The Exhausted Mind

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Episode Transcript

The Exhausted Mind

We now move to mental energy vampires. These can sometimes be confused or combined with emotional energy vampires, though it’s ultimately not so important which category your vampire falls into. Mental energy is about the load on our brains and fighting our way back from overwhelm, whereas emotional energy is about how about we feel about ourselves and the world. Mental energy is what we’re lacking when we’re physically fit, emotionally stable, yet utterly unable to have a coherent or analytical thought.

Surprisingly, we can experience a drained brain quite easily.

The prefrontal cortex, where our higher thinking resides, is like a calf muscle that grows tired and eventually stops working in the correct way. Our brains have a limited number of thoughts and decisions we can meaningfully analyze and make, and the more decisions we consider, the more fatigued we get. This is a phenomenon more generally known as ego depletion.

Ego depletion is the idea that our mental resources are limited. When our resources drain or decrease, our mental activities go poorly. This phenomenon was first discovered in relation to self-control, where experiments (Baumeister et al., 1998) showed that subjects who resisted chocolate performed worse and gave up earlier on a puzzle task. In other words, ego depletion was in full effect, and the amount of self-control they exhibited in resisting the chocolate directly weakened their ability to persist with the puzzle task.

Self-discipline and decision quality decreased quickly as ego depletion started to take place. If you’re thinking you’ve read something recently that claims the concept of ego depletion has come into doubt in recent years, that’s true, and we’ll discuss that at the end of this section.

Once you get over the initial surprise that something as small as making a decision can deplete your mental resources, you begin to find that it makes all too much sense. The brain requires energy to act and think. In fact, the brain uses up to 20 percent of our daily energy consumption, despite being only 2 percent of the mass of our bodies. Each conscious thought, decision, and task requires a certain amount of activation energy.

The thought process involved in the debate of overindulging in chocolate or not can be quite lengthy and agonizing, and as the experiment showed, it can eliminate your capacity for self-control in the future. It’s easy to resist chocolate once or twice, but when you encounter the temptation repeatedly throughout the day, your self-control will likely erode, and it will become nearly impossible to say no—because your brain will run out of juice to do so.

Further support for the theory of ego depletion came in the form of feeding versus starving the brain and then seeing what happened while using self-control.

Experiments showed that using self-control depleted the brain of glucose, its primary energy source, and that ingesting sources of nutrition and glucose could reverse ego depletion and energize people’s sense of discipline and self-control. Self-control uses a significant amount of your brain’s power reserves, and purely exercising self-control can make you function noticeably less efficiently overall.

Our mental energy can be drained all too easily, so the question is how to safeguard this reservoir of brainpower for when you need it. How can you keep yourself energized and charged as often as possible?

Start by viewing your energy as a battery with a low charge. How would you protect your smartphone’s battery if you knew you were going to be watching three hours of video on it later? Decision-making, motivating, and using self-control all draw from the same pool of the prefrontal cortex, so these are the activities you need to be mindful of.

You should try to get a sense of what is trivial in your day in terms of motivation, decisions, or self-discipline—and remove or avoid these elements.

How do you know if something is trivial? If it’s truly trivial, it won’t matter if you ignore it, or the choices you make will have no ill effect that lasts longer than a few minutes. This is a tough step for most of us because we are trained to give our full and undivided attention to something, lest we perform it poorly. In a way, this point advocates simply seeing what you can get away with paying little attention to—for your prefrontal cortex’s sake. Every percentage of your battery you save for that task later makes a difference.

Trivial decisions should only be allocated a trivial amount of mental bandwidth, so try to keep things proportional so you can preserve as much as possible for when you need it. If something doesn’t impact your life, take it off your plate as soon as possible.

The overall aim of this point is to make fewer conscious choices per day. Instead of even dealing with some decisions, you could choose to automate them—in other words, pick only one option and stick with it for consistency and ease. In a sense, you are making rules for yourself to eliminate options—for instance, one lunch, one outfit, one music playlist, and one method of doing things.

This is also the purported reason Apple founder Steve Jobs had a standard uniform of sneakers, a black turtleneck, and comfortable jeans. It was so he could avoid making decisions and save his brainpower for when he actually needed it. On a daily basis, this can truly transform into energy you can use for maximum discipline and motivation.

Your mental resources always recharge, but they are easily depleted. Get into battle mode and treat your brain like a muscle that you need for peak energy.

As mentioned earlier, there has been doubt cast on ego depletion in recent years as a scientific theory. Some follow-up studies have found inconclusive results based on Baumeister’s work, and others have determined that ego depletion only occurred when the participants already knew about the theory prior to being studied—it gives people an easy excuse to give up on things, as a result of “being drained.”

Ego depletion may not be conclusively proven, but we can still make a credible argument that consciously having to think about ten tasks in a day is more mentally strenuous than thinking about two tasks in a day. The more you have to think about, the less energy you will be able to muster up. The argument for lessening the load on the prefrontal cortex remains the same; the term just changes slightly from ego depletion to overall energy depletion.

Based on what we’ve just learned about the brain and its tendency to quickly be exhausted, we can say it is just like any other part of your body in that it needs to be taken care of physically. We know that if your brain is deprived of nutrition and the proper amount of sleep, it will cease to function well and be drained of energy.

But after having fulfilled those foundational requirements, stress is one of the biggest and most insidious influences on the brain’s health.

If you want a clear and concrete illustration, you don’t have to look any further than any veteran or trauma victim suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how their lives are negatively affected. They literally lack the ability to function in daily life because they are so tense, and they are likely to snap at any given moment as a release for their anxiety and fear. All their energy is devoted to emergency alarm systems, and this constant drain leaves them unable to think beyond the current moment.

A plethora of research has found that stress impacts the brain’s health and mental capacity in hugely negative ways. This is in large part due to the body’s physiological response to stress. But first, it will be helpful to define the difference between the two main types of stress: chronic and acute stress.

Chronic stress is when you are under ongoing stress for a relatively long period of time—something as small as being under a constant heavy load at work or dealing with a relationship that is frequently combative. These are small sources of stress that seem insignificant until you look at the cumulative effects and realize you are always on edge, testy, and tense with knots in your shoulders. When we are experiencing chronic stress (the amount of which is highly variable and relative to the person’s tolerance), our body is in a state of physiological arousal. This is known as the fight-or-flight response, and it’s our body’s main defense mechanism when it senses a stressor.

This response was useful millennia ago when the terms “fight” and “flight” were taken literally—if the body sensed a stressor or a reason to be in fear, it would put itself on the highest levels of alertness and be prepared for a fight to the death, if necessary, or for running away as quickly as possible. In either case, the body’s hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure are highly elevated. The main stress hormone, cortisol, is released in spades and has been implicated in causing the state of alertness.

So if you are under chronic stress, you are permanently in this fight-or-flight mode of alertness and have an excess of cortisol. Your body will very rarely reach the relaxation phase, which is known as a state of homeostasis. And unfortunately, cortisol saps your energy and leaves you exhausted.

Chronic stress makes you alert and physiologically aroused all the time. This is exhausting both physically and mentally and has the effect of shrinking your brain. Studies have shown that chronic stress has caused as big as a 14 percent decrease in hippocampal volume (the area of your brain responsible for memory encoding and storage), which is startling. When we’re stressed, we’re also more prone to emotional outbursts, unhealthy thought patterns, and even poor digestion and sleep.

A study (Pasquali, 2006) showed that memory in rats was negatively affected when the rats were exposed to cats, which presumably caused stress. The rats that were exposed to cats far more routinely were unable to locate certain entrances and exits.

The difficult part is you may not realize you are under chronic stress, because it has become normalized for you. It is just like when your shoulders tense up—you probably don’t recognize it until someone points it out, and you can see the contrast between being relaxed and being tense.

The cumulative effects of being constantly on edge, paranoid, unable to focus, and feeling despair and overwhelm will catch up to you. Imagine being pumped up on adrenaline for days, weeks, or months. Not only will it impair your memory and brain processing, but it will leave you unable to function in general. Excess and consistent cortisol can cause a loss of neurons in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, as well as decrease the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is what creates the feeling of happiness. This is what people with PTSD suffer, but to a much higher degree.

Acute stress, on the other hand, is not something that will slide by unnoticed.

Acute stress is the sudden jolt of adrenaline you experience when someone cuts you off in traffic and you nearly crash, or when you get into a heated argument. However, acute stress is momentary, temporary, and you can feel it and notice it. This is when adrenaline is coursing through your veins, leaving your palms sweaty and hands shaking. Your body is trying to give you the alertness and strength you need for any response. Intense bouts of acute stress can even cause headaches, muscle tension, upset stomach, or vomiting.

If this stress persists and lasts for a longer period of time, it just may cross the threshold into chronic stress.

But the labels are unimportant. What’s important is what happens to your brain’s abilities and energy levels when you are under any type of stress. The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated. When stress is frequent, these pathways can grow so strong that they become your brain’s default route to its lower, reactive control centers. Your primitive brain dominates more frequently, and you lose touch with your conscious, logical, and calm brain.

We can’t simply plan to avoid stressful situations in our life, nor can we eliminate the vampiric people we described earlier. The best we can do is try and safeguard ourselves, but our efforts will never be foolproof. Life is simply not that predictable or full of choices for most of us. The much better approach is to develop tools to cope with stress, and that’s where we move next.

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