December 11, 2012 by Jeff Hurt
We’ve all experienced it: that overwhelming sense of dread!
A tsunami of emails.
Total exhaustion from too many meetings.
The constant barrage of urgent texts from colleagues, family and friends.
Change piled upon change, often when we can’t or won’t tolerate it.
Our brain has its limits! Too much stress and pressure and it gets overwhelmed. Not enough arousal and interest and it gets bored. Let’s face it, thinking is hard work! Everything must be “just right.”
Surprisingly, one of the best ways to lead to improvement in mental performance is to understand the brain’s limits says neuroscientist Dr. David Rock.
And if you want to improve your conference attendees’ mental performance, it makes sense to understand their brains’ limits and design conference schedules that align with our brain’s natural processes.
Making decisions and solving problems depends upon the prefrontal cortex. This part of your brain sits just behind the forehead. It is only 4%-5% of your total brain.
While it’s a small part of your brain, as with espresso it can pack a powerful punch! It proves that good things can come in small packages.
According to Yale professor and neuroscientist Amy Arnsten, your prefrontal cortex is where you hold all of your original thoughts not being generated from your senses. It hosts the contents of your mind at any given time. It’s where we generate our own ideas. It’s our center of thinking.
Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is also extremely finicky. It has severe limitations.
Imagine that the processing power of your prefrontal cortex were equivalent to the number of coins in your pocket right now. The processing power of the rest of your brain is equivalent to the US economy!
As Arnsten discovered, the prefrontal cortex is like the Goldilocks of your brain. It must have everything just right or it doesn’t function properly.
To take this further, the conference experience you design, including its schedule, must have everything aligned with how Goldilocks–the prefrontal cortex of your attendees’ brains–likes it, or your attendees don’t enjoy it! They can feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed. Everything has to be just right!
Imagine if conference organizers treated their attendees’ capacity to think the same way they treated their organization’s financial assets, with a tight control on spending. Then we would look at planning our conference schedules very differently. We would consider our schedules with a tight control of too much information or not enough time to replenish resources. We would schedule activities differently based on how much energy and resources they used.
To help your attendees’ Goldilocks get it just right, challenge them to allocate their conference time to the most important reasons they are there. Ask them to prioritize the conference offerings first because prioritizing is one of the brain’s most energy-hungry processes.
While this may seem obvious, how many attendees come to a conference with a prioritized list of activities? Encouraging this activity, allows the brain to use its resources for something important instead of being devoted to distractions and rabbit trails.
Why ask them to prioritize first? Because prioritizing is the black diamond ski slope of thinking. Ask them to do it while they are fresh and energized. Or they may crash and burn.
Remember, think of your attendees’ conscious thinking as a precious resource. You want them to think because that’s how learning occurs. You want them to think about solutions to their problems. You don’t want them to use up those resources on multitasking or trying to stay awake due to sheer boredom or passivity.
Hat Tips to Dr. David Rock and his book, Your Brain At Work which gives valuable insight to how our brain works.
What types of conference activities do you think use up valuable thinking resources without any ROI? How will you engage Goldilocks–your attendees’ prefrontal cortex–wisely at your next conference?
Filed Under: Conference Education
I’ve spend lots of time at conferences going from one session to the next without taking the time to prioritize, your points are valid to ask conference attendess to schedule in advance how much they can take in, perhaps even asking people to limit their schedule ahead of time. I’d rather have people attend a conference and get something meaningful out of it than just attend every session but leave with no new insights.
Thanks for the post.
[…] are recombined to communicate, plan, problem-solve and perform other mental tasks. They all use the pre-frontal cortex of your brain intensively and require considerably more metabolic resources than you realize. If […]
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