This post was written by Chris Bortree ’19
Just about anyone can relate to how complex the human brain is. With nearly 8 billion people on the planet, it is easy to see how the human brain contributes to different values, beliefs, emotions, and actions. The adult human brain weighs somewhere around three pounds, has around 100 billion neurons, and contains roughly 100,000 miles of blood vessels.
Despite these amazing numbers, almost everyone has experienced a time when our brain seems small; incapable of remembering simple things, and incapable of performing simple tasks. This happens to almost everyone, including the brilliant minds of UVM’s Sustainable Innovation MBA students.
On a surface level, what is happening is actually quite simple. Think of the term bandwidth. Most people associate this with internet and computer power. It is the transmission capacity of a computer network or other telecommunication system. During the Holiday season this year, most of my family and my wife’s family were all staying in the same house for a few days. Of course, our internet seemingly quit on us, allowing only very slow connections and usage. In simple terms, the bandwidth capacity was not great enough to serve the needs of everyone’s devices and the tasks they wished to perform online.
It turns out, the brain works in a very similar way. The human brain has a “bandwidth”; a total capacity being used to deal with different situations. As one needs to remember more and more things, the available bandwidth shrinks, until there is little left to work with. To The Sustainable Innovation MBA cohort, this is known as “the end of module 2”, or the few weeks leading up to winter break.
Students are close to completing over a dozen classes since the end of August, and are trying to tie everything together for final exams, presentations, and papers. This is when abnormal things start happening at home, like putting potato chips in the fridge, forgetting to register your car, and forgetting to set up a dog walker (yes, I did all of that…).
Much like the internet, as my brain was stuffed with more and more it began give less bandwidth to each item to make room. As finals grew nearer, I struggled to remember simple but important things. It is not a new phenomenon, but a fascinating one. Getting caught up in this cycle is easy, but getting back out takes real concentration and effort. Writing down everything you need to do in a calendar, immediately as it comes to mind, is a great start. However, this can still lead to procrastination and bandwidth overload. It had been months since I had last practiced mediation on a regular basis. As I thought about the importance of getting back to meditating, something came to mind that served to be extremely valuable. Our mind is built to think, and that is what it does naturally. This is of course a good thing, until it becomes overwhelming. One of the keys to breathing meditation is to honor the exact moment when you realize your mind is wandering. Anyone who has tried a little breathing meditation will know just how hard it is to purely concentrate on breathing, and not let you mind think about anything else. The most important thing to remember is keeping your concentration on your breath is the goal, but forcing your mind to do it will result in failure. What will help you reach the goal is training yourself to catch your mind wandering, and reward yourself for coming to that realization. In this way, you will train your mind to become conscious of the moment when it begins to wander in direction that is not intended or useful. This practice alone greatly enhanced my ability to stay concentrated on important issues, and allow my mind to realize the moment when it is becoming overwhelmed.
As our program Director Joe Fusco mentions in regard to flying an airplane, the best course of action is small corrections early on. I believe the same is true for our minds. Catching yourself early on will allow you to maintain a better course, and land safely. Otherwise, you may end up realizing you have one week of class left with three papers, three presentations, two exams, and a household to run, without having prepared for any of it. At this point, it’s almost too late, and chances are a rough landing.
I highly recommend the book The Mind Illuminated, by John Yates. Even if meditation is not your style, it will bring forth some valuable skills to help cope with brain bandwidth overload. If nothing else, it may help you keep from having to eat cold, stale potato chips.