An office as an analogy to explain the three brain functions

In last week’s seminar on inclusive teaching, Louise Morreau, psychologist at the student health services at Lund University, gave an inspiring presentation and used such a great image to talk about how we can think of the brain’s functions, that I have to adapt it for myself right away (because that is how MY brain works).

When I have talked about Universal Design for Learning before, I have used the questions “why? what? how?” to distinguish the different brain functions and describe how we can support each and all of them. In Louise’s image, we think of a company (which, in my mind, became Skatteverket, probably because I have spent a lot of time in queues there). In any case, in this image, the three brain functions become roles that need to play well together:

A receptionist* who determines who is allowed in

If we think about receptionists in general, it’s easy to come up with examples of ways in which they work differently. Some might perceive sensory input in different ways, e.g. let people in in order of loud they scream or how colorful they are dressed or how clearly they articulate what they want. They might employ different filters and let everybody in, or be very selective. They might focus their attention on who their manager thinks they should prioritize, or who they personally think is important and should get preferential treatment, or again, who is loudest. And they might use their working memory in different ways, e.g. having a long queue  outside of the lobby, only letting people in one-by-one, or let people wait inside, or sort people already in the street and send everybody away who they think shouldn’t be there. We can make life easier for our receptionists if we recognize how they work, and improve their working conditions by highlighting relevant information or drowning out noises, or giving them clearer guidelines.

So in our image, the receptionist deals with processing sensory input and setting what information is even processed.

The office that processes customer requests

Once information has gotten past the receptionist and entered our brain, it reaches the office, where the different requests are being processed.

An office can work in very different ways: it can have different processing speeds (for example depending on how many people are working there), the organization of information might be better or worse or, actually, no judgment needed here, just different (think Monica’s wedding folder…) or a mismatch between different departments, and also there might be good work flows in place ow what to do with the information. Recently, I was super grateful when I was at a physical bank to fix something with my online banking, that after 50 minutes waiting to be let into the office from the lobby (clinging to my little piece of paper with a number and a code for what type of help I needed), the person in the office let me hang around next to his desk rather than sending me back out into the queue, while I checked something. In the end, I didn’t have to go back to talk with him other than signal to him that my problem had been solved, but having me hang around until the whole process was done was ultimately super helpful.

In my previous structure, the office is associated with the “why”, which might seem a bit far-fetched (if we assume people in offices do whatever they are told) or obvious (if we assume that everybody, including the receptionist already, needs to see a good reason for why they are supposed to do something in order to actually do it). But I think the point here is not so much the motivation of the people in the office, it’s about the connections that can be made between new input and existing input. People need to understand how new information builds on old information in order to put it in the right folder. They need to understand how a new tool helps them do their job better than the old tool. They need to understand that maybe they need to hold on to some piece of information while they are waiting for other information to come in so they can combine the two and make use of them towards a bigger goal (yep — like that nice person at the bank…). They need to know what the purpose of their work is in order to actually target that goal and not just shoot in the general direction. So maybe “why” is a fair summary of all of this?

A manager who regulates everything

Lastly, we have a manager that needs to make decisions on everything and organize work in the best possible way to reach their goals and make the reception and the office work most efficiently. They need to regulate, solve problems, make decisions, and prioritize work based on available resources and external demands. They depend a lot on what the office lets them know about while also having to regulate what reception and office do. From personal experience it is easy to see how an incompetent manager can really mess up everything else!

To manage all of this successfully, the manager needs to be very clear about their goals, and set up systems for the receptionist to let all of the relevant information in and keep the rest out, and for the office to process things efficiently. And the manager can use outside support, too, for example using checklists, due dates, visualized workflows or concept maps, …

Now that we have those three roles, there are obviously a lot of different ways of how these three can function together, or how one can make up for difficulties with the other. To stay in the picture, for example

  • the receptionist could be very lax and just let everybody walk into the office. This would lead to a super busy office. Depending on how they deal with a huge amount of information pouring in, what systems are in place to process all of this, this can work out well, or not. And the manager can of course support them in setting up good structures and routines — or not.
  • the manager could not do their job well (for example when they are cranky because of too little sleep or too low blood sugar). A bad manager usually manages to mess up the whole system (don’t ask me how I know…)
  • the receptionist and office might sometimes get overwhelmed but not involve the manager in how to deal with it, but directly get into action (for example, when anxiety overwhelms us)

So how does this analogy help us with improving teaching? I think separating the different roles that all need to happen for a company to work well together is helpful because it also helps us take care of creating good conditions for the three different brain functions. For example, if you look at the picture above, this is the entrance to a restaurant I went to recently. The inside is stuffed with madonna sculptures, kimonos, animal heads, figurines, paintings, native American head dresses, and much much more. I really enjoyed going there that evening because my brain had the capacity to take in all this information and enjoy it: the receptionist welcomed everything in, and the office had the capacity to process. On many other days, all that visual clutter plus the lively conversations all around me would have been overwhelming and draining and my office would have been completely stressed out and annoyed at the receptionist, and also the manager for letting everybody in randomly. On those days, having a sandwich outside or on my hotel room would have been much better for me, and usually my manager is good at recognizing what the office needs on any given day. And so we need to be aware that conditions that seem stimulating and inspiring to some might be complete information overload for others. Also, on that same trip, I was completely fine with taking a tram to a stop and hanging out there until my colleague came and met me there. It was nice weather, I was in a pleasant environment, I was not stressed but rather enjoyed the time to just be and think. On other days, having such imprecise appointments would stress me out horribly! And sometimes I enjoy dreaming up ideas, while other days I want my checklists and just get. stuff. done.. And that is all just within me, imagine how different it must be person-to-person then! The office analogy really helps me recognize how my manager needs to have good systems in place, but also react to circumstances and not just mindlessly stick to a plan. And it makes me a lot more compassionate with an office that sometimes cannot handle all the customers pouring in. And it highlights the importance of the receptionist’s role of letting some people in — maybe even encouraging some specifically — while keeping others outside (want more stories of that recent bank visit? The security people muscled someone out the door. Scary situation, but probably less scary than if they hadn’t done it. Nice extension of the analogy?).

How does your company deal with all the different roles and optimizes how they play together?

*When I was writing this heading, I first wrote “doorman” because that what the function was called in the seminar, but added alternatives in parenthesis (receptionist, bouncer, concierge) because I wasn’t quite happy with “doorman” because of the “man” part. And when I came back to the blog post to proofread, there was suddenly a yellow line under “doorman” and upon mouse-over, it said “Probably non-inclusive language. Consider unbiased alternatives”. And now I am absolutely delighted that my wordpress spellchecker is calling me out on being non-inclusive! So let’s go with receptionist!

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  1. Pingback: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (Currently reading Cumming & Rose, 2022) - Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching

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