Manipulating the Brain’s Salience Network and How I Write 10,000+ Words a Day

By on January 1, 2016

For my main job, I work as a freelance writer. This is pretty cool as it allows me to work on the move and to be completely financially independent. It’s quite steady work as well actually; I get most of my orders from just a few clients who have been with me for a number of years now.

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In order to tempt such steady work though, I have to keep my prices rather low – typically around $2 per 100 words. Doesn’t sound like much of a career, right? Well, the way I get around this is by working super fast without compromising on quality. And in a typical day I can write anywhere between 10,000 all the way up to 30,000 words (the latter is somewhat rarer, admittedly). This way, I can earn potentially up to $600 in a single day. Now we’re talking…

Oh and when I work my minimum and earn $200, I usually manage to be all finished up by around 2pm. That means I have the rest of the day to work on projects or just to chill and play Xbox.

When you work online, you are generally paid by your output. If you can increase your output, you can increase your salary and save yourself a lot of time. Thus self-improvement becomes profitable. So how do you go about writing so much so quickly?

In this article I’ll be looking at some methods I use to increase my focus and attention and then I’ll dive into the neuroscience of how it all works so you can apply it to other skills…

The Set Up

The first step is to set the scene. By which I mean your working environment, which is really critical to getting in the right frame of mind.

For me, this means going to a coffee shop. Why? Because there are far fewer distractions in a coffee shop and it somehow has a vibe that feels very conducive to work. Everyone is jostling and there are other people there working – it just creates a good atmosphere. And the coffee itself helps too. Like, it really helps.

The picture perfectly captures how it feels for me working online when the mood is just right – credit goes to the awesome E H Macmillan.

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Typically, I will drink two or three strong, white Americanos (which are calorie-free) and this further helps to get me in the right frame of mind. Also important, of course, is the right music. I love synthwave for working to, as well as some EDM (Electronic Dance Music). And actually, a great tip is to put an album on repeat. This may sound a little odd but actually it’s a technique that several people use. It makes the music much less distracting and somehow really helps to get you in a productive mind set (I think Matt Mullenweg, creator of WordPress, said something similar in an interview with Tim Ferriss).

Also very important is to get the right tech. If you have a decent computer that you love using, it makes a massive difference. A keyboard is also pretty important. I use my Surface Pro 3, sometimes with the Wedge Keyboard and Mouse, other times with the Surface Pro 4 keyboard or even the Universal Folding Keyboard. At home, I use a sexy mechanical keyboard with great back lighting.

There will be some people who would recommend going with a DVORAK keyboard layout at this point. This is a certain arrangement for the keys that allegedly reduces the distance that your fingers have to travel and thereby encourages better speed and accuracy. I think most touch-typists would agree though that the speed of typing isn’t so much the limitation as the speed of thinking.

If you aren’t already super fast with your typing skills then you might want to learn DVORAK. Otherwise, it’s probably not going to be worth the effort for most people. Whichever you decide, I recommend The Typing of the Dead for brushing up on those typing skills.

The Wetware

Of course, the most important bit though is the wetware – you. Staying focussed for such a long period of time isn’t easy going and it’s a challenge for most not to get distracted.

In terms of the neuroscience surrounding this you have a few interesting concepts. One is the ‘flow state’, which is a state of heightened attention and alertness. I think that the term is overused though and that ‘flow’ can more accurately be described as multiple different states. Sometimes flow is called ‘temporal hypofrontality’ meaning that the frontal regions of the brain have temporarily gone quiet allowing the central nervous system to react more quickly in a life-threatening situation without that pesky consciousness getting in the way. I find this a rather unsatisfactory explanation however, seeing as you rather need the higher order thinking your frontal brain areas afford for a task like writing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: catching a ball with Jedi reflexes is not the same thing as concentrating on an important essay.

Another bit of neuroscience related to this topic is ‘attentional control’, AKA ‘executive attention’. This is the term given to our ability to direct our attention using the ‘executive control network’ of brain areas. Several frontal regions of the brain preside over this phenomenon including the anterior cingulate cortex. It is also related to our working memory (ability to store information temporarily in our brain as we work with it – in other words our ‘RAM’). It can occur either intentionally (dorsal attention network) or reflexively in response to stimuli (ventral attention network), though of course we’re most interested in the intentional kind for the purposes of sitting down and writing for hours.

So that explains the parts of the brain associated with concentration, but what about directing that concentration? How do we know what to pay attention to? Well, that would be the work of what is known as the ‘salience network’ (1). This network is believed to help us identify what is important and worthy of our attention and may also be linked to our motivation – in other words, the more important something seems the more inclined we are to stick at it. It can activate the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to varying degrees and it allows us to consciously direct our attention when trying to read or write (read more here).

This type of attentional control is often measured with tests such as the stroop test and while research on the topic is a bit all-over-the-place at the moment, what we do know is that it can be trained with mindfulness meditation being one useful tool that can help develop the skill (2). Gamers also seem to have stronger connections relating to their cingulate corteces and salience networks, which is a result of their constantly training their decision making and awareness skills in action games.

But another way to train pretty much any cognitive ability? Use it! When I first started trying to write such volume, I was able to write 4,000 words in a day maximum. Don’t underestimate what your brain is capable of with a little training.

Taking Control of Executive Control

I can’t say that I’ve used mindfulness myself to get in the right zone for writing but I certainly use something akin to CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). That is to say that I feel getting in the right mindset is incredibly important and that you can do this by changing the way you think about the work you’re doing. This all has a nice neurological basis too…

Ultimately, attention is achieved by reducing the extraneous activity in the brain so that you have a more streamlined and focussed pattern of activity. This in turn seems to be triggered by certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine and it may be that this signal is what activates the salience network and attentional control (and also what encourages the hippocampus to store specific information in long-term memory).

This is where it all ties together: what we believe is important causes the release of dopamine (the potential for the action/stimulus to be rewarding) and norepinephrine (the potential for the stimulus to be threatening) which in turn results in the salience network directing our executive control in that way.

This is all a fancy of way of saying that in order to increase concentration, you need to increase the right neurotransmitters. This can either be achieved by using nootropics that do this directly (including caffeine) or by changing the way you’re thinking in order to make certain events seem more salient.

Using nootropics (smart drugs) like caffeine and even something like modafinil, we can increase the total amount of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain while reducing inhibitory neurotransmitters such as adenosine and GABA. This works to some degree but it’s a blunt instrument and comes with a number of issues. Drinking caffeine for instance may actually reduce creativity by preventing more relaxed thought, while modafinil can leave you hyper focussed on the wrong thing. You can lose hours looking at cat videos…

My preferred approach then is to change the way I think about situations, via a kind of CBT, in order to directly affect my brain’s production of specific neurotransmitters.

Because really, it is your interpretation of events that give them salience – the thoughts behind them. Think about it: if you or I were standing on an erupting volcano, then we’d be terrified and we’d be producing a ton of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Our hearts would be racing and our minds would be hyper focussed – there’d be no daydreaming about other things! The salience network would be in full gear.

But if we genuinely believed that our skin was impervious to lava, then we wouldn’t have the same experience, we wouldn’t produce the same hormones and neurotransmitters and we wouldn’t engage the same brain networks. We might even be using our default mode network – daydreaming!

So it’s not the situation and not the task that defines your brain state – it’s your interpretation of said situation and task. Your job when it comes to staying focussed on work is to convince yourself that the work you’re doing is as salient as a volcano erupting!

Manipulating Mindset

One way to make your work seem more salient is to focus on the reason you’re doing it and what you can gain from doing it well/lose from failing to do it. This might mean concentrating on your desire to climb the corporate ladder, or in my case, to save for a house. The harder I work now, the easier it will be for me to save for a property. I’m quite stressed about getting on the property ladder, so this is some good, motivating, ‘eustress’ (positive stress) that I can tap into. By actively focussing on this, I can ‘prime’ myself to be in the right mindset.

But really, the volcano analogy isn’t all that useful. What’s more useful is to make the work seem rewarding and one way to do this is by actually introducing lots of little rewards throughout the task – I can only have a cup of tea once I’ve written the first 2,000 words for instance. Or I can only check e-mail once I’ve finished three articles. This also removes even small distractions (which is important, as you don’t want to interrupt the mental state once you get into it).

Better than this though is to make sure the work is intrinsically rewarding. That is to say, focussing on what it is I like about my career and what I stand to gain personally from working hard – feelings of satisfaction, ownership and pride. Likewise, I try to find what’s interesting about the topic I’m currently tackling. Sometimes this is easy – when I’m asked to write about fitness, this relates directly to my main hobbies and interests so it’s no problem for me to find an angle I want to tackle and dive in. In other cases, I have to work a bit harder – when I’m asked to write about car windshields for instance.

In those scenarios, I will often either try and find an angle I do find interesting that relates to the given topic (“How to Increase Your Awareness and Reaction Times When Driving”), or I will convince myself to find something interesting in the topic I’m writing about. Learning about cars is relevant to me and mechanics and engineering are definitely interesting topics I could get into.

Combine all this with the right environment that is also intrinsically rewarding, a little caffeine for extra dopamine, a great computer, and some music that my brain will eventually become desensitized to (thus completely eliminating outside distractions and the ventral attention network that could draw attention away)… and there you have the perfect conditions under which to write 10,000 words a day!

And Another Thing…

I have been writing this particular article over the Christmas period, on and off on my new Microsoft Universal Folding Keyboard. Thus, it is kind of all-over-the-place and I haven’t found anywhere else to fit these bits in… So let’s just tack them on nicely at the end.

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Firstly, concentration takes energy. To avoid distractions leading you away from the task at hand, you need to have a good supply of brain energy which means you should be well fed and you need to – as always – prioritise sleep the night before.

At the same time though, you might also want to try the brand of nootropics that I do approve of – cognitive metabolic enhancers such as creatine, lutein or vinpocetine.

Secondly, note that consciously directing your thoughts might eventually become less necessary. Just as a bodybuilder eventually learns to train intuitively by listening to their body, so might you eventually be able to almost will yourself into the required mental state without the cognitive gymnastics.

This article did not go the way I had expected!

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.