The thinking vet: brains at their best - Veterinary Practice
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The thinking vet: brains at their best

suggests that better
veterinary practice
lies in understanding
how our brains work,
the challenges they
face, and how the different areas of
the brain can be put to best effect

BEING A GOOD VET IS, ESSENTIALLY, AN INTELLECTUAL ACTIVITY. Even the most complex and exciting surgery is no more than enhanced psychomotor skills brought into being by education and expertise development that takes place in the brain. That said, our education, training and working environment are often directly in conflict with what we need for our brains to work at their best and this is reflected in the well-being and mental health issues that currently face the profession. Taking care of our brains and improving the environment within which they have to work will enhance our performance, resilience and enjoyment of practice. This is even more important as we live increasingly in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). Research into the brain has historically been the domain of the anatomist and it was as late as the 1960s that Paul Maclean suggested a functional model of the brain: the Triune brain model. While now seen as overly simplified and somewhat inaccurate, it remains a useful model from which to extrapolate. Maclean posited three functional areas:

  • Reptilian Brain – the most primitive part of the brain, concerned with our survival and controlling many automatic functions of the body.
  • Mammalian (Limbic) Brain – controls functions that we do not necessarily need to think about but can exert some control with training. Habits, procedural memory, emotional memory, pain and pleasure using habits and emotions – the central function being to keep us safe.
  • Human [Neocortex, Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)] Brain – the name is misleading in that all mammals have a neocortex. This is the most recent part of the brain in evolutionary terms. It is responsible for a wide range of higher cognitive functions including learning, rational thought, decision-making, creativity, speech, empathy, compassion and social collaboration. While overly simplistic, this model provides an introduction and overview of the functional view of the brain which we can use to draw some conclusions. In the 1990s, two events occurred that centrally influence our story. By the latter half of the 1980s, the internet had truly come into being and in the 1990s and ever since it has developed in a way that centrally affects how we think and act, contributing significantly to the volatility, uncertainty, complexity

and ambiguousness that now shapes both our lives and the demands on our brains. Secondly, generally credited to Seiji Ogawa and Ken Kwong, the 1990s saw the development of the functional MRI (fMRI), which measures brain activity in real time by looking at
changes in blood oxygenation and flow in response to brain activity. In the last 20 years it has led to a much-improved understanding of how the brain actually works and to a burgeoning new domain of research: cognitive neuroscience. While there is much still to learn, this offers us evidence-based approaches to coping with our modern world.

Why is this relevant?

By understanding some of the challenges our brains face, we then
have the choice to take action to protect ourselves, to build our
resilience and to (potentially) thrive into the future. Here are just a few examples to whet your appetite. Contact me if you wish to know more.

There are no sabretoothed tigers here!

The purpose of a reptilian brain is to keep us alive and it has evolved a high-speed response mechanism (fight or flight). It is powered by neural pathways up to 70 times faster than many of the other pathways in the brain, reacting to the threat even before
the PFC realises there is a threat. While this may work when you are wandering a huge savannah with just a few tigers, it doesn’t work as well in our digital VUCA world where the challenges come thick and fast. Dealing with this evolutionary mismatch is a key to survival in the modern world.

I am starving here!

The brain has substantial energy requirements and may use up to
25% of the calories consumed in a day. The PFC has the highest energy requirements of all, but is last in line when it comes to being fed. The brain has a conservative approach to managing energy requirements and will always feed the reptilian brain first (keeping you alive), the mammalian brain second (keeping you safe) and only then allow energy for higher thinking. Nurturing the brain both with calories and with a healthy working environment leads to better cognitive functioning; the reverse is equally true, leading to impairment of higher functions and reliance on habits of the past or instinct. Eat well, pace yourself, improve your working environment and simplify your responsibilities.

Habits of thinking and doing!

The mammalian brain has much to do with the development of habits of thinking and doing (expertise). We simply don’t have the time, energy or capacity within the PFC to think about everything we have to do. Habits are great – they are faster and less effort than the alternative – but in times of increasing change they may no longer be appropriate and they can be very difficult to change (look at those wishing to diet or make New Year’s resolutions a reality). The thriving veterinary professional needs to extend his/her area of control learning to more consciously manage the development, management and retirement of habits: a simple but not easy task, which can be achieved with practice.

Multitasking is a myth!

The pre-frontal cortex, while capable of great thinking and being central to thriving as a vet, can only consciously attend to one task at a time. Those who think they multitask are actually just skilled at switching between tasks. This can be useful, but there is a price to pay which impairs outcomes. To help the PFC, practice mindfulness or meditation to develop the skills of focus and then use something like the “Pomodoro” technique (45 minutes of uninterrupted focused activity) then 15 minutes’ rest. Declutter your mind, your environment and your digital life to remove
distractions. These are just a few of many examples that we might have considered. I would encourage you to learn, practice and play with the possibilities to invest in your future self.

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