Top Five Neuroscience-Based Things You Can Do to Make Virtual Learning More Better*

laptop-1238649*NOTE: The title was my attempt to bring some lightness to the topic, but has apparently got some folks thinking it is a typo. No, I really did mean “more better,” and if I’m the only one who thinks that’s funny, so be it! It wouldn’t be the first time….. 🙂  

 

There’s actually little here that just deals with only virtual challenges—as we’ve learned through our research at BEabove Leadership, much of it is simply best practice in all teaching and learning. But in the distance learning world, we believe we probably need to lean into these things even more because of the challenges imposed by the structure of being separate from each other. It isn’t really how we are meant to learn. For thousands of years, we’ve learned by watching and practicing, by hearing stories from the elders while huddled around a campfire, by being with and near each other. But right now, we can’t always be together in person, so the question is, how to make it as good as we possibly can?

#1. Create Real Connection. In other words, give everyone a voice in some way that is more than “Who has a question?” This may be the most obvious, but it is also the most critical. Why? There are probably two key reasons:

  • Having people make their own connections rather than just listening in promotes their neuroplasticity—they have to make the neural connections in their own brains. And if they know they are going to be asked to participate, reflect, and respond, their brains stay more alert.
  • As social animals, we need to feel connected and safe in a learning environment.

Here are a few examples (of course, use the chat function for these if there are a ton of people and/or you need to manage time tightly):

  • Use a provocative check-in question as you start the session.
  • Have them rephrase what you just said in their own words.
  • Ask, “Who will be ‘Devil’s Advocate’ about what I just said?”
  • Ask for specific examples from their own lives.
  • Ask who can think of a joke that relates to what we’ve been talking about? Or just ask for a good joke.
  • Create one-to-one engagement time with an individual who has a classic example or challenge.
  • Use “breakout” rooms where people can discuss in smaller groups or pairs.
  • As much as you can, read replies out loud to really bring their voices in. If a very large number of people, have an assistant monitor the responses and pull out a few to highlight.
  • Have some sort of fun GIF or sound or visual when someone makes a really great point or provides the perfect segue to the next topic.

applorange#2. Make the Learning Multi-Sensory. The more neural pathways we have associated with something, the more interesting and memorable it becomes. Even simply using slides will bring in visual associations – and making these compelling, visually interesting and unusual will lock in learning more than providing the visual version of whole bunch o’ lists. (The brilliant scientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett uses a GIF of electric towers jumping rope to illustrate one of her points and it is unforgettable.) But more than just nice pics, we can involve all the senses, even in the virtual space.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

  • Ask them to stand and embody what you are talking about; and/or create a simple exercise involving moving their body in some way.
  • Give them homework to bring to the next class something for each of the five senses which represents what they just learned. In other words, what is a visual image that captures this idea? What is the smell of it? What is the sound of it? What does it feel like? What does it taste like? And/or ask this in class. Believe me, it will really get those neurons firing! They can either show on video or tell in chat.
  • The brain is trained to pay more attention to what it hasn’t seen before, so use odd or unusual pictures, videos or GIFs.
  • Tell illustrative stories with sensory detail. When you are lecturing or trying to make a point, the more senses you bring in, the more people will put themselves in the picture, their brains mapping your story along with you.

#3. Provide Both Structure and Freedom. Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere of the brain is more keyed to the known, the predictable, and the orderly, while the right prefers the new, the open, and the unstructured. In all training, it’s important to think about both—in virtual learning, the right hemisphere often gets a bit neglected as we strive to provide all the necessary information. The truth is, learning is much more impactful when the instructor pays attention to both.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

STRUCTURE

  • Be very clear about what you’ll do and when.
  • Let participants know how long certain activities or discussions will be, and be reliable (also about class starting and ending times).
  • DO provide clear and simple written (or on slides) data/lists/instructions when important.

FREEDOM

  • As mentioned above, look to provide the unexpected and unusual. The joke or cartoon no one has heard before, the visual image, the video, etc.
  • Dance with the energy of the group, don’t be afraid to go down a few “rabbit trails” that might be slightly off topic if there is energy and enthusiasm there.
  • Do things that make you more human and relatable. Wear something unusual andimg_1963 interesting. Invite your (well-behaved) animals to join you (my cats often come on at the beginning of my classes and then get bored and go away).
  • Co-create – leave room in the curriculum for the participants to shape things—this could be topics they want you to cover, or it could be organizing “teach-backs” from individuals or groups.

#4. Be Stimulating But Not Stressful. Our prefrontal cortex is highly attuned to stress. Keeping things interesting and novel and will be stimulating to this part of the brain (which we definitely need for learning). Overwhelming students with too much information, information that is beyond the scope of where they are, or mind-twisting assignments can overload this part of the brain. On the other hand, a droning voice, slides that are nothing but data and lists, and a pure lecture style with little interaction will have the participants seriously under-stimulated and most likely checked out.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

TO MANAGE STRESS

  • Calibrate, calibrate, calibrate. Make sure you have a very good sense of where your students are and what is the next place to take them. Many amazing experts sometimes forget that what is obvious to them is NOT to the average person. Assuming significant prior knowledge that is not actually there can create stress, anxiety and even shame. This is another reason to keep your slides simple and clear.
  • Be sensitive and allow a great deal of choice when doing emotional work. If a student is processing trauma, they can be more impacted by what might be for someone else completely innocuous.
  • Provide clear expectations but also look for ways to give students some capacity to exert control over their experience. In other words, be up front about what is negotiable and what isn’t. Giving people a sense of control is one of the key ways to manage stress.

TO CREATE MORE STIMULATION

  • As mentioned above, look to provide the unexpected and unusual. The joke or odd-one-out-1353549-1600x1200cartoon no one has seen before, the unexpected direction. One of the key issues with virtual learning as a participant is that our brains can go into a bit of a groove, thinking we know what to expect (or even planning to catch up on email while we attend a class). When the instructor doesn’t go into the same old groove, the brain says “Oh, wait a minute, what’s this?” and pays much more attention.
  • Be variable and melodic with your voice. Instructors with flat voices that have little “prosody” (that is, they don’t go up and down in tonal range) create less connection with their students and generally don’t provide enough stimulation to the brain. If you’re not sure about yours, have a trusted friend listen and give you feedback. Then practice!
  • Express your own enthusiasm and excitement for the topic. One of my favorite teachers is Robert Sapolsky of Stanford. He lectures about biology and it is inevitably riveting. He illustrates many of the points I have mentioned here, but probably the one thing he does that surpasses them all is that he is madly in love with what he does. That energy and enthusiasm is like adding a big bright highlighter pen to whatever he is talking about. (He also tells stories extremely well, with tons of sensory details.)

#5. Create Personal Relevance. Ok, maybe I lied when I said #1 (create real connection) was the most important because it’s possible that this one actually is. The truth is, our brains have to process so much information we have to have some way of sorting out what gets through and what doesn’t. (This is largely the job of the reticular activating system, BTW.) The bottom line is that most of us tend to pay attention and retain information to the degree to which it is personally relevant to us. This aspect of learning surpasses all others, including learning styles and everything else I have covered in this article. If you really want or need to know something, you’ll read the poorly written instructions-1423097-1599x2132pamphlet that came with your vacuum cleaner. If you don’t (because your brain has tagged it as “not relevant”), tap dancing elephants may not even help. This is an issue in any sort of training, but the distance in distance learning can serve to exacerbate the challenge, which is why I believe it is even more critical to pay attention to in that space.

Here are a few examples of things you can do:

  • Have students connect the learning to something real in their own lives. I have noticed that even when I think it is obvious, sometimes their brain doesn’t make the connection until you ask for it. Again, you can do this through having people type in examples on the chat and pulling some out, having one or two share a story, and/or put them into break rooms to discuss and then come back and share.
  • Simply keep asking “And how is this relevant in your work, life, relationship, etc.” This will also prime them that you are going to ask that question so they may even listen for more relevance.
  • Ask “When would this be important to know/understand?”
  • Use images and examples that reflect a broad community and especially the community you are teaching. One way to NOT make things personally relevant is to use images and examples that don’t reflect people’s reality, ethnicity, etc.
  • Tell real, authentic, raw and vulnerable stories from your own life. Because at some point the human experience has a lot of overlap. Your struggles and pain—if not sugar-coated and told with deep authenticity—may be close enough to someone else’s to activate their connection to personal relevance. But be aware of the point above. If it’s a so called “first world problem” your story may backfire.

Wishing you powerful learning and connection, no matter how you interact with your people. And if you want to dive deeper into this topic, see our recorded webinar on Creating Brain-Friendly training for much more more on how to make any training engaging, exciting and impactful.

Consciousness and the Integrated Brain (and Human System)

I was sitting in a corporate meeting recently, and as one of the participants was speaking, suddenly I could see and understand the soul pouring into her. It wasn’t like a movie – I didn’t see light beams streaming — it was more like a knowing. As I watched while she spoke, I knew on a deep intuitive (and yet very real) level that her soul was flowing into her body in an ongoing process.

And this soul was pure energy. By pure I mean both “nothing but energy,” as well as pure in the sense of clean, clear, and uncontaminated. It was her body that could only hold a certain level of vibration. In other words. the energy coming in was shaped in the world by what her human body was capable of.

In that moment I was shown that this was about established patterns and capacities of the mind as well as biochemistry, heart rate variability, the strength of the vagus nerve, and to some degree the general health of the body as well. All of these things were taking the pure light of consciousness and altering the vibration so that this particular body (and when I say body I include the physical brain) could hold it.

I watched this with every person in that meeting. I watched the energy come in and I watched it being held by their bodies in different ways. One person was sick, and I saw her body struggling more, but I could tell this was temporary, a way vibration was working with her weakened body.

It’s like pouring pure, clean water into a cup. Consciousness is pure and perfect. The cup, the body, distorts it depending what residue it holds. The cleaner the cup, the more it can hold and reflect that water’s pure crystalline structure.

acupuncture-body-1564417 (1)

This is how the body works with consciousness. And it tells me it’s not our role to do anything about consciousness. Instead, our role is to help the body hold more light. To clean the cup so it can reflect more accurately what is there.

This involves every single aspect of the human system. For example (but not limited to):

All of this (and more) allows the human to hold a higher frequency. The being can shine more light. And this is why our whole human system is critical to consciousness. We are vessels for light, and those vessels reflect light to the degree they are able.

 

Entering Softly

arms-wide-open-1457804The Right Hemisphere and Coaching

Ah, the two hemispheres of the brain, something we are endlessly fascinated with here at Your Coaching Brain. While it is true that, on a day to day basis, we use both hemispheres for most of what we do (yes, even music, math, art and logic), it is equally true that each hemisphere pays attention to the world in a very different way. The right focuses on the big picture, the relationship between things, and meaning. The left gives us the ability to understand and attend to pieces and parts. It is concerned with both the details and process.

The right hemisphere is also attuned to that which is novel, unique and heretofore unexplored, and as such, all new information comes to us through our right hemisphere. Conversely, the left deals with what it already knows, the representations (re-presentations) of things already noticed and brought into awareness by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere’s role is as an interpreter of reality, not an experiencer. They each have their uses—and their limitations.

One limitation we need to think about has huge implications for coaching. In order for the client to shift to somewhere truly new, to have an experience of transformation, we must get them into their right hemisphere. All learning starts here—with what we don’t know, haven’t noticed, and are yet to experience. However, we also want to be sure the session is practical and useful for the client, and is, of course, what they want, all of which are more left hemisphere concerns.

And thus a conundrum. On the one hand, traditionally as the session begins we ask the client what they want from today’s work and how they will know they have gotten that. We may ask them to think about the measures and markers that they have, indeed, had a useful session, thus activating their practical left hemisphere and asking it to sort through what it already knows.

On the other hand, current understanding of the brain shows us that often what needs to occur is in the realm of what the client “doesn’t know what they don’t know.” The right hemisphere is where we will find that amazing “aha” that can turn the coaching in a whole new—often much more powerful—direction. This is the part of brain that pays attention to the “still small voice” of what is unknown and undiscovered.

And so, I have come to enter coaching sessions softly. I do ask, what do you want to focus on today, but I generally refrain from getting too “granular” with specific outcomes,* because (usually) I intentionally want to activate the open, learning part of the client’s brain. I want them to enter into today’s coaching from a place they do not know, instead of moving around the pieces and parts they have looked at before. Once we have looked and explored in a wide, open way, there is a time to narrow things down, make plans and look to measures. This focusing in is also an important part of coaching–it’s just not always the best place to begin.

Perhaps it feels a bit more in control if you have a clear, specific, measurable goal for every coaching session, which makes the left hemisphere happy (and yes, as noted in my footnote, there are times when this makes sense). The right hemisphere, however, doesn’t care that things be linear, predictable and measurable, because its focus is a greater integration of the whole. And ultimately, I would argue, this is what really matters in coaching.

*a notable exception is if the client has already, perhaps in other sessions, done enough exploration and they really at this point just need to make a plan.

 

Thank you to Iain McGilchrist for his amazing book The Master and His Emissary, and the new documentary, The Divided Brain. McGilchrist spent over 20 years synthesizing wisdom from philosophy, history, art and neuroscience to help us understand the real difference – and challenge – of the two hemispheres of the brain.

What to Do With the I Don’t Know

shutterstock_1072714010In 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!

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. 

 

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.

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.

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.

Metaphors are Lint Catchers for the Brain

Shadow luz headsI have cats. Even though they are short-haired, they shed. I like to wear black pants (so slimming, you know). My small cat is pure white and my big cat has a white belly. Thus, renegade white hairs ALL OVER EVERYTHING, especially my black pants. So I have one of those sticky rolls of tape with a handle that you can use to de-lint yourself, and it works great. It picks up everything, even stuff I sometimes didn’t know was there.

To use a simile, a metaphor is like that for your brain. Allow me to explain. Our visual cortex is more well-developed than our auditory cortex. In other words, we more quickly and easily understand things in images than we do by parsing linear sentences. If you ask me how I am, and I tell you all day I have felt like I have my shoes on the wrong feet, you can connect immediately and much more powerfully (and empathically) than if I simply say I am a bit out of sorts. And, like that sticky tape which picks up everything, you get much more information than the simple statement “out of sorts” allows. Shoes on the wrong feet brings up a wealth of interesting images and sensations. It might include awkward, stumbling, uncomfortable, tight, irritating. In a coaching conversation, a myriad of directions to explore!

Because the right hemisphere of the brain thinks in pictures (as well as sounds, colors, smells and touch), I believe metaphors are one of the most amazing tools we have as coaches to integrate the two hemispheres of the brain. The right hemisphere is the side that brings to the brain what is new, but because it doesn’t have immediate access to symbolic language (words and sentences are the provence of the left hemisphere), this information is spread out all over, nebulous and unfocused and sometimes difficult to pick up, like cat hair on my pants. But when we grab an image that swims to the surface and name it (shoes on the wrong feet), we have accessed the left hemisphere’s power of focus and language without losing the right hemisphere’s subtlety and ability to know the hidden or nebulous aspects of the situation.

As coaches, we know that when a client can’t focus in on what is really going on, we can’t work with the issue. However, if we only focus in and reduce things to simple statements (out of sorts), we often miss the heart of the matter. Metaphors allow us to do both, by engaging both hemispheres of the brain in a powerful partnership. Through the image, we keep bringing pieces over from the right hemisphere, which knows everything but can’t articulate it or do much with it, to the left, which says “Ok, let’s really look at this.” Shadow Luz who meA good metaphor is a door into consciousness, and when my clients tell me “Oh, I am no good at metaphors,” or “I just don’t think that way,” I don’t accept it. I tell them we’re going to build the muscle, because it is key to understanding themselves. Everyone has the ability, we just need to activate it.

The Embodied Brain

At BEabove Leadership, as we get ready for the first Module Three of our Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program, I have been thinking a lot about energy, quantum mechanics, and the fact that our brains are so much bigger than the two hemispheres etc. in our skulls. So I thought I’d share some thoughts about the brain we are carrying in our entire bodies.

1) Our Heart is Actually a Brain

“Far more than a simple pump, as was once believed, the heart is now recognized by scientists as a highly complex system with its own functional ‘brain’…. “

~Roland McCraty, Institute of HeartMath

The heart has a nervous system and neurons of its own. Research in the field of Neurocardiology has shown that the heart can learn, remember, and make decisions separate from the brain in our heads. And research by the HeartMath Institute has shown that the signals from the heart, as conducted through the vagus nerve (see bleow), precede decision-making in the brain. In other words, the heart thinks first, and thinks faster, influencing the brain in the areas of perception, cognition and emotional processing.

The heart also generates a powerful electromagnetic field – much more powerful than that of the brain. To quote the experts at the HeartMath Institute, “Compared to the electromagnetic field produced by the brain, the heart’s field is about 60 times greater in amplitude, and permeates every cell in the body. The magnetic component is approximately 5000 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field and can be detected several feet away from the body with sensitive magnetometers.”

2) Our Gut is a Sort of Brain, Too

The greatest concentration of serotonin (a key neurotransmitter), which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain. Studies have found that high doses of probiotics (which serve to balance the gut flora in positive ways and unlike antidepressants, have no negative side effects) cause mice to face challenges with more perseverance and take more risks than mice not treated with probiotics.

3) The Vagus Nerve is Really Important

The name comes from the medieval Latin word vagus, which literally means “wandering” (vagrant, vagabond and vague all come from the same root). This nerve “wanders” through our body, connecting to our organs and conveying sensory information to and from the central nervous system (CNS). Most of the fibers in the vagus nerve (80-90%) are afferent, which means they take information back to the CNS.

In other words, the vagus nerve is the information superhighway connecting the body to brain, with 80-90% of the traffic flowing up to the brain from our organs and viscera, and only 10-20% of the information going from the brain to the body. 

4) Our Body Takes Things Literally

Our bodies are remarkably literal in their interpretation of the world. (Perhaps this is because the vagus nerve is sending back so much information from the body to the brain.) There are numerous astonishing research studies showing this – a recent one published in the Association for Psychological Science last March proved that if you literally put people in boxes they think more restrictively and when literally “out of the box” are more creative. Another showed that people who hold a warm drink see a stranger’s personality as warmer than those not holding a drink. Mimicking the phrase “on the one hand, on the other hand” by moving your hands alternately in a lifting motion will generate more ideas than lifting a single hand. And so on. People who sat on hard chairs negotiated harder for a salary increase than those in soft chairs. Donation kettles at the top of an escalator garnered more donations than those at the bottom of the escalator (we associate going “up” with being better people).

Conclusion

We are constantly – and literally – interpreting our environment. At BEabove, we believe the task of coaches and teachers is to help people become more consciously aware of ourselves as embodied brains. Because the vagus nerve comes into the right hemisphere of the brain, which does not look at things individually, logically, or in a linear manner, we need to develop the ability to interact with this vague (interesting semantic connection there) information so that we can grasp it, understand it, and use it effectively. This is the job of coaching, counseling, and healing.

Do you want to learn how to bring more brain (and higher levels of consciousness) to your coaching? Consider joining us for an upcoming Module One of Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching.