A Neuroplasticity Holiday–making new pathways in the snow

footsteps in deep snow“Neuroplasticity is a six-syllable word for hope.”

~Dr. Linda Page, Co-Author, Coaching with the Brain in Mind

Ah yes, neuroplasticity — the brain’s capacity to grow and change throughout our lives. It’s one of the most helpful and positive findings in neuroscience research in the past fifty years. We can, with focus and attention, change our very wiring. We’re not stuck with what we learned as children, took on as adaptive strategies, or even inherited.

My belief is that as coaches, creating and reinforcing new neural pathways may very well be what we do best with our clients, and why we are able to help people on their journeys of lasting change, creating empowerment, not dependency.

But today I just want to reflect human to human, on the particular challenges of the holiday season and how the concept neuroplasticity may be able to help. Like many of you, I am planning to spend a great deal of time with my family over the holidays. I love them to bits but have become more and more aware (sometimes painfully) of the habitual patterns I tend to fall into when we’re all together. Deeply ingrained pathways that go back years–fear (as the youngest) of being left out, concern that if I really share what I am doing in the world no one will care, certainty that this person will be dull to talk to or that another one doesn’t like me as much as I think she should.

And here’s the thing: none of it is planned or intentional in the slightest. It’s just habit, like a smooth, well plowed path in the snow that’s easy to walk down without effort or thought. Many (dare I say most?) of our patterns with family were laid down early in our lives, which means, from a brain wiring standpoint, that we get a double whammy in terms of potency. One, we’ve had many years to practice, and the more you use a neural pathway the stronger it becomes. Two, pathways that were created in childhood (and up through adolescence) may become myelinated–that is, coated with an electrically insulating fatty material that forms a layer around the axon of the neurons in that pathway, making it quicker and stronger.

So there we are, back with the people we grew up with, finding ourselves playing out the same habits, thought patterns and behaviors we had hoped we’d transcended. What to do? It’s time to intentionally create some new neural pathways.

It may help to think of creating these new neural pathways like making trails in deep snow. The first time you walk, it’s hard, slow and tiring. Even the next time and the next can be difficult. But at some point, it gets easier. The snow gets packed down. You make progress. The trick is to keep at it, trying your best to ignore the superhighway of habitual patterns that is beckoning. Yes, it’s the easier road, but it’s not the road to fulfillment.

Without awareness and intention, our brains (which like to conserve energy) take us down the easiest path. But with a commitment to change, we can re-wire even the deep neural structures from our childhoods. This holiday season, let’s all take one habit that is no longer serving us in our families and walk through the deep snow to more love, authenticity, and connection.

 

Where is Co-Active in the Brain?

Hi everyone, today’s post is an exploration of Co-Active, the heart of the Coaches Training Institute’s (CTI) coach training and leadership model. Hoping all coaches will find this interesting and helpful!

sun_moon_tattoo_by_faeroneCO-ACTIVE in the Brain

The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess

~William F. Allman

What does “Co-Active?” really mean? Is it the dance between being (co) and doing (active)? The different energies of feminine (co) and masculine (active)? Deepen the learning (co) and forward the action (active)? Certainly there are two very different drives in human experience—even the ancient Greeks understood the difference between Aristotelian (cool, logical, analytical) and Dionysian (warm, passionate, intuitive) energy.

Therefore, it makes sense that there must be some sort of brain explanation, but trying to actually pinpoint a concept like “Co-Active” in the brain is a challenging proposition. For one thing, it’s not completely clear, even at this point in history with all our fancy technology, exactly what each brain region does. We can come close, but because it is a highly complex and yes, messy system, it’s often difficult to fully understand the component parts. And just to make things even more challenging, there are also many specialized neural networks combining multiple areas, which are activated in certain brain states.

In thinking about the idea of being Co-Active from brain perspective, it makes sense to look at both specific location as well as network activation in order to (perhaps) come close to the whole story. It’s worth looking at the distinct role and purpose of 1) the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and 2) the default mode and task positive networks, as both of these both have implications for our understanding of Co and Active. 

THE RIGHT AND LEFT HEMISPHERES

Although each hemisphere is specialized as to function (see below), neither operates as a brain unto itself. Rather, the two hemispheres integrate their activities to produce physical movements, mental processes and behaviors greater than, and different from, their individual contributions. That being said, the specialized functions—which make it possible for us to have nice big brains and still be able to walk upright—are important to understand because they point to a certain way of looking at the world. The right hemisphere gives us global awareness and a holistic view, while the left allows focus and specificity.

The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres, playing a role not only in linking the two halves of the brain, but also inhibiting one or the other from dominating. Thus it is possible that a more integrated, “Co-Active” brain is able to link positive aspects of the hemispheres and inhibit negative ones. (This would correlate to research on long-term meditators, who are both shown to be more emotionally intelligent than average and also to have thicker corpus callosa as a result of meditative practices.)

POSTIVE ASPECTS OF EACH HEMISPHERE
Right Hemisphere Functions—CO Left Hemisphere Functions—ACTIVE
Focus on big picture, holisticThe meaning and purpose of things
(and people, relationships)

Empathy, emotional content

Oneness and connection

Codes sensory input as images

Synthesizes things in space
(things are here or there)

Deals with new information

Gives things spaciousness and openness

Awareness of the important of freedom

Focus on specific partsThe utility of things
(and people, relationships)

Logic and analysis

Separateness and individuality

Codes sensory input as words

Analyzes over time
(things are linear and sequential)

Deals with representations of information

Gives things form and sequence

Awareness of the important of structure

The RIGHT HEMISPHERE is more concerned with relationships, emotions, the big picture, meaning, purpose, and oneness, and has a softer, more inclusive way of looking at the world. Thus, we place it on the CO side of things, because this is the place we slow down and consider the greater impact on people, relationships, and the broader purpose. (However, by placing it here, we don’t mean to say that the RIGHT HEMISPHERE has no connection whatsoever to action.)

The LEFT HEMISPHERE is more concerned with logic, analysis and the sequential movement of things, and has a sharper, less inclusive (but more focused) way of looking a the world. Thus, we place it on the ACTIVE side of things, because if ideas and possibilities cannot be broken down into component parts, it is not possible to move anything forward. (However, by placing it here, we don’t mean to say that the LEFT HEMISPHERE is inherently and solely concerned with action.)

Despite lots of fun and entertaining online quizzes, research shows that no one is truly “right-brained” or “left-brained.” However, it does seems that one hemisphere or the other can be over-activated in certain circumstances, such as when we are under stress, activating not only the positive aspects listed above, but also some of the more challenging ones such as:

NEGATIVE ASPECTS OF EACH HEMISPHERE
Right Hemisphere Functions—CO Left Hemisphere Functions—ACTIVE
Emotional overwhelmSadness, fear, depression

Hopelessness

Shame

Too much information leading to paralysis

Chaotic thinking

Judgment and blameSeeing people as things

Anger, frustration

Not enough information leading to impulsive decisions

Rigid thinking

Thus, when we work towards being more Co-Active, we ideally help to create more balanced and effective brains in our clients (and ourselves), where we are able to use, as needed, the positive aspects of each hemisphere, without getting stuck in the negative states.

The Default Mode Network and the Task Positive Network

The Default Network (DMN) and the Task Positive Network (TPN) are two distinct neural networks in the brain. The DMN is a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest. It’s called “default” because it is the network that is activated unless we are specifically engaged in goal-directed activity, the realm of the TPN.

Probably one of the most interesting aspects of these two networks is that when the DMN is active, the TPN is not. And when the TPN is active, the DMN is not. Part of each network’s function is to shut the other down.

NOTE: While some of the aspects below may sound similar to Right and Left Hemisphere operations, each network actually includes both. Thus, adding an awareness of the DMN and TPN increases our understanding of what it is to be Co-Active.

Default Mode Network—CO Task Positive Network—ACTIVE
DreamingEnvisioning the future

Long-term memory

Gauging other’s perspectives

Theory of mind (understanding others)

Introspection

Self-referential thought

Focus on taskActively paying attention (external)

Goal-orientation

Reacting to and working with sensory information

Short-term (working) memory

Planning

Abstract reasoning

Because the Default Mode Network is activated when we are daydreaming, imagining the future, pondering our own thoughts and beliefs, and trying to understand others, we place it on the CO side of things.

Because the Task Positive Network is activated when we are doing or focused on doing, we place it firmly on the ACTIVE side of things.

Perhaps even more than the right and left hemisphere, the DMN and TPN interaction helps explain why being Co-Active can be so challenging. When we are dreaming, reflecting, and standing in someone else’s shoes, the neural network concerned with action is not “on line.” And when we are planning and acting, the network associated with creating vision and understanding others is shut down.

By holding a Co-Active view, whether in terms of coaching, leadership, or life in general, we create a dance between these two networks. Many coaching tools are, in fact, designed to activate one or the other, whether it is envisioning our “future self” (Default Mode Network) or planning what we will do next (Task Positive Network). By holding focus on both the being and the doing, we can’t help but create connections between the two networks, so that even if only one can be activated at a time, it becomes easier and easier turn on the switch of the other and shift back and forth more and more quickly.

In looking at the right and left hemispheres and the default mode and task positive networks, we can perhaps understand the scope and challenges of Co-Active a bit better. Ultimately, the true strength and brilliance of any person, whether they are a leader, parent, student, or coach, is not just the development of one aspect or another, but the continual commitment to stand in the hyphen, increasingly honoring both.

My Favorite Green Shorts: Unlocking Transformation

green shortsA couple of months ago, it finally got warm enough in Minnesota to wear summer clothes. I happily fished out my sandals, t-shirts and shorts from their box under the bed, pulled on my favorite pair of green cut-offs, and found, to my extreme dismay, that I was, um, bulging a bit over the waistband. Which was tight. And uncomfortable. And not the experience I wanted at all. Sure, I could get them on, but the way they used to fit low on my hips was only a vague memory. What to do, what to do?

Here’s the thing. I turned 50 this year. Menopause and I are good friends. Who the hell actually knows what is happening with my hormonal balance, which seems to change daily. I have high values of self-acceptance and am on a very authentic quest of deep self-love. I eat very consciously, and I exercise. A huge part of me just wanted to say “Ah well, so it goes.”

But another part, perhaps immature, perhaps vain, was screaming OMG MY FAVORITE SHORTS DON’T FIT! DAMN IT ALL!

And the truth is, like many of us, I had been on the high end of my “normal” range for a while. Perhaps even the mid-range of a new normal that I didn’t want to own. Sometimes, when the truth stares us right in the face, it can be a blessing. Damn it all.

So I decided it was time to make a shift. I was seeing lots of inspiring photos on FB of people who had successfully completed 30-Day Challenges, and that was the beginning of a structure for me. It was one of those “where will I be in 30 days if I don’t do anything?” moments. And I further decided to bring in everything I knew about neuroscience and consciousness to help. Here’s what I came up with:

#1. I created a tracking grid on Excel with goals for the week and a place to note daily progress. Here’s why: the antidote for feelings of chaos (and I was definitely feeling out of control about my weight!) is structure. This is because chaos is a function of the right hemisphere of the brain being over-activated and “below the line.” When we go to chaos we tend to feel overwhelmed, anxious, hopeless and even ashamed (all emotions processed by the right hemisphere). Structure is a helpful aspect of the left hemisphere (when over-activated, helpful structure becomes unhelpful rigidity, by the way), which can pull us out of chaos and back to a more centered place. Nothing radical, but it gave me some order and control (two more things the brain likes when it is feeling chaotic), and it also kept me focused on my big goal and mini-goals.

#2. I focused on mini-goals as part of the bigger goal. Here’s why: I decided that this time, I wanted to transform, and not just change. After all, as everyone knows, you can fast or restrict calories severely and lose weight, but it all too often comes back on. And I didn’t want to be back in the same place next spring. So it made sense to me that what was needed was to actually rewire my brain, which right now seemed to be wired about 10 pounds heavier than I wanted. Just losing weight was not going to do that. Focusing on new habits in support of losing weight might. In our coaching program, we have a process we call “red yarn, blue yarn” where we use yarn to represent neural pathways around certain habits or beliefs (red for negative and blue for positive). My goal in my 30-day challenge was to create new blue “pathways” that would (ideally) become defaults or habits going forward.

#3. I made sure the goals were positive. Here’s why: the goals needed to be positive because, as I like to say, our brains are essentially like three-year-olds. If you’ve ever tried to get your car keys away from a three-year-old who wants to keep them, you’ll know that it generally doesn’t work to say “Give me my car keys!!” over and over or try to wrest them out of the child’s hands. It’s needlessly difficult and stressful for everyone involved. Far better to say “Here, have this lovely stuffed giraffe” and watch as they lose interest in your keys. Our brains are pretty similar. They respond best when we go towards something rewarding. And I believe that, over time, if we add enough positive things, our brains start to lose interest in the negative ones. It’s a carrot rather than stick strategy, essentially. So for my 30-day challenge, I focused primarily on things I was moving towards rather than things I wanted to move away from.

#4. I made sure the goals were SMART. Here’s why: this is also nothing new, but in my opinion SMART is still a helpful acronym. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. It’s not SMART to have a goal to be nicer to myself, because it is not specific, measurable, or timely (and it may not be attainable and realistic either!) It is SMART to have a goal to say 14 nice things to myself about my body every week. So everything I wanted, I figured out how to break it into a SMART goal. I want to add that because I had weekly, not daily goals, every time I did anything, it counted. For example, if my goal is 10,000 steps per day and I miss a day, I have failed up to seven times each week. But if it is 70,000 steps per week, I get to win every time I take any steps, and at the most, fail once a week.

#5. I focused more on the being than I did on the doing, and I specifically focused on one key thing. Here’s why: what we believe at the deepest level will trump what we consciously think and intend every time. In order to make real lasting change, it’s most important to shift what you believe, and to shift it at very deep levels. There is fascinating evidence from people with multiple personalities (now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID) that shows how important this is. Anyone who has ever worked with someone with DID knows that different personalities will often have differences in vision, allergies, and even disease. What one personality experiences physically can be very different from what another experiences, and this will show up in observable and measurable ways, such as one personality having diabetes while another tests normal. In other words, our beliefs create our biology.

To me, this is a fascinating potential doorway to change. But how on earth do we access it? This level of belief is so far below consciousness that me just telling myself “I’m thin and strong” isn’t going to do very much. When we say something consciously that we don’t really believe consciously, our brains tend to reject it. It’s like they are saying, in effect, “yeah, right.” We know too much about ourselves, and our fabulously unhelpful brains will bring up all the evidence as to why what we just said isn’t true, which helps to actually reinforce the old pattern. Lovely, eh?

So now what? How do we bypass the conscious brain and go right to the deepest beliefs for reprogramming. There is some evidence that EFT (commonly known as “tapping”) can help, or work with the breath or the body, and I think these are all areas worth exploring. What I tried, however, was a bit different, and it’s pretty simple. I call it a “feelization,” and here’s how it works for weight loss:

  1. Think of an item of clothing that is a bit too tight for you. I like to use one I like, that I want to wear, so for me, it was the green shorts. Do NOT pick an ideal, or even where you ultimately want to be. It needs to be something that you can imagine fitting into. Back to the SMART aspect of “attainable.”
  2. Imagine this item fitting you more loosely. Really imagine this in as much detail as you can. Feel the waist of your pants loose on your body. Imagine putting your hands into the pockets more easily. Imagine buttoning them without having to suck in your stomach.
  3. Link your “feelization” to another activity, such as walking or driving. You want it to become a habit. For some, it is easier if you do this while you are doing something else that does not require concentration.
  4. Do this as much as you possibly can.
  5. As item becomes looser, adjust. Add a belt, or switch to another item. Keep it attainable, you have to be able to imagine this item, it has to be within your grasp.
  6. It can be helpful to also write some affirmations that are essentially your feelization, because additional details will emerge that you can use. But feeling it is the key. You want to show your body how it feels to be thinner. In essence, you are giving it a new map.

And so, you are wondering, the results? After now almost 60 days, I have lost about 8 pounds, and my green shorts fit loosely again. I am thinner than I have been in years, and it required no effort, dieting, or pain. Which is good, because I don’t believe we are meant to suffer.

I know that everything I mentioned above made a difference: 1) Having a structure and way to track kept me focused on the little things and also kept me from forgetting my intentions. I loved filling out my list every night with the things I had done and looking for opportunities during the day to “get on the chart.”  2) Breaking it down into small goals has actually done the job of creating new habits and beginning to rewire my brain in positive ways. For example, instead of feeling like I “should” go for a walk, I now find myself getting a bit itchy if time or weather prevent me. 3) Having positive goals was simply FUN. I loved my goal of saying nice things to myself about my body, which was so much easier than trying not to say mean things. And I rarely say mean things any more. Hmmm. 4) SMART goals rock. Everything became measurable which meant I could win. Yay! I love to win. My goals felt real and tangible, even though the big picture included a huge intangible, which was self-love. 5) Honestly, I think this one was the real key. Telling my body how it feels to be thin seems like it may be the magic pill we’ve all been looking for. And this one has no side effects and is free.

I hope this helps you, a coaching client or someone you care about easily and joyfully create for themselves the body they want. And I’d love to hear any successes or challenges along the way!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of the Pause

One of the most challenging things in terms of helping someone develop is to wait patiently while they figure things out for themselves. We know this as coaches, and, over time, develop an increased capacity to wait rather than jumping in to help. At the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), we call this “holding the client Naturally Creative, Resourceful and Whole,” and it is one of the key cornerstones of our coaching model.

pause (1)This idea makes a huge amount of sense from a neuroscience perspective. When we jump in to help, we rob the other person of the chance to make the connection in their own brain. As one student put it to me recently when I explained the importance of helping someone find their own answers, “Oh, I get it. I want the light bulb to go off in their brain, not mine!”

Exactly. As they say in the field of neuroplasticity, if it fires, it wires, meaning that every time we do something or think about something, a neural pathway either is being potentiated or reinforced. We can think of it like creating a path in the snow—the first time through it’s just a few footsteps, but walk it again and again and it becomes a track and then a trail. Walk it enough, even a road.

Learning is a process of making these neural connections stronger and more robust, and sustainable change means we need to practice the new neural networks over and over until they become more dominant than the older ones we wish to leave behind. In the brain, what this means in a practical way is that where there are strong, well-developed neural pathways, the impulses travel more quickly and require less conscious thought. It’s easier to walk on a well-traveled road than it is to break a trail through the woods.

Thus, the art of the pause. As a coach for almost 13 years, I have mastered this fairly well in my one-to-one work, even though like many of us, I started out wanting to fix things for people. But I am realizing that as a leader, I am often not as good about it.

At BEabove Leadership, we co-lead most workshops. I am the director of research, and bring to the table both an insatiable fascination and deep experience with neuroscience at an academic level. I spend a lot of my time speaking and writing about it, and honestly, at this point it’s easy for me. I have such deep and well-developed neural pathways I can speak about just about anything at the drop of a hat. This is not necessarily intelligence; much of it is experience and practice. Which I got by doing it. Over and over again.

When I am teaching a class with another leader, I am noticing that because my impulses fire so quickly, I generally have the answer a beat or two before my colleague. So of course, I tend jump right in, leaving them, inevitably, with the second word and rarely the first. It’s humbling to realize that when I do this, I am robbing my co-leader of the chance to develop connections in their own brains and thus create for themselves ease and mastery of the material.

So for all of us who ever work with people who are learning to present new material, from speaking in a meeting to teaching a class, I believe it is critically important to grant more pauses. They need us to allow a bit more space and time for connections to fire. It’s easy to make the assumption that the reason the other person isn’t speaking as quickly is that they lack either knowledge or confidence, but this may not be true. It could be that their connections just aren’t as quick as yours (yet), and they need you to allow a beat for the synapses to fire.

I’ve recently had the good luck to be on both sides of this situation. We are currently in the process of training new leaders for BEabove, where I have a lot of experience, and leading “front of the room” for CTI, where I am fairly new. I can feel the difference in the speed of my response. At BEabove, I know before a student in class is done speaking exactly the point I want to make and where I want to take their question. In CTI classes, I am definitely slower—not because my knowledge base or innate confidence are less, but because I simply have less experience teaching the material in a classroom setting, and less experience with the specific curriculum.

And so, in my BEabove classes, I am working to intentionally allow more space for my new co-leader, so that there is time for his or her synapses to make a connection. It’s not a lot, honestly—maybe a second or two at most, but it makes a difference. I’m also looking specifically for what are the easy entry points for my new co-leader; that is, places they feel especially confident and ready to take the lead. And at CTI, I am beginning to design with my more experienced partners the grace of a pause for myself.

It’s also important to know that for those of us who are new, we do need to push and challenge ourselves to step up and take the ball even when we don’t feel as comfortable. The way to become more masterful with the material is to try – and fail – and try again.

And the result? The class or meeting gets exposed to more diverse thought and therefor a richer experience, and the process of mastery is accelerated for the learner. And what about the more experienced leader? Well, we get a wonderful lesson in patience and trust.

 

 

Feedback or Unpack?

i-love-feedback“Hey, can I give you some feedback on that meeting?”

“Come in my office, I want to give you some feedback.”

“Do you have a minute? I have some feedback that you need to hear.”

Ok, how many of you have already gone into amygdala overdrive just reading that? Feedback is one of those areas of leadership and management that frankly, very few people have really figured out. Except for those highly self-regulated, amazingly emotional intelligent people for whom the idea of feedback is nothing more than a wonderful opportunity to improve (or, conversely, those who just don’t care), it’s mostly, well, tough. Tough to give and tough to take. And while I am by no means arguing that we don’t need it at all, I think it merits pulling apart and reconfiguring.

My first stop is, of course, the neuroscience perspective. Here there are a few things to take into account, the first being the pain of social rejection. We evolved to live co-operatively, in small groups. Our need to belong is as real and pervasive – and as important to our survival – as hunger or thirst. In fact, brain studies have shown that being rejected activates many of the same regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain.

Our limbic system, responsible for scanning for threats (and therefore keeping us alive) is finely tuned to whether we are safely part of the group, whether we are deemed acceptable or deficient, whether we belong. Feedback, even well intentioned, can often trigger a fight or flight response. We think we should be responding rationally, but deeply entrenched safety-driven neural pathways are screaming ‘‘threat!’’ On a basic level, even if it is not true in today’s society, being left out of the group makes us fear for our survival. This puts us in a mode where our higher brain shuts down, making it hard to take in what the other person is saying.

That having been said, it’s also important to note that in terms of any sort of pain, we’re not one-size-fits-all. In terms of physical pain, research shows that people will describe the same stimulus as anywhere from “not at all painful” to “highly painful,” with brain activity corresponding. It’s reasonable to conclude that the pain of social rejection is the same. What feels like harsh criticism to one person may even be too mild to take notice of for another.

BEST ADVICE: Get very very connected when you want (or need) to give someone feedback.When the person you are giving feedback to really knows that he or she is safe, you have a lot more room to say things and have them heard.

This perhaps brings us to the issue of the self-referential nature of our own brains. We understand the world by running it through our own experience, making our own mental map of what is going on. Our feedback to someone often reveals more about ourselves than it does about the other person. For example, when we are asked to rate someone’s behavior, such as in a 360-degree review, we tend to rate it in reference to ourselves. As Marcus Buckingham said in a 2011 article on 360-degree reviews: ‘‘If you rate me high on setting a clear vision for our team, all we learn is that I am clearer on that vision than you are; if you rate me low, we learn that you are clearer than I am’’ (Buckingham, 2011). Buckingham calls this ‘‘bad data,’’ and says that even if you have 20 people’s answers in a 360-degree review, 20 inputs of bad data do not make a reliable report. Bad + bad does not equal good.

In addition, we tend to think that there is a right and wrong way to do things. Each culture, including the culture within an organization, has its own ideals. For example, if the ideal/assumption in your organization is that challenging people and ‘‘calling them on their BS’’ creates the most growth, and you personally believe more in nurturing and focusing on strengths, you will be given ‘‘feedback’’ that you are not measuring up. And you will not be, but only relative to the ideal, which ultimately may or may not be effective.

BEST ADVICE: Provide feedback in terms of the impact you experienced. Marcus Buckingham adds: ‘‘Although you are not a reliable rater of my behavior, you are an extremely reliable rater of your own feelings and emotions.’’ Thus, while you cannot necessarily trust your own judgment of my performance or behavior, you can trust the impact it had on you.

Thus, as we’ve probably all experienced, feedback is tricky business. To be most effective, we have to be highly aware of the other person’s emotional state and manage our own emotions as well. We also need to be cognizant of our biases and beliefs, and focus primarily on the impact of the actions. Even so, the feedback may or may not work to motivate different behavior.

And so, in the BEabove team, we’ve started working with a model we call unpacking. As much as possible, we work together to “unpack” things Unpackingcollaboratively, rather than one person giving feedback to another. Using our model of the Seven Levels of Effectiveness, we look  both “above the line” and “below the line” to see what was present in the situation. To manage our own biases and completely avoid amygdala hijacks, we each own what we did to contribute (positive and negative), and commit to at least one thing we can see for ourselves that we need to do to improve in the future.

This non-blaming dialogue creates a powerful, open space for innovation and emotional intelligence. While we don’t require this in the model, we often end up asking each other about our blind spots and what we might be missing, from a true space of curiosity and desire to improve.

When we decide for ourselves where and how we want to improve, we activate areas of the brain that are not activated when we are told what to do. We stay connected to each other, and curious about what we can do to be more effective members of the team. And we’re motivated to make changes and to grow because we want to, not because someone else — with their own biases, opinions, and emotional reactions — wants us to.

Reference: Buckingham, M. (2011), ‘‘The fatal flaw with 360 surveys’’, Harvard Business Review, October.

22 Things You May Not Know (or Want to Know) About Me

1967MomCharAnnDegePeakWell, isn’t this cool? Last year I was nominated for a “Liebster” award by Katia Bishops, who writes a funny and heartfelt blog about being a mom (among other things). Check out her very real and often hilarious musings at iamthemilk. Anyway, I was charged with posting some random facts about myself, and promptly forgot all about it until now, so thought I would resurrect this in honor of my birthday next week. 

Warning to my neuroscience followers — this is a just for fun blog today. Not much of any significance, but if you’re curious about me, lots of dish. 

11 random facts about me:

1. As creative as I am, my very first beloved stuffed toy was a Steiff bear named, well, Bear. My rationale (and yes, I had one, even at age three) was that this was such a wonderful and perfect bear, no name could possibly be better than Bear. With a capital B.

2. I am a high school drop out. Seriously, I am. Bored, stressed, confused, and completely unable to follow any rules I found counter to my own proclivities, I left in my junior year. A couple of years later, I talked my way into college based on good PSAT scores and struggled with rules again, attending four different schools before finally getting my B.A. in philosophy at age 30. (I think my pre-frontal cortex had finally come on-line at that point and I was able to tick off the graduation requirements without excessive amygdala hijacking.)

3. My deepest unfulfilled desire was to be a philosophy professor, focusing on existentialism and applied philosophy. Oh wait a minute, that’s basically what I do. Never mind.

4. I can’t imagine living without at least one cat. But then you probably knew that.

5. When I was growing up, my family lived in a commune for two years. What can I say? We were Unitarians. I think my dad may have even tried pot once or twice, but he’s a little cagey about that.

6. I don’t really do yoga. It’s one of those things I think is awesomely great for other people, and I respect it totally, but yoga and me? We’re just not close. We’ve worked on our relationship a lot over the years, and finally have agreed that we have irreconcilable differences. Yoga thinks I am an impatient dilatante with little or no discipline. I think Yoga’s boring. We’ve agree to disagree.

7. I am trying not to tell white lies. It’s really really hard. I fail a lot.

8. I did the est training (now the Landmark Forum) when I was barely 18 years old. I knew then that the only possible purpose for my life was to create transformation. I’ve been doing the best I can ever since.

9. I lost my hair when I was 17 due to a condition called alopecia. It’s never grown back, so I have worn different wigs for most of my life, and even gone without for a while. It was not an easy thing to deal with at that age (or any age, really), and it has been a long journey to find the peace, beauty and perfection in this challenge. And I have. I know that this gift shaped me in ways that are deep, and real, and true. I know I would not be the person I am without it, and since I like the person I am very much, I am profoundly grateful. And you know what? It also sucked.

10. For some reason, I like crime dramas, preferably classy British ones (not too much blood, dear). I don’t think this is actually very good for me, but I don’t really care. I can’t, however, stand TV shows or movies with lots of blood, tension or car chases. But a nice corpse in the library? Bring it on.

11. I only care about neuroscience because I see that it helps us understand human transformation. And that, to me, is what it is all about. If I can make it practical, applicable and helpful, then it matters. If you can use what I write or teach or say for yourself or client, then it matters. If all I do is create the impression I’m really smart, then so what? And remember, you’re talking about a high school dropout here.

 11 questions Katia had for me:

1) Which one of your blog posts do you feel reflects you best? I am going to really cop-out here and say whatever the latest is. But I mean it seriously. Whatever I post is my latest thinking, what is most important to me in the moment. I hold myself (and all beings) as highly complex systems, and therefor emergent in nature. What is important is now. And now. And now again.

2) What’s your favorite blog? Wray Hebert on Huff Post. He has a gift for making neuroscience real. And he’s usually kind of funny.

3) 5 things that make you happy? My cats, warm weather, finding really really cool jewelry, hiking in the woods, and a great conversation with my son.

4) If you get to choose your own gift card, where would it be from? Fab.com. Just check them out. Trust me.

5) What is your favourite place in the world? Pacific Northwest, specifically the Washington coast.

6) What’s your star sign? Aquarius, of course.

7) Did you ever overcome a fear? I think I’ve done nothing but overcome fears. Fears of not being good enough, fears of being judged, fears of being too much. What else is there other than overcoming/embracing/tickling and learning to love our fears?

8) Which show should I watch? Why? Anything that makes you laugh, my dear! Because laughter is good for us.

9) When did you last laugh? This morning, teaching a class and telling on myself. 

10) Your 3 favourite books? Mindsight, by Dan Siegel, The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, and everything by Jane Austen.

11) Which mistake would you make all over again? All of them. Seriously. How the heck else would I have learned?

 

Right Brain-Left Brain — Is It All a Myth?

Well there certainly was some interesting and provocative stuff about the brain in the news in 2013. Last summer, the whole right hemisphere/left hemisphere dominance thing (controversial in neuroscience for quite a while now) was fairly well refuted by researchers at the University of Utah.  In November, a new book came out also dismissing the importance of understanding the two hemispheres in favor of looking at top and bottom brain processing differences (note: it’s a bit simplistic and was not universally well-reviewed). And just before the end of the year, there was new stuff about the difference between male and female brains, once again looking at the hemispheres (and adding fuel to the gender wars).

fingers-in-earsFrankly, it’s all had my head in a bit of a spin, because at BEabove we’ve been digging into the right and left hemisphere in our advanced coaching series, encouraging coaches to use this as one way to understand where their client may be coming from. I’ve also written blog posts here about the different aspects of each hemisphere, spoken about it at conferences, and all in all, held this part of neuroscience as a key thing to understand in both coaching and leadership.

So you can imagine my reaction! Part of me wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and say “la la la I can’t hear you.” But my better angels prevailed, and instead I sat down and tried my best to make sense of it all. Here’s what I’ve come to, and let me say it is an emerging and probably imperfect understanding (just like our overall understanding of the brain itself at this point in humanity’s development):

1) IT’S TRUE — We really should probably  stop calling people “right brained” or “left brained.” According to brain imaging studies, it’s not accurate. At most, it’s a metaphor that is not literally true. As the University of Utah study found, we’re simply not more likely to use one side or the other based on our overall personality. No matter who we are, we use both to do most things. Creative people (who we tend to think of as “right-brained”) use their left side as much as logical people, and logical people (who we tend to think of as “left-brained”) use their right as much as creative people.

2) HOWEVER — There is still much to be learned about who we are by examining and understanding the differences of each hemisphere. Our brains are specialized for a reason — it is what enables us to have the giant brains we have and still walk upright. Our heads just couldn’t get any bigger and still pass through the birth canal, so each hemisphere took on different tasks, and a different way of looking at the world (for more on this, see Come On Over to the Right Side). Which brings us to…..

3) PERHAPS — According to the lead author of the Utah study, “people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-side brain network. It seems to be determined more connection to connection.” This means we could be seeing more right or left hemisphere activation around particular issue although not in the entire brain or personality as a whole (see point #1). Thus, understanding the different way each hemisphere sees the world can be very helpful with our journey of self-awareness, as well as understanding our clients and helping them move forward when they are stuck.

4) BECAUSE — Ultimately, it’s not about right or left (or top and bottom, either). It’s about how integrated we can be. For example, research on so-called “resonant” leaders (who tended to put their followers in an open, creative brain state) versus “dissonant” leaders (who tended to create an avoidance state in their followers) found that resonant leaders had more neural firing in both hemispheres of the brain. And long-term meditators develop stronger areas for both positivity (left hemisphere) and compassion (right hemisphere), as well as a measurably thicker corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres. This bridge helps both connect the two hemispheres as well as allowing each to effectively inhibit the other as needed (see Inhibition and the Brain for more on inhibition and its link to effectiveness). We don’t need or want to be “dominant” in one or the other hemisphere in order to be more effective. We need to become more integrated between our hemispheres, stronger not in one, but in both.

And so, let’s by all means be accurate and up to date, but not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ok, it’s not accurate to call someone “right brained” or “left Throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-waterbrained.” We can give that up or use it as a metaphor. Fair enough. But understanding the differences between the two hemispheres does, in our opinion, remain interesting and helpful in the process of working to create more integration and ultimately, higher levels of effectiveness. So there. And la la la I can’t hear you if you insist on telling me differently!

Sigh. Not really.

What Does it Take to Change the Brain?

changesI’ve written about neuroplasticity here before a few times, but since it is a fascinating, complex topic (like everything about the brain, right?) I thought I’d share a few more thoughts about some of what we are learning helps or hinders our ability to change.

Neuroplasticity—Keys and Enhancers

Neuroplasticity is, simply put, the capacity of the brain to change throughout life. It can occur on a variety of levels, ranging from changes due to learning or growth, to large-scale changes in response to injury (see Norman Doidge’s entertaining The Brain that Changes Itself for more on the latter). While for most of the 20th century, general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively unchanging after early childhood, current understanding is that many aspects of the brain remain plastic—that is, changeable—even into adulthood.

And so,  we can (and do) change. But what does it take? And why do some people succeed at developing new habits where others fail miserably? Well, extensive research points to certain keys to neuroplasticity, without which it is more difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the brain to make neuroplastic changes. In addition to these keys, there are additional aspects which also assist with or enhance the process. In both cases, the more keys/aspects, the better.

Five Keys to Neuroplasticity*

The following five keys are necessary to the process of making new neural connections. The more one of more of these keys is compromised, the harder it will be for the brain to stay flexible, healthy and cognitively sharp, especially through aging and stress.

1. Exercise

Exercise improves blood flow and increases oxygen levels, which increase neuron growth. (The brain is only 2% of our body mass but it consumes 20% of our oxygen and nutrients.) Exercise also increases the volume of white and grey matter in the brain, by increasing brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary to neuronal growth. A minimum of 30 minutes three times a week is generally recommended, although shorter workouts of more intensity and longer with less are helpful as well.

2. Sleep

A healthy adults needs between 7-9 hours of sleep (Teens need 8.5 – 9.25 hours). During sleep our brain has the chance to integrate learning and also combs through information and decides what is needed and what is not. Neural impulses are literally reversed from our waking state, which serves to both clean out unneeded information and prime the cells for learning and memory in the future.

3. Food

The brain needs Omega-3s and vitamins from foods to create new neural pathways. It’s also critically important to stay away from foods and substances that inhibit neural growth and/or create inflammation. According to new research, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, vegetable oils and many grains may all contribute to non-optimal brain states. Promising research finds coconut oil, berries, B vitamins (and much more) helping to build neural connections in the brain.

4. Novelty

New experiences stimulate neuronal connections. If we don’t know how to do something, the cognitive patterns for it don’t exist in our brains, thus new connections must be made. In order to maintain the benefits, however, these experiences have to increase in challenge in order to create new growth. Additionally, we simply don’t pay attention to things that are boring!

5. Focus and Attention

The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters (such as BDNF, mentioned above in the Exercise section) responsible for creating new neural connections. In addition, many studies have linked meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness or density of gray matter.

Four Enhancers to Neuroplasticity

The following four enhancers are extremely helpful to the process of making new neural connections. The more we have of each, in combination with the five keys, the easier it is to learn, remember, and change.

 1. Relationships

We learn and change best in safe, supportive relationships. Feeling socially connected diminishes stress and can even reduce inflammation, while feeling judged or “less than” others creates fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. When we feel we are being heard and understood, it increases the connective neural fibers in our brains—fibers that are crucial for bringing together disparate areas for increased cognitive function.

2. Mistakes

A critical part of the learning process is the ability to try, fail, recalibrate and try again. This is literally how the new neural connections we make get either strengthened or pruned. According to Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, training “at the edge of our abilities” produces results up to 10 times faster than regular practice. That is, making mistakes leads to better skill acquisition. Directly linked to the key of novelty, making mistakes is inherent to increasing the difficulty of the task. As long as we are making mistakes, the task is probably challenging enough.

3. Humor/Play

Humor relaxes and bonds us, and is a wonderful ally in helping to overcome the brain’s strong negativity bias. Laughter has been shown to release oxytocin, which not only makes us feel more bonded and connected and trusting, it’s also a great anti-inflammatory agent. Good humor also often plays upon the unexpected, causing us to think in new ways (novelty). Similarly, being playful puts the brain in an open state for learning. All baby animals and humans learn through play, which allows mistakes to be made and learned from in a safe environment.

4. Multi-Sensory Input

The more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the “pathway” becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain. For example, when we remember a vacation to the beach, we may access sounds, smells, sights, even the feeling of sand on our toes. This anchors in the experience more strongly than simply seeing a photo of sand and waves. When we are intentionally working to create positive new neural pathways, bolstering this process by bringing in as many of our senses as possible is a fabulous strategy.

 

*A huge thank-you to Dr. Daniel Siegel for first sharing the Five Keys to Neuroplasticity with me.

Coming soon: a complete bibliography of studies supporting these keys and enhancers. Stay tuned!

 


Some Thoughts About Consciousness and the Brain

brain-manmoon

Hello everyone! I am musing today about consciousness and the  brain. It’s a messy, imperfect attempt to get my head around something, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

I posted on our sister site, BEabove Leadership, so just click this link and head on over:

http://www.beaboveleadership.com/2013/09/25/some-thoughts-about-consciousness-and-the-brain/

 

 

Empathy for the Non-Empathetic

So here’s the story: I have been renting a lovely house in a suburb of Minneapolis for the past four years. I love it. I am surrounded by trees, it’s on a small river, it’s cute and cozy and tucked away. And I have one of the world’s worst landlords. Every time I need to deal with him, I have to gird my loins for battle. When the washing machine broke, for example, he just said “sorry, I’m done putting money into that house. If you want a new washing machine, buy one.” I had to both cite the lease to him AND threaten to move to get any action at all. And that’s just one example of many times simple things have become unexpected and ridiculous conflicts. It’s exhausting.  At one point, I noticed that, against my principles, I was saying things like “I hate my landlord.”

Now, it’s honestly true that I try not to hate anyone, but this guy–sheesh! So it got me pondering, why is it easy to have empathy and compassion for people when they are sad or afraid, and so hard when they are rigid, inflexible, or angry? Ok, ok, you’re probably thinking why should I have empathy or compassion for him? He’s not honoring his end of the deal! Well, here’s why. I truly believe most people don’t really want to be jerks. They just get caught up in patterns and fears and beliefs that have them act in jerky ways. Therefore, compassion is my goal, always, with everyone.

Which sometimes is easy, and sometimes is hard. And I think this has to do with the brain. You see, there are some things that hang out together. In the right hemisphere, it’s most emotions and our mirror neurons for empathy. The right hemisphere gets activated in sadness, depression, fear, grief, and emotions like that. It’s all about feeling lost, afraid and small. Which we tend to have some degree of compassion for. And we can relate to others’ feelings through our capacity to sense and feel their emotions ourselves through the power of mirror neurons.

The left hemisphere, on the other hand, gets one emotion, anger, no mirror neurons for empathy, and a tendency towards rigidity, superiority and being right. People who are more left-dominant (and yes, I know brain dominance is controversial, but just give me this one for now, ok?),  tend to want to control everything and be emotionally one-note. Everything makes them mad. And along with that, they just aren’t as in touch with their mirror neurons for empathy (since those are in the right hemisphere), so how other people feel — or even that they feel can be mysterious and not particularly personally relevant. In some cases, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and some other forms of autism, it may even be that the mirror neurons for empathy aren’t there at all.

And here is where it potentially gets even more interesting. Take someone who is touch with their right hemisphere mirror neurons for empathy (we’ll call them RH), interacting with someone who is not (we’ll call them LH). RH says or does something that LH doesn’t like, and so LH respond with their one emotion, anger. RH — because of their mirror neurons — feels this anger intensely and it activates RH’s own left hemisphere and makes RH angry too. But even though RH is feeling what LH is feeling, RH has now lost their own compassion and empathy because they’ve gone over to the left hemisphere themselves.

And thus, it is harder to have compassion for anger, control and rigidity than it is for sadness, fear, and a sense of overwhelm, because empathy doesn’t live in the same room as anger (etc.), and when you go there, it stays behind. Thus, even those of us who truly desire to love everyone can get hooked.

So what does it take to have empathy for the non-empathetic? You have to stop, breathe and go back to the other room. Let go of the anger, know it is not actually personal, and find a way to understand this person.

In my case, I had an “aha,” helped by my brother, an IT professional who has seen a lot of LHs in the IT world (my landlord is a software engineer). He has noticed both that the rational, non-emotional, logical world of computers attracts them, and also can reinforce and make left hemisphere tendencies worse, because the positive aspects get rewarded and the negative ones ignored. I realized that this is the profile of my landlord, so of course he is difficult to deal with when the issue is seeing things from my perspective. He doesn’t care how I feel, and it’s not personal. It’s just who he is, and it’s certainly not doing him any favors in life.

And thus, rather than spending my energy on hating him, I found compassion. I’m also moving, because I prefer to deal with people who are more aware, and more connected to both hemispheres of their brain. My new landlord? He turned down renters with cash in hand because he didn’t think they were a good fit for the other tenant, rented to me sight unseen based on his intuition (I was in California teaching) and sent a thank-you note with the copy of my lease.

I love the guy.