Review: Your Brain at Work, by David Rock

Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long by David Rock. New York: HarperBusiness, 2009. 304 pp. $26.99 (hardcover).


Anyone eager to increase his mental productivity will do well to read David Rock’s Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

Each chapter has many tips that you can put to use right away to get more and better work done. And the setup is not just clear and entertaining but also memorable.

Take, for example, Rock’s metaphor for the prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of the human brain and the part that enables one to plan, decide, and solve problems:

Think of the prefrontal cortex as a stage in a small theater where actors play a part. The actors in this case represent information that you hold in your attention. Sometimes these actors enter the stage as a normal actor would, from the side of the stage. This is the case when information from the outside world comes to your attention. . . .

However, this stage is not exactly like the stage in a normal theater. Sometimes the actors might also be audience members who get onstage to perform. The audience represents information from your inner world: your own thoughts, memories, and imaginings. The stage is what you focus on at any one time, and it can hold information from the outside world, information from your inner world, or any combination of the two. (p. 7)

Using this metaphor, Rock shows how the five functions making up most of your thinking relate.

Once actors get on the stage of your attention there are lots of interesting things you can do with them. To understand a new idea, you put new actors on the stage and hold them there long enough to see how they connect to audience members—that is, to information already in your brain. . . . To make a decision, you hold actors onstage and compare them to one another, making value judgments. . . .

To recall information, meaning to bring a memory from the past back up to your mind, you bring an audience member up on the stage. If that memory is old, it might be at the back of an audience, in the dark. It can take time and effort to find this audience member, and you might get distracted along the way. . . . To memorize information, you need to get actors off the stage and into the audience. . . .

Sometimes it’s important not to focus on an actor, to keep him off the stage. . . . [This] process of inhibition, of keeping certain actors off the stage, requires a lot of effort. (p. 7)

This extended metaphor makes the information Rock later shares much easier to digest. . . .

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