RTF CONFERENCE 2019 – Is your brain sabotaging your body?

9 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineApril 14, 2020

It‘s not just New Zealand‘s roads that are getting busier – our brains are too.

Dr Lucia Kelleher opened her talk about Busy Brain Syndrome at last year‘s RTF conference with the iconic – albeit staged – shot of workers sitting on a steel beam in mid-air during construction of the Rockefeller Centre in the 1920s. Not a harness or hi-vis vest in sight, and yet the number of deaths on projects like this were very small compared with today‘s highly regulated world of health and safety. Kelleher says we‘re suffering from ‘Busy Brain‘ – or loss of brain bandwidth – which is caused by our digital world severely compromising brain processing. It is the leading cause of ‘human factor‘ issues in organisations. “So how do we overcome it? Well, first of all, we have to actually understand what Busy Brain Syndrome is.

If you think about the age of technology, the most fundamental changes to humans have occurred in the past 20 years. If you look at our lifestyle, there has never been a previous period in history where we‘ve had such radical change.” Kelleher says today there is a “tsunami of stimulus” bombarding our brain. As a result, the fight or flight response controlled by the reptilian (or survival) brain has become locked on. The danger of the fight or flight response being locked on is that the brain has no way of discerning whether the signals coming in are innocuous emails or a lion eyeing us up for lunch, and treats everything as a potential threat until it can assess it.

Photo: Dr Kelleher debunked plenty of myths.

“What‘s happened is the brain‘s said ‘I haven‘t got time to keep flicking on and off to check whether this thing‘s a threat, so I‘m going to stay on all the time‘.” This results in the level of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the bloodstream being elevated almost constantly. “When the fight or flight response is activated and working well, everything‘s fine. If we have to make a decision, say we‘re driving and see someone who‘s moving out of the lane, then we‘ll make a decision to back off, to keep away from that car, maybe even change lanes. But if we‘re not processing it, then we won‘t see it.” Kelleher says the brain requires a lot of energy as about 25% of our body‘s functions are done automatically, like breathing and keeping our blood flowing. “When we‘re in a state of Busy Brain, our bandwidth of consciousness decreases. The available energy for your consciousness, which is the smart part of your brain, decreases. The more stressful or anxious you are, the less available conscious bandwidth.

“ We‘re not addicted to that piece of metal and plastic and glass, that‘s not what we‘re hooked on at all – it‘s the checking. We know the bulk of drivers are distracted.”

When we‘re in our normal, relaxed state, our brain is completely open. We do not miss anything. But we are rarely in this state these days, as most of our time is spent in various levels of Busy Brain.” Kelleher says the risk with Busy Brain is that more tasks get done unconsciously, which is where the risk lies. She asked everyone to raise their hand if they had ever driven somewhere and not remembered all or part of the trip. A large number of hands were raised. “Does anyone know why driving seems to be one of these things we‘re quite susceptible to forgetting? It‘s automatic, and it‘s repetitive. As drivers, the risk of that happening is very high if you‘re on a repetitive run. Because what happens is the brain says, ‘oh, we know this, we‘ve got this‘ and it takes away all the consciousness.” Instead of our bodies being in a relaxed state and switching over to a stressed state when necessary, Kelleher says many of us are in that stressed state constantly, particularly if we‘re under pressure.

“The transport industry is rampant with pressure, particularly if you‘re a contractor, and it‘s relentless. So the chances of you going into Busy Brain are really, really high.” Another issue Kelleher raised was ‘nomophobia‘ – the fear of being out of cellular phone contact. “We‘re not addicted to that piece of metal and plastic and glass, that‘s not what we‘re hooked on at all – it‘s the checking. We know the bulk of drivers are distracted. If they‘re not on their phones in the car, they‘re thinking about their phones. If they‘re not texting, they‘re thinking about it. So if they hear a ping, where‘s their attention gone? Even if their phone‘s not next to them, if they hear it, where‘s their attention? It‘s gone to the phone. So they‘re not focusing on what‘s in front of them.” While some people used alcohol as a way to switch off Busy Brain, Kelleher said there were other more effective methods.

“People who are into fitness and so forth understand how to keep their bodies in a relaxed state. When you are in the moment and focused on the task at hand, you are not worrying about anything else. When you‘re in Busy Brain, you‘re either in the past or in the future. What the hell is the point, in this present moment, worrying about something that may or may not happen? There‘s none, and yet we do it all the time.” Kelleher had one final piece of advice: “For those of you who drive, whenever you‘re in your vehicle, use that time to breathe deeply and relax. People say ‘oh, I‘ll be too relaxed and I‘ll crash‘. Trust me, you will not, because your brain will be completely open, you won‘t miss a thing.”