Q&A with Friederike Fabritius

What three neurochemicals lead to peak performance?

Although dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine are what you need for peak performance, I have developed a friendlier framework to make things easier to remember: It's Fun, Fear and Focus.

When you have fun with the task at hand, that is, when you really enjoy what you are doing, you release dopamine. Dopamine makes your brain more efficient, helps you learn better, and allows your prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain for rational and analytical processing, to function better.

After fun, there's fear, which releases noradrenaline. And when I say "fear," I'm not talking about horror movie fear. I mean the little bit of uncertainty you feel when you're slightly over-challenged, when you're forced to step just outside of your comfort zone.

The last of the three factors is focus. It's only when we truly focus that a chemical called acetylcholine is released in the brain. Of the three factors we need for peak performance, focus may be the toughest to achieve. We are surrounded by distractions. If you are multitasking, you aren't focusing. And if you aren't focusing, you can't achieve peak performance. So, close your door, clear your desk, turn off your phone, and truly focus on doing your best. If it isn't too easy, that's OK. As we've seen, a little fear is good. And, in the end, you'll do more than just perform at your peak. I think you'll have fun!

Why are people so sensitive to negative feedback?

At times it may seem as though we're surrounded by touchy coworkers, but the reality is all of us are inordinately sensitive to negative feedback. In fact, we are nine times more sensitive to bad news than to good news. Why is that? The answer lies in two important regions of the brain, the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens.

The amygdala is activated when we're feeling threatened. It's the source of the famous fight, flight, or freeze response. The nucleus accumbens is triggered whenever we anticipate some sort of reward. Both of these are very primitive responses and with good reason. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that they are the source of our very survival. The amygdala kept our ancestors out of danger, while the nucleus accumbens led them to life-sustaining things such food and mates. The urges to eat and to mate are very strong, but they aren't nearly as powerful as the impulse to respond to danger. After all, food and an attractive partner are irrelevant if you're dead.

Of course, most of us face nothing like the hazards that our primitive relatives encountered. But the truth is, our brains haven't changed much since prehistoric times. As a result, we use the same brain region to react to criticism and disappointing performance reviews as we once used to fight an enemy from a rival tribe or outrun a ferocious tiger.

There are techniques that we can learn to tone down our reactions. As a trained neuropsychologist, leadership expert, and executive coach, I frequently work with clients to perfect these techniques. But the fact remains that our first response to a threat, any threat, is quick and very powerful. So, your touchy coworkers aren't always to blame. Their brains were just wired that way.

What is the key to learning that lasts?

You may be many years, even decades, out of college, but if you haven't discovered this already, in order to stay competitive in the business world, you have to constantly keep learning.

When it comes to learning, there has always been one indispensable concept: emotional relevance. To understand why, it helps to take a look at an area of the brain known as the limbic system. Right smack in the middle of this area is a region called the hippocampus. It's here where your brain decides whether something is worth learning and remembering or whether it can be safely forgotten. How does the brain make this decision? Well, it's no coincidence that the hippocampus is located right between our emotional centers for threats and rewards, the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens. When new information is seen as threatening or rewarding, the brain will usually determine that it's worth storing away for future reference. That's how our ancestors learned, for example, that lions can be dangerous and that apples are delicious.

Learning still works this way today. If information is seen as threatening or rewarding, that is, if it shows up on our emotional radar, we're far more likely to remember it. And what if it's boring, repetitive, or uninspiring? You can forget about it. Literally!

So, should you torture yourself in order to learn the new technologies that relate to your business? No! Although learning by threat -- psychologists call this aversive conditioning -- is actually the strongest form of learning, it should only be used if you want to inhibit undesired behavior, such as touching a hot stove burner. Because it blocks the rational and creative parts of our brain, this sort of learning by threat should be limited to things we need to react to quickly and unconsciously (e.g. for Health & Safety situations), not for information that we want to consciously analyze and build upon

The best way to make information emotionally relevant is to devise creative ways to make it new and enjoyable. Super nanny Mary Poppins had it right when she said, "For every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap! The job's a game!"

As most people know, children are like little learning sponges. Their ability to absorb information can be truly phenomenal. This has led to the misconception that we lose our ability to learn as we get older. Not so! In fact, as a trained neuropsychologist, I can assure you that a concept known as neuroplasticity can enable you to keep learning almost indefinitely. Neuroplasticity proves that our brains can constantly be rewired, establishing new, important connections and breaking old and no longer relevant ones. It isn't age that's stopping you. It's an inability or reluctance to make learning fun, precisely the way that children do.

So, if you want to keep learning at work, just find the fun. And snap! Your job's a game!

How can you better use your brain to make the best decisions?

We spend our days making thousands of decisions. Some big. Some small. While most of them are relatively inconsequential, a few of them could cost a fair amount of money and some can even save our lives or the lives of others.

How you make each individual decision depends on the part of your brain you use and whether you are a novice or an expert in the area where you're called upon to make a choice.

Experts and novices arrive at optimum decisions in very different ways. This difference is crucial, but it can also be the source of great confusion and annoyance.

Few things are more frustrating when you're learning the ropes in a new job and you ask an experienced coworker to explain how she arrived at her decision. "I don't really know how I came up with that answer. I just knew."

Chances are, these experts aren't being coy or deliberately difficult. In fact, they may truly be unable to recount the steps they took to reach their conclusion. In fact, some of these experts make the mistake of concluding that they arrived at an answer through sheer luck or even ESP. But the truth is that there's nothing fortuitous or paranormal about expert intuition. It's a logical calculation and the product of extraordinary data crunching. What makes expert intuition seem so miraculous is that most of the thinking occurs very quickly and largely unconsciously.

Novices typically make decisions consciously and by using a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex or PFC. Experts are more apt to rely on the basal ganglia, a golf ball sized region of the brain that operates under our conscious radar. But the distinction between the PFC and the basal ganglia isn't simply a question of conscious vs. unconscious. It's also a matter of speed and processing power. If you think of your prefrontal cortex as an abacus, your basal ganglia is a supercomputer.

If you're an expert, the less time and information you have, the more effective you are likely to be in making decisions. The shortage of time and the scarcity of data forces the brain to operate unconsciously and to rely on the basal ganglia to make the decision. Giving experts too much time or information can actually backfire, forcing them to become overly self-conscious about a process that has become second nature. Anyone who has ever experienced the yips in golf or choked during a tennis game will recognize the danger of over-thinking. On the other hand, if you're a relative beginner, both lots of time and lots of data are your friends. You'll need to mull things over consciously and to weigh and analyze the available evidence and information.

Whether you make the right decision or the wrong one, this experience will usually be stored in your basal ganglia. As your experience accumulates, you will have more and more data to draw upon until ultimately you reach the level of expert and will no longer require the time, the information, and the conscious energy to make the optimal choice. Experts may seem like they're simply winging it or guessing. But they aren't. The analysis they once had to do slowly and consciously is now being performed so quickly and unconsciously that when they arrive at a decision it not only seems to come out of the blue, but it's often the best possible choice.