/ 26 January 2024

A neuroscientific approach to thriving into adulthood

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It is rewarding for the brain when we do what we love, says organisational psychologist Ingra du Buisson-Narsai.

The key lies in aligning one’s pursuits with positive personal goals

In a world marked by constant change and challenges, the journey from school to adulthood is a dynamic experience that can be both exciting and overwhelming. Award-winning organisational psychologist Ingra du Buisson-Narsai is renowned for her expertise in applied neuroscience and its impact on human flourishing. She believes that neuroscience can be a valuable tool in aiding young people as they navigate the challenges of post-school life and begin to actively shape their futures.

Du Buisson-Narsai’s bestselling book, Fight, Flight and Flourish: How Neuroscience Can Unlock Human Potential, not only identifies and dissects stress responses but also delves into fundamental strategies for fostering “an upward spiral of flourishing”.

From learning to “stress right” to the significance of a good night’s sleep, mindfulness, emotional fluency and the power of social connectivity, she says understanding how the brain works (and why it works that way) can help create a roadmap to shape a positive reality. “Every memory, action, interaction, gesture, expectation or decision we have or take activates either reward or threat networks in the brain, with a resulting impact on our mood states,” she explains. 

Reward states, she explains, are linked to increased cognitive resources, creativity, problem-solving abilities with insight, and a broader perceptual field. Conversely, avoidance or threat states are associated with mental fatigue, reduced creativity, sadness, rumination, catastrophizing and depression. “What we focus on becomes our default, and we can choose to create a future that we love or are inspired by, and then follow through, or perspire, to make it happen — also known as neuroplasticity,” she explains. 

Maximising learning through brain understanding

The key message from research in neural functioning is that the interaction between human beings and their environment plays a vital role in psychological development towards wellness or illness. Understanding the brain becomes a powerful tool for students looking to maximise their learning and academic performance. 

Students can enter a creative tension state, an enriched environment conducive to optimal brain functioning by focusing on what they want and taking daily action steps aligned with personal passions. “It is rewarding for the brain to do what we love or when we love what we do.” Embracing language such as “I love to, I am inspired by, I get to, and I choose to” is pivotal, as it is rooted in approach/reward neural networks. 

Focusing on tasks or activities one dislikes, or conforming to others’ expectations, inevitably leads to emotional tension and creates a compromised environment. This is often reflected in language such as “I must, I have to, I should have”, which is deeply rooted in avoidance neural networks and accompanied by the release of stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.

The key lies in aligning one’s pursuits with positive personal goals. This does not mean that life is easy or without challenges just because one focuses on what one loves: “What it does mean is that when we have done our due diligence and we know what we love, we can endure both pain and pleasure that will make it a reality. Maximum personal and neuronal growth happens on the cusp of support and challenge.” 

Living in a supercharged world 

Du Buisson-Narsai highlights the challenges faced by today’s youth, navigating a “supercharged world” marked by disruptions and conflicting demands. She aptly compares this to walking across a thin, iced surface on a dark lake — initially lacking certainty, control, or orientation. The question arises: How do we continue moving forward?

According to her, the answer lies in understanding the unique factors that motivate us as humans — our basic needs — and using them to craft a roadmap for flourishing or optimal functioning. Du Buisson-Narsai points out that human behaviour experts have identified four core psychological needs or motivators underlying human functioning: connection, certainty, control and consistency. 

“These psychological needs are as crucial as physical necessities like sleep, food and shelter,” she emphasises. “Bringing these needs into conscious awareness and calibrating our lives accordingly ensures positive engagement in life, where we can achieve neural thriving and flourish while meeting greater and greater challenges. This instils confidence and efficacy for one to live life to the fullest, regardless of existing challenges, and physically alters our brain networks.” 

The 4 Cs of optimal functioning 

In the transition period after matric, however, these needs are not often met, or at least not met in the way that one might expect: “The things you are accustomed to are not necessarily missing when you go to a new place, but you might find that what you need is in a different form. Your warm meal might come from the cafeteria and not your mother, and similarly you might find that new friends have similar traits to old ones, even though they are different people.” 

Connection is about a sense of safety with others. “Your network is your net worth,” she says. “Feeling connected to others is rewarding, and it is painful when we are excluded or not considered. We literally cannot survive as humans without feeling safe in the presence of others.”

The need for connectedness can be met by spending time with others, engaging in shared experiences, collaborating on a project or working together towards shared goals. Find a community that shares in both challenges and victories, and which values openness.

Empower yourself or be overpowered

Access to information about study options and career choices can increase feelings of certainty and control. “Daily routines and clear expectations about the future give us certainty and consistency and are rewarding to the brain,” she says. 

Crafting a life purpose and mission contributes to a sense of control and agency: “There is a prototype for flourishing. This entails having an inspiring goal and game plan that you work towards in each of these seven areas of your life: spiritual, mental, vocational, financial, physical, family and social. This exercise positively changes our neural networks.” 

Finding balance and unlocking success

But simply having a goal is not enough. “Commit to do three things daily to make it happen; take meticulous action and be relentless in pursuing your vision and mission.” 

She says a fundamental premise of applied organisational neuroscience is that self-referencing and other-referencing are superpowers: “This means we must develop self- and other-awareness, recognising the bored self, the self that is in an optimum or flow state, and the burnout self, and then deploy tools to ensure we spend the most time in the optimal state.”

Self-regulation through simple practices like breath awareness, purposeful pauses, journaling, movement and social bonding can go a long way in contributing towards flourishing instead of languishing. “It’s like flossing the brain — these habitual practices get rid of neural debris like stress chemicals and neural patterns of survival, making space for new experiences,” she says. 

Embracing the future with neuroscience

Schools are increasingly realising the benefits of and embracing reflective practices such as mindfulness, peer-support circles, yoga and gratitude journaling to help create an enriched environment conducive to optimal learning. The overarching goal is to understand and regulate the nervous system, fostering a relaxed state for effective learning and social connection.

Du Buisson-Narsai encourages embracing the power of the subconscious mind “and all its superpowers” and confidently driving one’s own future. “The most amazing thing you will discover is that you can decide who you want to be and how you want things to be,” she says. “Craft your heart’s desires and take small daily actions. An incredible life force kicks in once we choose how we want to be of service to the world, what we would love to be, to do or to have and commit to it.”