You Don’t NEED Neuroscience

In which I explain whatever possessed me (an artist and poet) to take myself off to neuroscience school….. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I got my training as a coach almost 17 years ago, I was working as a consultant in the non-profit world. My background was theater, poetry, art, and philosophy and I think I’d perhaps taken one or two science classes in my life. I came into coaching full-on and full-hearted; its power and magic blew me away in my very first class.

I certainly didn’t need neuroscience to prove that coaching is effective. I could see it. The evidence from stories and examples was overwhelming—who needed numbers and graphs? In my coach training, I was completely fine with the instructors saying “trust us, it works,” then trying it myself, failing, refining, and eventually WHOA, a moment of true transformation for my client. WOW. Who cares HOW this works? It DOES!

But when I first became a coach I was married to a lawyer with a science background. He had a tendency in those days to dismiss and diminish coaching as fluffy, ungrounded, woo-woo and self-indulgent. Little did I know at the time what a blessing this would be, adding machinepainful as it was. Again and again, I found myself completely tongue-tied and inarticulate when he would cross-examine me about how coaching works. And falling back on my defense of “trust me, it does!” was not particularly satisfying to either one of us. While I hated being cross-examined, I did long to know what the heck was going on. Why did coaching work so well when people just gave it a shot? How could I explain this magical, amazing world of personal growth and transformation in a more compelling way? Was there a bridge to be built between the trusting mystics and the doubting linear thinkers?

Fast forward a few years. I’m divorced (I could only take so much cross-examination, after all), teaching a model of consciousness with my dear business partner Ursula, and a newly-minted faculty member for the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). Three things happen: one, I am watching our students challenged by the same confidence and communication issues I had as a new coach; two, we were struggling to get people involved in our work on consciousness; and three, I kept seeing little tastes of neuroscience in the news. This was eight years ago, and while it was NOTHING like today, with thousands of articles and books, and a new finding about the brain almost daily, there were some intriguing bread crumbs in terms of both coaching and consciousness.

Do you ever get that question that won’t leave you alone? The one that wakes you up and pokes you? The one you think, “now THAT’S a good question?” Well, proving what we were really up to in the business of human development/transformation, that was my question. How does this all work? Is it simply mystical and unknowable, or are there portions we can know? And so, to the amusement of my family (Neuroscience? I didn’t think you had any interest in science) and the bafflement of my partner Ursula (You go ahead, dear, I will NOT be joining you in neuroscience school!) off I went.

The impact was almost immediate. I was amazed. While at the time there wasn’t any direct neuroscience research on coaching (or consciousness, for that matter, but that’s another blog post), almost everything we studied was correlative, applicable, and ultimately expansive. For example, when we went through the research on how to manage stress, it mapped elegantly with the three core principles I was teaching at CTI. Learning about the right and left hemispheres of the brain helped me understand the different ways we tune our listening: to level two (more left hemisphere) or level three (more right hemisphere). And so much more. After every class I’d call Ursula and say “Guess what I learned?!” and we’d debrief and look to see how we could take this learning to a new level. And six years ago this May, our flagship program, Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Transformational Coaching, was born. This stuff was just way too cool not to share!

As we developed and trained this amazing information, Ursula, a prosperity guide, Akashic Records reader, and author of a book on blessings, became a huge neuroscience fan and expert as well. She likes to say “If I can learn this, anyone can!”

And for both of us, it hasn’t killed the mystery at all. It’s created innumerable new mysteries that have us exploring the edges of quantum physics, the heart’s resonant field, hyper-communication, the power of vibration, and much more. We have come to see that consciousness is ultimately about integration of the highly complex system of being human, and coaching is one of the best things we can do to create lasting integration. Therefor, we argue, coaching literally raises consciousness. That’s all. Just that. No big deal.

Recently I saw a post on Facebook from some blogger calling life coaching a fraud, and I was thrust back to the dinner table of 15 years past. remembering spluttering and stammering as I tried to defend a profession I hold very much in my heart. Except this time, I calmly and serenely thought, “Oh, you have NO idea what we are really doing to people’s brains and world. No idea at all.”

For a comprehensive overview of the neuroscience of the ICF competencies, see This is Your Brain on Coaching. For more brain states at different levels of consciousness, see the Seven Levels of Effectiveness ebook. 

 

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The AHA Moment in Coaching

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As coaches, we are ultimately concerned with what we (perhaps somewhat arrogantly) call transformation. I have seen newer coaches struggling to create that “aha” moment of truth and realization for their clients on every single call (and feeling they have somehow failed if it doesn’t happen). In other words, that perfect question or interaction which produces transformation, after which the client will never be the same. (Okay coach, transform this client: GO.)

Oh if it were only all so easy. But human development is a rich, complex, and—most importantly—in coaching, a co-creative process. And it’s impossible to say how many sessions that will take. Sorry HR, I can’t promise any sort of tangible results ever, much less in the six half-hour sessions you are willing to pay for.

And so I want to tell you two fairly typical stories of coaching.

The Two Million Dollar “Aha” Moment

I once had a client who worked as a commodities trader. For a variety of reasons, he came into coaching feeling disconnected from his job and colleagues. He was a high producer, but something was missing in terms of his engagement. After two or three sessions, he had a true “aha” that he was being somewhat adolescent in his response to being passed over for what he thought was an in-the-bag promotion. And, more importantly, that this was by no means the way to move ahead. So he swallowed his pride, went to his boss and asked what it would take to get the promotion with (in his words) “calm curiosity.” Turns out that this question was the missing piece – he had been perceived as not taking his own development seriously. More importantly, he realized he didn’t want to be a bratty teenager at work, so he dug in, found things to be interested in again, and within a few months got the promotion.

He told me three interesting things on our final call – one, that by the time he got the promotion, it mattered less than he had assumed it would, and two, that he was proud of himself again. Then I asked him about what he thought the return on investment of coaching had been for him. He estimated his increased engagement meant probably half a cent more profit on a bushel of the commodity he was trading. For this company, that added up to at least two million dollars a year.

The Long Slow Process of Becoming

I had another client, much earlier in my coaching career (in fact, I think I was still getting my certification). Honestly, most of the time I felt I was stumbling around in the dark. We had wonderful conversations about purpose and values, and there perhaps were mini “ahas” but not the big life-changing payoff my coaching ego was desperately hoping for. After about 10 sessions, the coaching sort of drifted to a halt. I always thought I had failed.

However, we stayed in touch via friends, the occasional lunch, and later, Facebook, and after a while I saw she had enrolled in law school. She became even more active in her community than she was previously and there was tremendous leadership and wisdom displayed in her Facebook posts about community issues. It was clear she was up to something. A year or two ago, she was elected to City Council in her large city.

I honestly have NO idea whether the coaching played a role or not – she was always someone who was going to make a huge difference in the world. I think I was probably a small part of her process, which needed time to unfold.

The Role of Co-Creation

I’ve been a coach for 17 years now, and I can promise you that most experienced coaches have versions of both stories. Of course we love to tell the first one, and in my case, to be honest, I was a more experienced coach at that time. I am sure there was a boldness to my coaching that was not yet acquired with my earlier client, which definitely had an impact. But even today, I notice some clients fly with very little from me, having big “ahas!” on almost every call, and using these to move into productive action in their lives.

But some clients seem to be on a slower path of self-discovery. For the second group, they may have an “aha!” and then lose it the minute we hang up, going back to old habits. Even though there are ways to use structures and support for this group, it is often a much more gradual process. But generally, what I have seen here is that at some point it clicks. We’ve been around that mulberry bush enough times that something happens—from a brain standpoint, I think it is neuroplasticity. There are now enough neural connections on the new path (from talking about it, trying baby steps, failing, feeling the pain of the old way that is not serving, etc.) that it (finally) becomes a viable choice for the client.

What does this take? It vastly depends. In the first case, my client had been in a process of self-exploration even before coaching. I came in to a field that was tilled and ready for planting. In the second case, my client was just beginning to explore some feelings of wanting to have a bigger impact in the world. I was part of tilling that field, but it needed more before it was ready to plant.

Wherever we meet people on their path, and whatever impact we have as coaches, healers, etc., I hold it all as aspects of transformation, whether it seems so at the time or not. And this is a messy, unpredictable, unquantifiable and ultimately gloriously human process.

Making Affirmations Work

affirmationI recently received an inquiry about affirmations from a dear friend, wondering about a client who was convinced they just didn’t work for him. My friend, an accomplished and seasoned coach, asked me for some hard data that it actually works to tell say positive statements to ourselves. Does it, he asked, really re-wire the brain?

At BEabove Leadership, we’ve thought a lot about this issue. Affirmations are some of the stock in trade of us coaches, and so understanding whether or not they work from a scientific perspective is important. Here’s our thinking on the matter:

1) Affirmations are a way of activating neuroplasticity and the multi-modal nature of neural pathways. That is, many of our neurons fire when they are doing something, watching someone else do something, or imagining doing something (affirmations fall into this category).

2) As you know, we process on both a conscious level and a sub-conscious level. Affirmations are trying to make the subconscious believe the conscious. In other words, consciously working to rewire our subconscious.

3) When we say something to ourselves that we don’t actually believe on a subconscious level, such as, in the famous words of Stuart Smalley of Saturday Night Live fame, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it people like me,” the subconscious says “Nope. Don’t buy it, don’t believe it. I’m not and they don’t. I REJECT this thought.” This is true to the degree that some studies have found people with low self-esteem even feel worse after saying affirmations like this. It is disruptive to their internal belief system that has developed to keep them safe.

4) However, if we say it long enough and consistently enough, we may eventually begin to believe it, causing our subconscious to say “Ok, I get it, you’ve convinced me.” But this is a long slog and many people give up along the way. It can take a long, long time for affirmations to work, particularly with very deep-seated issues and core beliefs.

5) Therefore, using the following process is much more brain-friendly, and, we have found, consequently much more effective. (Note: this process comes from an energy healer named Sandy Radomski of Ask and Receive. Neuroscience analysis of the process is ours.) Say out loud the following statements (and repeat as much as you like):

There is a part of my being that already knows how to (fill in the blank) 

This part of my being is informing the rest of me now

It is doing so with grace and ease

My mind body and spirit are receiving this information

Information transfer now complete

Here is why we think it works so well:

We say: There is a PART of my being that already knows how to (fill in the blank). And our subconscious says, “Ok, I’ll give you that. It might be a very very small part, but ok, maybe there is a part of me that knows how to do this.”

This part of my being is informing the rest of me now. Subconscious says “Ok, good idea.”

It is doing so with grace and ease. Subconscious says “Great, I’m not interested in this being a struggle.”

My mind body and spirit are receiving the information. Subconscious says “Cool, I’m not sure which part of me is going to figure this out, so let’s call on all of it.”

Information transfer now complete. Subconscious says “Oh, cool, the Star Trek part.” (Seriously, I don’t know why this is in there, but it always make me giggle).

This way we reprogram the brain without resistance. You can even feel the ease of this as you say it. I use it in the middle of the night when I can’t get to sleep and can feel myself calming down (and there is some evidence to support that any sort of positive self-affirming statement can help reduce stress). And I have used it with numerous clients over the years, who all report that it has helped them move past things that felt stuck.

For an interesting review by Psychology Today, see this link: Do Self-Affirmations Work? 

The Power of Dreaming, The Power of Action

Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.

~Anias Nin

Ever wondered why some people seem to lose relationship connection when they are focused on getting things done? Or why some creative dreamers can’t seem to move anything forward? Ever wonder why you get some of your best ideas and “aha” moments in the shower or daydreaming on a walk? Well, guess what? Like many human mysteries, there is a brain explanation.

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 Black Horseat wakeful rest. It’s called “default” because it is the network that is activated unless we are specifically engaged in goal-directed activity and external input, the realm of the TPN. Probably one of the most interesting aspects of these two networks is that when Default is active, Task is not. And when Task is active, Default is not. Part of each network’s function is to shut the other down.

I like to think of the two networks this way: imagine your brain is a horse. Task Mode is when you put blinders on your horse, hitch it up to a cart, and drive it forward. It just pays attention to what is right in front of it, and it’s main job is to DO. It’s not interested in anything that isn’t relevant to the job or task.

Black StallionDefault, on the hand, is when you unhitch the horse (your brain), take the blinders off, and let it loose in a field with nothing in particular to do. The horse, while roaming the field, finds many interesting things, often makes new connections between existing information (“aha” moments), and is able understand others and itself.

Here’s a few specifics about each network (by the way, it’s important to note that while some of the aspects below may sound similar to Right and Left Hemisphere operations, each network actually includes both):

Default Mode Network Task Positive Network
Dreaming

Envisioning the future

Long-term memory

Gauging other’s perspectives

Theory of mind (understanding others)

Introspection

Self-referential thought

DMN is spread widely throughout brain

Focus on task

Actively paying attention (external)

Goal-orientation

Reacting to and working with sensory information

Short-term (working) memory

Planning

Abstract reasoning

TPN is more concentrated in pre-frontal cortex

In today’s busy world, most of us don’t allow ourselves enough Default Mode time, and it’s important. I really saw this when I was driving across country after taking my only kid to his freshman year at college. I was using my drive as a time to listen to an audio book, which meant my brain was actively paying attention to external stimuli. And yet, I had just dropped my only son off to his new adventure, and was starting a new one of my own. I realized that I needed to process how I felt. So I turned off the book and just drove, letting my horse of a brain wander in the field. After about half an hour, all sorts of metaphors came to me — I saw taking my son to college was like the end of a really really good book. One you don’t want to end. I cried a bit over that. Then I saw that now there were two books going forward. His and mine. And we were big characters in each other’s story in these new books, but not in the way we were in the first book.

Giving myself Default Mode time really helped me integrate this big change, and by the time I got home, I felt much more ready to embark on my new life without a child at home. The “aha” moments that the Default Network gives us are precious, important, and don’t happen when we are focused on task.

I find with my clients that this tends to resonate — we probably all need a bit more intentional daydreaming in our lives. Knowing about these two networks may help convince people to let their horses loose now and then to find the flowers and other treasures in the field.

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.

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.

 

 

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/

 

 

Valugration

applorangeNo, it’s not a real word. Ursula and I made it up last fall when we were sitting in a restaurant in Washington, DC. I said to her, “I feel like I have values that are in conflict with each other. I want them both, but in the case of some values, it’s just too darn challenging to hold them at the same time.”

My example was my value of HUMILITY and my value of BIGNESS. I both want to be part of everything — not special — and take my rightful BIG place in the world. My brain was telling me, “Well that’s nice, but you have to pick one. They negate each other.”

Damn.

I hate that.

As we relaxed and ate our salads, we talked about why this happens, and it occurred to us that it wasn’t the values that were in conflict, per se, it was the two hemispheres of the brain. In the case of my value of humility, my right hemisphere wanted connection and oneness, not to be distinct and different from everyone else (for more on this aspect of the right hemisphere, see Jill Bolte-Taylor’s powerful TED talk). My left hemisphere, on the other hand, wanted the separateness and distinction of bigness. And they both wanted what they wanted.

As we talked more about this, we started to see that when values are difficult to reconcile, typically there is a perceived conflict between the two hemispheres of the brain. We want structure (left) and freedom (right). We want to relax and we want to be productive. We want to play and we want to accomplish things. It’s enough to drive a person mad.

Suddenly, the words of an old Huey Lewis and the News song came to me. He sang, “I want a new drug,” and I thought “Well, I want  new word! I don’t want to choose.” I wanted a word that would capture both hemispheres, one that would help me integrate these desires, these seemingly opposing forces in my life. And thus, the game of Valugration was born. It stands for Values+Integration. And the rules are simple. You take your opposing values and combine them into a brand-new word that can hold both. In this instance, mine was HUMILiGNESS. Humility+Bigness.

Finding the right word take a little finesse. Here are a few pointers from our experience doing this in our classes and presentations:

  • Be sure you are integrating a right hemisphere value and a left hemisphere value. The hemispheres are not typically in conflict within themselves.
  • The new word needs to inspire you and not have a connotation that takes you away from the experience.
  • Because the right hemisphere holds the whole, while the left is focused on parts, we find that the brain tends to like the right hemisphere word to come first, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
  • It is best if it really is a brand new word, one that you don’t already know. This will make you think about it newly, see it with fresh eyes, and approach living into it with curiosity.
  • Write it down so you don’t forget it.

That’s it — pretty simple, actually. Oh, but I almost forgot the second part of the game. The second part is to try it on and ultimately live your new word. You play that part of the game the rest of your life.

To play VALUGRATION with your BEabove Leadership Valugration experts, come and visit us in the exhibitor area of the Midwest ICF conference June 20-22 in Minneapolis. 

To learn practical, hands-on neuroscience for coaches, come experience our advanced coaching series! Places are still available in our August 7-11 retreat in Northern California