Neurophysiology 101

You probably know by the name where the prefrontal cortex is – it’s the front part of your brain, behind your forehead.  Symbolically this makes sense based on what it does, too.  The prefrontal cortex is the executive decision-making and planning part of your brain.  It’s the boss.

Functions of the PFC:

The first three of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” all have to do with the prefrontal cortex.  My paraphrase is that effective people are 1) self-controlled (that is, they recognize they are in charge of the direction of their lives), 2) visionary (since they realize they are in control, they consciously decide where they want to go), and 3) disciplined (once they decide where they want to go, they break that vision into smaller steps that are easier to accomplish).

All of these habits draw upon the prefrontal cortex, or PFC.  They require:

  • Durable attention span
  • Perseverance
  • Judgment, wisdom, and the ability to learn from experience
  • Impulse control (subjugating emotions and desires of the moment to higher values)
  • Organization (breaking a plan of action into manageable pieces)
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Effective communication

The prefrontal cortex runs predominantly on dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with time management, planning and execution.  (It’s also the neurotransmitter typically associated with pleasure and reward, which makes sense with the PFC’s function of learning from experience.)

Problems with the PFC:

By some estimates, the PFC does not finish developing until a person reaches around 25 years of age (which honestly explains a lot, doesn’t it?)  Wisdom is usually considered to be a function of age.  So although (alas) years on the earth does not necessarily guarantee wisdom, it certainly does increase our capacity for it.

Low PFC function (even after its development) is associated with an inverse of the above.  Specifically:

  • Short attention span, distractibility, and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD, also associated with low basal ganglia activity)
  • Poor communication skills, especially of one’s emotions
  • Thoughtlessness and lack of empathy
  • Lack of impulse control (often these are daredevils, and/or lack social graces)
  • Lack of follow-through or perseverance
  • Poor time management, chronic lateness, and procrastination
  • Disorganization
  • Difficulty learning from experience
  • Irritability and negativity (poor mood regulation)

Treatment Approaches

Self-control is one of the most critical elements to a successful life. But before we can achieve it, first we must recognize that self-control is available to us.  Without this awareness, we will simply accept whatever ideas occur to us, and submit to our circumstances.  (If you’re not yet convinced that you do have it, I’d recommend you check out Stephen Covey’s book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

Let’s just take it as a given, then, that we get to choose how we think, and those thoughts affect both our emotions and our actions.  If that’s true, suddenly setting goals for makes a lot more sense!  Just as any building first requires a blueprint, so any action first requires a mental plan – we never do anything physically without first envisioning ourselves doing it in our minds. So use that to your advantage: visualize what you want to accomplish in each major area of your life. Separate the vision into your relationships, your career, your finances, your health, your emotions, and your spirituality.  Write it down.  Make it as detailed as possible, and keep a copy in front of you as often as possible.  The more you meditate on your vision, the more your thoughts, words, and choices will work together to make it a reality.

Once you’ve created the vision, next you will need to invoke some time management strategies to help bring it about. There are many approaches to this; my favorite is to simply schedule time every week in chunks of at least one hour per activity, keeping the overall vision in mind of a balanced life, so that the activities don’t all fall under a single category, such as work. But this isn’t always possible if, for instance, your schedule is highly variable.  In that situation, it might be best to simply create a list of priorities according to your vision, and break down daily tasks beneath each one in order of importance.

What if you have ADD/ADHD?  Most cases of ADD/ADHD have a physical component underlying them that involves the gut, and it does require a thorough work-up.  I talked more about that here.

If you just can’t focus, no matter how hard you try:

First, ask yourself:

  • Are you fatigued? That’ll definitely stand in your way, and you’ll need to address the root cause.

If it’s none of these, you might try the amino acid precursor for the neurotransmitter dopamine, called L-tyrosine (around 1000 mg twice daily), or check out this list of herbal support for memory and concentration.