Do we really have three brains, or is that a bit of a myth?
Originally posted on our BEabove Leadership website —
Do we really have three brains, or is that a bit of a myth?
Originally posted on our BEabove Leadership website —
In one of my coaching classes we started the weekend by exploring the “thing we can’t be with.” In terms of coaching, I have to say, it’s probably that client who just keeps saying “I don’t know,” or otherwise goes flat or blank, even with the best, most provocative powerful question. Argh!! What the heck I am I supposed to do with THAT? I’m not the magic reveal your life purpose fairy, nor am I the sherpa who will carry you up the hill.
But I am the curious brain examiner, so maybe it will help if we go there. Let’s start by looking at a few reasons why a client might get stuck in the I don’t knows, and what you could try if you think that’s what’s happening.
1. They are over-activated in the left hemisphere of their brain. This is often my working hypothesis when the “I don’t know” feels energetically more flat or rigid (the left hemisphere when very over-calibrated takes us to rigidity), and when it is in response to questions like “What do you want?” “What values are important to you?” “What if anything was possible?” etc. And here’s why–those questions are a bit more right hemisphere friendly (for more on the two hemispheres of the brain see Come On Over to The Right Side and Right Brain – Left Brain–Is It All A Myth?), and if the client is currently (or habitually) stuck in their left hemisphere, they simply may not have any access in this moment.
What to do: You have a couple of options here. One is to ask some questions that are more left-hemisphere friendly, and luckily this actually isn’t hard. The left hemisphere LOVES to judge and evaluate and criticize. So ask the client to do this. Questions like “what are some of the things that don’t work in your current situation?” or even, “what drives you crazy?” can easily be flipped to mine for the client’s values. For example, if the client says “I can’t stand the way my boss micro-manages me, it’s so insulting!” you can probe to see if the value is autonomy, respect, trust, etc. Ok, now we know at least one thing the client may want to shift or change. (Even before I knew about the brain, it was always so interesting to me, and I am sure to most of you as well, how often it was quicker and easier for a client to answer “what don’t you want?” than “what do you want?”)
The second option is to bring them into the right hemisphere, and the best way to do this is NOT through verbal language (which may actually keep them more stuck in the left). Instead, use images, metaphors, and connection to the body as your doorway in. It may help to say to a reluctant client something along the lines of: “In order to help you discover more of who you are and what you really want, we need to activate a part of your brain that is less strategic and linear. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to strategy and steps for implementation. But first we need to get you connected to something deeper, and this is the best way I know.”
2. They are over-activated in the right hemisphere of the brain. While the left hemisphere over-calibrated becomes rigid, the right becomes chaotic. So if I have a client who is all over the place in their not-knowing, and/or feels like any direction they take will cut off some other wonderful idea or possibility, this is my hypothesis. It can feel a lot like a car starting and stopping or a tornado swirling, and I find it exhausting to coach. The client will start down a path that feels resonant, only to turn and double back again. Ack!
What to do: Again, there are a couple of options. Take them into it, or take them out of it. In the first, I often go with the swirl, first making it even a bit bigger (“Yes! and you could also do this, and this and this!”) and then having the client view what their life is like down the road if they stay in this confusion and continue to keep all their options open. What does life look like? Is that what they really want?
In the second, I like to lean into the left hemisphere a bit by having the client get very linear about each option. Get it out of their head and onto paper. Bullet point it. Make a spreadsheet or matrix. I actually love to help them with this (and sometimes I really need to if they are massively all over the place). You might say something like “Let’s look at each thing, what it would take and how you would feel about it. And don’t worry, you don’t have to commit right now to any of it. Let’s just get it all out of your head and onto the table where you can really look at it.” And of course, as we as coaches already know, once the client can actually look at all of it, they often start seeing patterns and realizing where the energy is.
3. They are overwhelmed or underwhelmed by stress. When we have either too much or too little stimulation going on in our lives, it can make it hard to think and focus. (See The Goldilocks of the Brain for more on this.) Our prefrontal cortex is needed for this function, and it likes to be in balance. I like to say stimulated, but not stressed is my happy, most productive place. If you have a client who is very bored, not being well-used in their work or life, or a client who is barely managing to keep all the plates spinning, you may run into the “I don’t knows.” Their brain is simply not in the right biochemical state to know!
What do do: this may be obvious, but the first thing is to help get their lovely brains back to the state where focus and direction and some aspect of clarity is possible. If they are under-stimulated (this can happen when they are re-entering the workforce, too long in the same job, under-utilized at work, disconnected from their purpose and passions, etc.), they simply need to get stimulated. Adding some challenge and stress and interesting pursuits will spike the chemical balance in a positive direction.
And if (as many clients are) they are overwhelmed, over-scheduled and over-worked, take a look at this list for some research-based ideas for diminishing the chemical overload. (And as a bonus, here is a short video of me using this idea as a coaching tool.)
There may, of course, be other brain-related reasons a person gives you the “I don’t knows,” but honestly, mostly what I have encountered as a coach is some combination of the above. I hope this helps!
In my work I end up reading, viewing, and even talking to quite a lot of experts in their field, which is both cool and critical to my own learning and growth. And in this process, I’ve started noticing a quality I respond to in the experts I admire the most. I’m calling it yes-pertise, the ability to be both a kick-ass expert on their topic and to bring a sort of humility and wonder to their writing, teaching and sharing.
Dang, I love this, and here’s why: it honors us both. People who have spent a lot of time figuring stuff out, studying, thinking, researching, writing, etc. deserve our respect. Becoming an expert in one’s field isn’t an easy path. It generally requires huge amounts of discipline, creativity, perseverance, and passion. YAY! And of course no one person (or group) knows it all, and the wisest among us understand this as well. Someone with true yes-pertise is a “yes” to the contributions, insights, and ponderings of others, whatever their age, degree or experience. Even a seven-year-old might have a helpful insight or question, even a neophyte in a profession or practice might intuitively grasp something that has eluded a seasoned expert.
What we’ve learned from improv
Yes-pertise is a way of being open to the contributions of others without losing one’s own knowing. It has some roots in the idea from improvisational comedy that anything offered by a fellow actor is met with a “yes, and….” because a “but” or a negation will kill the scene:
Actor One: What a lovely day at the beach!
Actor Two: This isn’t a beach, we’re on the subway and there’s a tuba player over there.
Actor One: No, we’re at the freaking beach and I am going to make a sand castle! (Thunk goes the scene.)
Actor One: What a lovely day at the beach!
Actor Two: Yes, and look at that big tuba player over there, I wonder what he’s doing?
Actor One: Well I brought my piccolo, but I’m worried it might get sandy. (A million places this could go….)
In the case of what I am calling yes-pertise, it has a similar impact–with expertise alone it can be a closed loop for the expert’s own knowledge, but those who share with yes-pertise tend to create open, ever expanding conversation in which everyone learns–and often are inspired.
Why does yes-pertise matter?
The expertise part of someone with yes-pertise is critical to our being able to trust what they are saying. When someone brings forth their wisdom with confidence and clarity and we get a sense the depth of knowledge they are accessing, we tend to believe they are someone worth listening to and we pay attention.
The yes part of yes-pertise builds an even deeper trust. When someone is able to admit what they don’t know and/or be permeable to others’ contributions, it tells us that they understand they (like every human) have limits and are ultimately more interested in understanding than promotion of their own ego. This tends to create a feeling of being fellow explorers on the journey of knowledge rather than passive consumers of a set of information.
The older academic model was based on hierarchy and domination. Even the language: you have to “defend” your thesis or your point. What do we defend against? Attack. Is my single (or perhaps a team) effort good enough, or is someone else smarter, will they prove me wrong? In this model, the delight comes often comes from refutation of previous work, being at the top of the heap by pushing someone else down. (NOTE: not all academics are like this, many exhibit true yes-pertise, for example, vulnerability research and teacher Brene Brown and Mindsight author Dan Siegel.)
The idea of yes-pertise calls us to seek understanding together. If we are experts, to hold strong in what we know but at the same time be very open to what we don’t and what others might bring. And where we aren’t experts, I think yes-pertise calls us to offer what we see from our own perspective and experience, trusting that life and our very humanness has granted us a place at the table of wisdom.
Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I saw some heartfelt thoughts from a friend on her sadness at the division between Millennials and Boomers, and it made me think (as many things do) of the power and magic of integration — this time between the generations.
Allow me, for a minute, to go to the brain. Our wonderful Prefrontal Cortices, which give us access to empathy, long-term planning and direction, abstract thinking, delaying gratification, and so on, are still developing well into our twenties. (When exactly can vary from person to person, with men maturing more slowly on average. Some say 25 is a safe bet, but it can be anywhere from 21 to 30.) The connections between the emotional centers (the amygdala and limbic system) are gaining in stability, and we have a far greater ability to manage our emotional responses as we enter our mid- to late twenties. Decision-making becomes more rational, empathic, and thoughtful.
But here’s the kicker–this time of development is also one of our most brilliant. The ability to make astonishing connections, come up with new ideas, innovate, and think creatively is high. This is likely because the brain’s grey matter increases during childhood and peaks in early adolescence. Part of what we know as prefrontal cortex development is actually a function of this decrease through a process known as synaptic pruning, where the brain literally gets rid of connections that aren’t used, as well as the laying down of the myelin sheath, which strengthens neural connections so they are stronger and more reliable. In other words, young people’s brains have a ton of potential in terms of ways of thinking, while the more mature adult brain has done its pruning and a great deal of myelination, and has its patterns of thought reinforced over years of use. (See neuroplasticity for more on this subject.)
I’ve seen this in action directly with my own millennial, currently a senior in college and a Philosophy major, like his mom. As we talk about what he is reading and pursuing, I find myself struggling to keep up, and not just because I don’t remember what I read 30 years ago. Even when he explains what he is thinking completely and carefully, there is a quickness of connection lacking in me, one that I know I had at his age. I remember being able to dance at the top of those tall trees, making subtle and astonishing arguments and parsing through a dense paper seeking truth.
My brain honestly works differently now. That quick lightness of thought and connection has been replaced with–I think the best word for it is–wisdom. Part of this wisdom is an increased aspect of intuition (which we believe is a system of interrelated factors that give us below-conscious-processing insight and knowledge), arising from what we have experienced. At this age, my brain can find patterns between the experiences of 54 years, quickly having a sense of what may be going on. Researchers call this “contextual intuition.” I think of it as a storehouse of micro-memories that the brain accesses below conscious awareness to help us recognize patterns. This aspect of intuition explains why a doctor who has spent 20 years treating tropical diseases may see a new patient and immediately “know” what is ailing them, while a new intern needs to look up all the symptoms.
My brain is also more patient at this age. I find myself willing to wait to see how things play out, to trust that I don’t have to know everything right now, and even that there are many things I will never know. The adolescent brain is on a track to make sense of everything–this is its job, after all. But not all is readily apparent, and wisdom shows us that sometimes patience is the best strategy, knowing what needs to unfold will unfold with time.
Wisdom also has given me a better sense of when I am operating from my emotional center and when I am thinking things through, while the adolescent and young adult brain can be carried away emotionally without realizing it. And I should add that learning NOT to say or write things when I my amygdala has been triggered unfortunately did not happen when I magically turned 25. I am still learning this, but it’s easier and I have more awareness of what is happening than when I was in my teens and early 20s.
Lastly, my brain is more integrated. This is strictly a hypothesis, but from observing my own son, his friends, and others’ children, it seems to me that the prefrontal cortex develops somewhat asymmetrically. In the right hemisphere, we have empathy and human relationship skills, while in the left we have more of the planning and sequencing aspects. My own left hemisphere was on a bit of delay–I didn’t get focus and direction until about age 27, while I had empathy and concern for others from a much younger age. My son was the opposite–he was able to plan and execute from early adolescence, but understanding others begin to develop a bit later. Wisdom–and great leadership–comes with the ability to do both.
And so, once again, as I said above, I find myself thinking about integration. I am astonished and want to nurture all the brilliance of our world’s young people. After all, these are the brains figuring out how to make biodegradable plastic out of banana peels and clean up the oceans with a giant vacuum cleaner. They deserve our respect. Yay young brains!
AND, I want to give due respect to the wisdom of the older brain. Nothing can replicate true context, patience, emotional regulation and dual-hemisphere processing. It has to be experienced for oneself, and grown over the course of a lifetime.
So why have a war? When the young brains feel honored and the older ones respected, we can partner in leadership and together make an even bigger difference in the world.
For more on this topic, see Dr. Dan Siegel’s book Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain.