Traditionally, each New Year we reflect on where we are and where we’d like to be. This year, it may be useful to contemplate the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “He who knows others is learned; He who knows himself is wise.” Do you really know yourself? Are you open to a new way of understanding why you—and the people around you—think and behave as you do? Do you hope to succeed at work, start a new relationship or improve an existing one, or get in better overall shape?
Whatever your ambition for 2014, your journey will begin with your mind, those cognitive faculties that arise from your brain. Over the last half century, many people have tried to understand themselves and others by reflecting on the latest findings about how the mind works. One such approach grows out of the division of the brain into its left and right halves. You undoubtedly have heard that the left brain is “logical and analytical” and the right is “intuitive and creative”—and that every person is defined more by one side than the other. But there is no solid scientific basis for this division, as neuroscientists have long known. It’s an urban legend.
Not so with our new Theory of Cognitive Modes, based on a frequently overlooked anatomical division of the brain into its top and bottom parts. Our theory is grounded in decades of research. In a nutshell, the research demonstrates that the top part of the brain formulates and implements plans, and revises plans in response to real-life events; at the same time, the bottom part of the brain categorizes and interprets what we perceive in the world around us.
Depending on how deeply a person utilizes the top or bottom parts of the brain, four Cognitive Modes can arise:
• ADAPTOR mode occurs when people do not deeply utilize either the top or bottom of the brain. Although they prefer not to make detailed and complex plans, nor do they like to analyze what they perceive in depth, people operating in this mode tend to be easygoing and cooperative.
• PERCEIVER mode occurs when people deeply utilize the bottom but not the top part of the brain. When operating in this mode, people prefer not to make detailed and complex plans, but do use the bottom brain extensively—often reflecting in depth on what they perceive. When operating in this mode, people are often a voice of wisdom.
• STIMULATOR mode occurs when people deeply utilize the top but not the bottom part of the brain. In this mode, people are often creative and fun, but may not know when enough is enough. They may not pick up on the consequences of their behavior, and hence don’t modify their plans accordingly.
• MOVER mode occurs when people deeply utilize both the top and bottom parts of the brain. When people operate in this mode, they are comfortable being in charge. Think of the mother, father, or grandparent who plans, hosts and supervises the family gathering.
These distinctions might be useful for you in setting your New Year’s goals. The first step would be to identify your own habitual cognitive mode; people typically slip into interacting in a single mode, most of the time (but not necessarily all of the time). And then contemplate which mode best characterizes each of the other people in your home, workplace or social circle who might help you with your plans. (A scientifically validated 20-question self-assessment test, which can be quickly completed and automatically scored, is available at www.TopBrainBottomBrain.com.)
This exercise should prove illuminating in its own right. After you do this, think about which mode would best help you to accomplish your goals in particular circumstances. Although it is difficult to change your habitual way of thinking and behaving, you can shift into another mode in specific circumstances. Having appropriate knowledge, to paraphrase the philosopher Lao Tzu, is key (such knowledge allows your bottom brain to interpret and make sense of what goes on around you and allows your top brain to formulate appropriate plans).
To illustrate how our theory could help with New Year’s resolutions, we offer scenarios for each of the four modes:
Let’s say your dominant mode is Adaptor, and your resolution is to spend more time in the gym.
Your challenge could be: Devising a feasible schedule and then sticking to it, changing it if circumstances required—the babysitter is sick on that day, for example—without losing sight of the overall ambition, which is to get in better physical shape. Remember: those who typically think in Adaptor Mode do not prefer to make detailed plans, and do not naturally adjust plans when they go awry.
Your solution could be: Asking a friend, workmate or someone else who seems to typically think in Mover Mode to work out with you.
Or say your dominant mode is Perceiver, and your resolution is to quit smoking.
Your challenge could be: Executing a plan of action. Many possibilities exist: support programs and groups, nicotine replacement therapy (patch, gum, lozenges), hypnosis, acupuncture, and going cold turkey among them. With your bottom-brain utilization, you probably will have little difficulty at choosing the best one for you, but the nuts-and-bolts of implementing your choice could be vexing.
Your solution could be: Enlisting the support of someone who typically thinks in Stimulator Mode to set the plan.
What if your dominant mode is Stimulator, and your resolution is to get better control of your finances?
Your challenge could be: In a word: spending. You probably will be able to analyze where your money goes and, knowing your income, come up with an appropriate budget—a plan for spending. Budget in hand, you will execute the plan with your purchases at the grocery store, the mall and online. But what will happen when your plan goes off track—an unexpected expense for one of the children, for example, or that expensive impulse buy at Macy’s?
Your solution could be: Trying to slip into Mover Mode thinking, where bottom-brain utilization facilitates adjustment of plans as events change. Alternatively, find a person who typically uses Perceiver Mode and ask for tough love: The truth when you need it.
Your dominant mode is Mover, and your resolution is to eat healthier.
Your challenge could be: Balance. Thinking in this mode, you will have little difficulty studying information about carbohydrates, fat content, protein needs, vitamin requirements, the virtues of organic foods, and other aspects of nutrition. You will devise and execute a plan—and respond appropriately when it changes (the market is out of your preferred fish, for example). But you may have a tendency to focus a bit too much on this plan, which could result in your neglecting other important aspects of your day-to-day life.
Your solution could be: A discussion with someone who typically thinks in Perceiver Mode and can bring measured wisdom to your worthy resolution.
Whether your interest is yourself, your work or your relationships, you will find more such practical implications of the theory for every day, not just New Year’s, in Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights Into How You Think.