself over into that positive emotional state, physical movement, some emotional awareness. That’s what you can do three times a day. Write down three words, not too much. I think we all have enough time to write three words three times a day.

Some empathy and compassion can get you there. So if you’re not really feeling it, sometimes that’s why you say there’s an emotional contagion with a pet. So some people can get that from cats, dogs, what have you. They say fish don’t do it, fish or birds. They don’t get you to that level, but certain certain emotions because you feel it. It’s contagious.

So there’s some interesting studies about mirror neurons. I may feel the emotions coming off you. You may feel my emotions coming off me before we consciously perceive that. So it happens within, they say, like an eighth to a tenth of a second that I perceive emotions right away just by the tone of your voice, if I could see you, you know, the look in your face and then I’m already reacting to that. Are you friend or foe? What’s the point of the conversation? So that’s another thing that we can manipulate is our emotional contagion. What are we giving off to others at work even within Zoom or electronically. People can perceive, it’s a little harder not to get all the body cues, but you can get some through their different platforms.

Jennifer: So what I’m hearing in this is that company culture is really integral to productivity. It’s like a circle, right? Like if you have positive emotions, people feel good, people feel they’re supported, they’re going to be more productive and then they’re going to be contagious with that productivity. Is that right?

Mary: Right, exactly. Yeah. They’ve looked at some workplace and they found something they call the relationship climate like what’s the climate like within an office or within a team. And if you share a vision, you’re all after taking the company to this and this is what you’re working for. And if there’s any kind of compassion between each other in the team and a relational energy that you care about each other, you don’t have to be best friends, but that you care about the person in some way. You’re relating to them. You’re trying to relate. There’s some energy going back and forth between team members can make a dramatic difference in the productivity of that team.

So there’s been a good amount of studies toward that, which is interesting. We’ve heard a lot about emotional intelligence and they’ve looked at that as well. But it seems like this relationship climate like we call it culture, but some of the researchers call it when you drill it down, it really comes back to relationships and how people treat each other. Yeah. And that that will then determine the stress level, because if I’m perceiving anger right away when I walk into work, then I go into that stress sympathetic. I go vasoconstrict. I don’t have enough blood flow to the brain. I’m in worried mode and a fear mode. And that’s not a creative zone. So if you’re a tech person and you’re supposed to finish a big project and you have deadlines, you need to be creative. You don’t want to walk into an atmosphere of fear and nervousness and worry. You want it to be relaxed and creative and feel some compassion or empathy for each other because your brain will go in a more positive state right away.

Jennifer: Now, certainly in IT, especially people who are on the front lines of support, they can deal with a lot of stressful situations all day long with people who are upset, that their network is down or whatever the case may be. So how would you what are some tips that you would offer in that scenario?

Mary: I’m always amazed at the patience of the people on the other end of the line. So thank you all out there that are working hard when I’m on the other end of the line calling for help. But any kind of reflection back to the clients where you have a genuine concern, you genuinely care and it is hard to that burden. Now, sometimes what you want to say and we learn this in medicine as well as we don’t have to fix the feeling of our patients, but we have to name it. So it sounds like you’re upset. It sounds like this is really disturbing. It sounds like this is really scary to you. And that’s I’m not saying I have the answer to get them out of that feeling, but I’m just acknowledging it because if I don’t acknowledge it, it’s like a big boulder between the two of us.

And I’m sure on the phone you can perceive all of the above, you know, anger, frustration, worry. Seems like it always happens when there’s a deadline, those kind of things. So just some genuine concern. That’s a great place to start because that’s slows down and just acknowledges that there is some empathy and there’s compassion. That usually would settle folks down. And again, it’s not to fix the emotion. We just need to acknowledge that people will have a range of emotions and they will change moment to moment.

And then you might want to also think about, what’s important to them, to talk about their values, to say it sounds like is really important to you that if you really want this to be working because you want to help your customers, I as well want to help you get there, you know, so just just talking about their values. It’ll slow people down and help them think about why are they doing this? I’m here to help you. I’m with you. You know, a deep breath goes a long way because that gets us into that parasympathetic more positive. And if there’s anything you can do to kind of stretch the body, if you’re in a chair and you’re still on the phone, deep breathing will slow down the pulse and the blood pressure. That will help the brain get more blood flow and help them be more creative. So naming the emotion and then showing some empathy and showing and going back to the value of the company, I know this is really important to your company and we’re going to help you with this.

Jennifer: It sounds like those same tips would work really well for a leader who is trying to build that emotional support for their team members? Right. Just connecting with them and saying it sounds like. And naming an emotion.

Mary: Right, exactly. Absolutely. So, yeah, when you’re talking about a leader trying to discuss a change they’re trying to put forth in the company, if you can have your team feel that shared vision, it will give the team hope that they are on board with you. They know what the plan is. It’s when a team doesn’t know where they’re going and what’s happening moment to moment, that’s very disconcerting for our brain. We like to have a plan. We don’t like to waste our energy with our brain. The brain is metabolically incredibly active. It doesn’t like to waste time and energy. So if you tell your team this is our vision, this is what we’re doing today and have a communication be very clear, that will help the stress levels of your team members.

And if they feel that compassion if they feel cared for in any way, that will also put them in that creative brain state. And again, that relational energy that there are some give and take between the team, that the team has grit. It’s going to last. That means a lot to people, too, that they can hang in there through tough times because they know those values are there. That means hope for them, that they know what they’re going towards. And there’s a new day, even though today maybe is really tough and a little compassion, doesn’t have to be a lot just to know that someone thinks of you as a person.

Jennifer: Now, you’ve mentioned a number of things over the course of the interview, it sounds like at some level these are really simple tips in a way. So what I’m hearing, number one, is just three times throughout the day, take a breath, move your body and write down three words. And those are things I think you can do in the matter of a couple of minutes, right?

Mary: Right. At times, actually, yes. Because we hear a lot of times people say, I’m just too busy. I do a lot of things. I can’t do this. But yeah, I agree with you. Those are simple. They’re doable. They don’t cost any money. I love to give tips that are simple. You don’t need any tools. You can just take a piece of paper and write it down. So that’s easy. I agree.

Jennifer: So speaking of tools, you also mentioned right at the beginning of the interview, you wake up in the morning, you go outside, sunlight signals to your brain that the day is starting. So I know there’s a, you know, a whole industry around special lighting. Right. Like special lighting that will stimulate different parts of your brain to make you not depressed. And so are there tips around lighting?

Mary: It turns out the science isn’t very strong behind those lights. The best thing to do is actual daylight because it senses those natural lights easier. Some of us live north. I think you’re more north than I am, but we’re pretty north. So we’ve had some short days. But as soon as there’s some light, you want to orient your brain that that is the beginning of the day. And then you want to acknowledge as you go through the day, you get physical movement that will release some of those neurotrophic factors that we talked about, the things that help the nerves kind of sprout more and connect more easily and be more efficient. Then at the evening when you start to get cold, that’s your body telling you you’re getting tired. So it’s not a time to start a new project, sit in front of Netflix for four hours. It’s time to say this is your body getting tired. That’s why you get cold. And so that’s where you have to also look for your physical cues that your body’s kind of settling down. And then, of course, the lights, you don’t want those screen lights or any kind of lights an hour before you’re trying to go to bed, because that will turn on certain cells in the brain that say it is daytime, stay up.

Jennifer: So if someone wanted more information about the things that we’ve been talking about today, where could they go for that?

Mary: Yeah, so check out brain ops group dot com. We have a resiliency course just to help people learn some skills to increase your productivity throughout your workday. So we walk you through it. We give you a little information each week. Brain ops group dot com, that’s a great place to start. And there’s some information on the website and then some links to take your places if you’re interested in learning more. But yeah, I would start with some real simple tips each day and then even just emotions, because a lot of times people say, you know, I don’t want to open that closet of emotions. I don’t want to go in there. I’m not sure what’s in there. I’m not sure if I’ll get out, you know, but just naming them, give them less power in your day.

So the more we become adept at saying, oh, you know, I’m always frustrated around lunch, I must need to eat a little bit more protein at breakfast or take a little snack or make sure I’m drinking water is something, you know, stop having 20 meetings in the morning. I need one break. I need a little renewal. That’s the other thing that’s very important to be intentional about some renewal within your week, within your day and that renewal can be like we discussed, a little deep breath, a little stretch, a little walk around the block or the office. But you have to think you can’t just ask your brain constant activity without any kind of renewal. It’s not quite fair for any kind of machine.

Jennifer: Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Mary: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.

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