“I’m so tired I can’t think.” Most of us have said something like this at one time or another. But there are other consequences of “tired brain,” and they can be devastating.
You may have heard that the brain’s prefrontal cortex — the portion that covers the front part of the frontal lobe — carries out what scientists call the “executive function” of the brain, meaning such things as planning, decision-making, and emotional regulation. If this part of the brain is damaged, these functions go awry.
But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t have to be physically damaged for things to go wrong; according to recent research, ordinary fatigue can harm its ability to carry out its assigned functions.
You can readily see the implications. If your prefrontal cortex is “out of gas” at the end of a hard day at the office, you’re at risk of making a bad decision or flying off the handle — behaviors that, at the very least, will hurt your reputation and can even lead to career-damaging blunders.
So what can you do to avert these kinds of crashes?
First things, of course, are adequate sleep, good diet and regular exercise. You probably suspected as much. These rules for overall good health apply in spades to brain health.
Three protective strategies
However, there are other strategies you can also deploy to avert bad decisions and emotional outbursts. Chief Learning Officer magazine lists three of them:
- Do the hard stuff in the morning. Creative problem-solving, brainstorming and making decisions exhausts the prefrontal cortex. Do this kind of work when your brain is fresh — most likely in the morning. And pamper your brain while doing it, with plenty of rest breaks and healthy snacks.
- Get small decisions out of the way. Your first decisions of the day probably come long before you’ve reached the office and gotten down to work. You’ll have had to decide things like what to wear, what to have for breakfast, even whether you’ll take the usual route to the office or vary it. These decisions, simple and mundane as they may seem, tax your brain to some extent. So make as many of them as possible the night before. Lay out your wardrobe, plan your breakfast, etc. before you go to bed.
- Watch for the signs of fatigue. Although your brain doesn’t feature a red light that goes on when it’s nearly drained, it does give you more subtle signals that you’re running out of gas. You may experience increased sensitivity to light and sound, or a heightened emotional state. (Example: A news article about something objectionable fills you with anger rather than mere distaste.) If you notice any of these signs, try to defer any important decisions or conversations that might be emotionally loaded.
Don’t overdo it
When it comes to avoiding the consequences of operating with a tired brain, being aware is half the battle.
Know that, just like any muscle group in your chest, back or lower body, your brain — notably the key prefrontal cortex — is subject to fatigue. Don’t overtax it, and if you do, back off from decisions or interactions whose consequences you might regret.
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