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Your Inner Computer: Using Neuroscience to Boost Performance and Well-Being

Kendra Brodin, Esq., MSW; Catherine Duncan MA, BCC; and Henry Emmons, MD

We are always looking for new ways to help others learn and grow. We host training courses, bring in speakers, and provide access to online tools to support our lawyers and law students to become their best personally and professionally.

But what if there was another tool that we haven’t considered? What if we could help others change from the inside?

The brain wants to learn and grow, and it wants to be in a state of well-being. Given the enormous demands on those we serve (and on ourselves), we need every possible tool in our toolbox to deal with the unprecedented levels of change and challenge we are all facing.

When we understand how our brain works and support it rather than fighting against it, we are primed to perform and feel our best. But if we continue to pour more information into our brains, make greater demands, and avoid treating our brain with the respect it deserves, it’s like driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. We want to go faster, do better, and feel stronger, but it won’t work.

Improve your well-being by disengaging and taking a brain break.

Improve your well-being by disengaging and taking a brain break.

Deagreez |

Enter the field of neuroscience. When we understand how the brain functions, we can implement simple strategies to help our brain to function optimally. We build up the one “muscle” we use in our profession, our brain, so that we can do our best thinking, learning, and creating.

That’s why we need to put neuroscience front and center as we design developmental programs and learning opportunities, as well as determine how to structure work, feedback, compensation, and organizational culture. We will get the results we want when we tend to the internal computer that makes it all possible — our brain.

Neuroscience: The Science of Change

At its core, neuroscience studies the structure and function of the brain. Neuroscientists look at a variety of disciplines, including biology, anatomy, physiology, psychology, and others to understand how the brain works.

The brain isn’t simply another organ in our body. Our brains control the thoughts we think, the feelings we feel, and the actions we take. Specifically, the field of behavioral neuroscience looks at the impact of the brain and nervous system on key performance indicators such as focus, understanding, motivation, learning, performance, problem- solving, and memory.

In our positions as lawyers and legal professionals, it’s foundational to apply neuroscience (even if we don’t call it that) as we lean into the many facets of our roles: development, effectiveness, diversity (including neurodiversity), performance, motivation, engagement, and so many more.

All we have to offer is what our brains create. We don’t get paid just to create tangible items. We don’t get paid to attempt great physical challenges. We think. We interact. We are “knowledge workers” and “mental athletes.” It only makes sense to understand and prioritize the organ that does our thinking— our brain.

Neuroscience: A Primer

Epigenetics suggests a new understanding of our genetic code. While remaining fairly stable throughout our lives, our genetic code can be influenced by a number of factors. For example, if we have inherited the genes for a certain illness (including depression or anxiety), those genes can be activated if we endure certain adverse conditions. But those same genes can also be deactivated, and we can experience a return to health. Long-term stress is one of the strongest activators of such genes. Cultivating positive emotions will help turn those same genes off again.

Neurogenesis refers to the brain’s ability to heal itself by creating new neurons from stem cells. Neuroplasticity is one of the bestknown areas within neuroscience. As its name suggests, our brain is malleable and “plastic-like.” It can be changed through the creation of new neural pathways. Our existing neural pathways were established largely through repetition (aka “neurons that fire together, wire together”). Some of our pathways serve us well, while others don’t.

When we try to learn, change, adapt, or develop new habits, neuroplasticity is at work. Learning literally requires us to change our brains by forging new neural pathways. When we learn, our brain is diverting from its well-worn path of neural connections based on how we have historically done things. Learning creates new neural pathways through new habits and ways of thinking. Over time, those new neural pathways become the well-worn path, and the new habits and ways of thinking become familiar and feel easier.

But it can take conscious effort to build new neural pathways. That is why change can feel so hard. Our brain prefers certainty, predictability, and consistency. It likes its familiar pathways. But change and learning require neuroplasticity, and we are all learning, growing, and developing all the time in our profession.

For example, repeatedly thinking that you don’t relate well to your colleagues can create a heightened sense of isolation. However, it is possible to create new neural pathways that serve you better. You can consciously change your thoughts of isolation and rejection to “I know how to be a good friend and colleague, and it’s worth it to me to put effort into creating meaningful connections at work. I’ve got this.” With practice and repetition, we can learn how to rewire our negative-thinking brains and create a more positive mindset instead.

The same neuroplasticity practice works for anything we need to learn or changes we need to make. If you have studied the concept of a “growth mindset,” you may see parallels here. All learning was once new learning. We may not have called it neuroplasticity, but that’s what it was. Instead of telling yourself, “I’ll never be able to do this,” tell yourself, “I’m learning how to do this, and I’ll be patient with myself as I grow.” This prevents you from giving up on yourself. Here are a few more strategies and tips for using neuroscience to enhance your performance and well-being.

Strategy 1: Take Care of Your Body for the Sake of Your Brain

We often disconnect physical well-being from the performance of our brains, as if our brain weren’t literally living within our body. That’s why getting enough sleep, fueling your body with nourishing foods, and exercising regularly are so critical.

Science shows that both neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are increased through sleep, nutrition, and movement. Those same healthy behaviors also help us manage our levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the “happiness hormone” dopamine.

When we work overly long hours, skip meals, fuel ourselves with junk food or caffeine, or sit for hours on end without moving our bodies, we are reducing our brain’s ability to solve problems, innovate, and complete the challenging mental tasks that we need to do daily. Additionally, this leaves us in a position where we aren’t at our best interpersonally, and then we are more likely to react inappropriately, snap at a colleague, or take things personally.

Strategy 2: Self-Regulate Through Breathing

When we become dysregulated or stressed, we move into the “fight, flight, or freeze" stress response, but we can learn how to regulate our nervous system and calm our mind and body. When our brain is dysregulated, it struggles to learn, remember, or problem-solve. It is focused on survival.

Try this present-moment breathing exercise to regulate your emotions and calm your brain the next time you feel triggered.

Calming the brain and nervous system provides a reset so that the brain isn’t “hijacked” by stress hormones and unable to access the higher-thinking pre-frontal cortex that manages executive function and thinking.

Breathing Exercise

Take a deep breath. Close your eyes for a minute and feel your breath coming in and out of your body. Just breathe.

Notice the coolness of the air coming over your nostrils as you breathe in and the warmth of the air as you breathe out. As you breathe in, feel the air turn and travel from your nose down into your chest. Notice how your chest and lower abdomen expand on the in-breath and recede on the out-breath.

When you breathe out, notice a few moments of space, stillness, before you take your next breath. Watch the ebb and flow of your breath for another minute or so. When you’re ready, open your eyes.

Strategy 3: Disengage and Take a Brain Break

Our brains perform at their best when we take regular “brain breaks.” If we were a physical athlete, we would never consider working our bodies all day, every day. We would alternate periods of intensity with periods of rest, but we don’t do this for our brains.

Nathan Kleitman, a leading sleep researcher, studied the rhythms of our brain and body, and he found that our ideal work rhythms include 90 productive minutes followed by a break for our brain of 15 minutes. This rhythm replicated our natural biological rhythms and energy levels, which helps us maintain higher energy and focus throughout the day.

When you allow your brain to rest and your pre-frontal cortex (your thinking brain) to be still for a few minutes, you will become better able to learn, remember, and have your next “aha!” moment. Plus, you’ll enjoy the rhythm of your day much more and not feel so stressed.

Setting the Stage for Neurogenesis

In large part, we think for a living, as do the people we serve. If we aren’t paying attention to our brains and taking care of them, we are limiting and compromising the one thing that has the potential to help us thrive professionally and personally.

By using these and other neuroscience tools, you’ll set the stage for neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and the kind of growth, performance, and well-being that you want to see in yourself and others.

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Kendra Brodin, Esq., MSW

Founder and CEO | EsquireWell

Kendra Brodin, Esq., MSW is Founder and CEO of EsquireWell(, a well-being and professional development companyexclusively for the legal profession. A frequent law firm speaker and executive coach, Kendra brings over 20 years of experience and insights to her work, including the online resources she provides through the EsquireWell Academy.

Catherine Duncan, MA, BCC

Teacher, Speaker, Writer |

Catherine Duncan, MA, BCC, companions people who are struggling with chronic illness and life transitions through her practice, As a teacher, speaker, and writer focusing on mental and spiritual health, she draws on her experience as a hospital chaplain, training in complementary healing modalities, and her own brushes with death and awakening

Henry Emmons, MD

Psychiatrist and Author

Henry Emmons, MD, is a psychiatrist who integrates mind-body and natural therapies, mindfulness and neuroscience into his clinical work. Henry is the author of “The Chemistry of Joy” and “The Chemistry of Calm” and is co-founder of NaturalMentalHealth. com. He recently created, a podcast and program to develop the elements of joy.