The Boxes We Grow Up In: identity, development and the prefrontal cortex

shutterstock_135099392

Ask anyone–I was a hot mess in my teens and early twenties. Disorganized, unfocused, and completely unable to finish anything I started. I dropped out of high school because I found the graduation requirements overwhelming, and by the time I finally graduated college at age 30 (remember the age, it’s important) I had credits from five different institutions on my transcript. And a story about myself that I was flaky, undisciplined, and unreliable.

None of that is actually true about me. It’s just that my brain hadn’t grown up yet.

But I carried that identity with me for years, even as much of I was doing was actually the opposite. I finished college with straight As, was a successful sales manager for a large region, managed the publishing division of a national non-profit, co-founded a non-profit, and more.

And yet I carried a story about myself based on who I was as a teen and young adult, which I was blind to (as we often are to the stories we have about ourselves). It was my dear friend and business partner who finally called me on it a couple of years ago when I said something along the lines of “Well, you know me, I have no discipline,” and after she got finished snorting coffee out her nose and laughing hysterically, she said, “Oh stop it! That is ridiculous. You are the most  disciplined person I know.”

I was completely taken aback, but when I looked more objectively at my life, I saw she had a point. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I went from a haphazard fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants adolescent to a focused, capable, organized adult.

Now you could chalk this up to the general process of learning, and you could assume it was just me developing skills and getting feedback and becoming more effective. And part of that is true. But there is something deeper here: the truth is, I have focus, discipline and organization in my nature. It is actually core to who I am, not just a learned adaptation. So why was I such a mess as a young adult? What happened?

I grew up.

These days we’ve all heard that the brain doesn’t fully develop until approximately the mid-twenties. What we’re referring to is the prefrontal cortex, the last part of  the brain to come fully “on line.” Known as the seat of executive function, this part of the brain is in charge of calibrating risk and reward, problem-solving, prioritizing, thinking ahead, long-term planning, emotional regulation, and the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes. (It’s not that these things aren’t possible before maturity, it’s just that it takes a lot more effort and isn’t very reliable.)

And so, for over 25 years I was telling a very old story, based on an immature version of myself, which I had taken on as true, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Evidence I couldn’t see because the story was blinding me to the truth.

So now, I have a new story, that I am disciplined and focused. And the power of being conscious to this is huge. Probably the main thing is that I am able to trust myself more. When I am about to take something on, instead of hearing an internal voice say “Well I don’t know, you know you don’t tend to follow through very well,” I hear “Good for you, you’ll get that done easily.” The old story was like fighting an uphill battle. The new one is more like riding a wave. And I much prefer riding a wave!

I wonder how many of us have taken on a very old and inaccurate story about ourselves, based on who we were as an adolescent or young adult work-in-progress? And how often do we label kids and teens as “this way” or “that way,” when honestly, we don’t know who they will actually turn out to be once their brains are fully developed?

Take a look and see if what you have been saying about yourself is true, or if it simply was true, before your brain grew up and you became who you actually are.

 

 

Your Brain is Basically a Three-Year-Old (and what to do about it)

During a recent workshop in Atlanta, one of the participants came from out of town with her mom and young son. Grandma and grandson hung out in the hotel during the day, and the little boy delighted us all when he stopped by for mom time on the breaks. At one point I happened to have a battery-operated timer in my hand when he came in the room, and being a well-adjusted, curious-1309170open and extremely curious little guy, he of course wanted it, so I gave it to him to play with. Ah, the buttons and bells! He was enchanted and (you probably saw this coming), not at all interested in giving it back at the end of the break. Having had some experience in the mom arena myself, I knew better than to wrest it away by force. The last thing I wanted to do was make him cry! So I dug around in my purse for something else I didn’t need, which turned out to be a bright orange (clean) handkerchief. He was a bit dubious, but took this in exchange for his toy, tears were thus avoided, and the workshop went on.

I tell this story because it reminds me of something I often say to my clients: in some ways, your brain is basically a three-year-old. (Now just to be clear, I’m not saying that you are a three-year-old. You are a marvelous creature of insight and possibilities. It’s just that your brain, well, your brain can be difficult.) Here are a couple of ways in which our brains exhibit three-year-old behavior, and what you might want to do about it:

1) Telling your brain NO often creates resistance, especially if it is currently doing something where there is a reward. Just like a toddler who is experimenting with the boundaries of her own needs and desires, our brains want what they want when they want it. We’re highly primed and encoded to move towards pleasure and away from pain. Dopamine, one of the happy chemicals in our brain (it also has many other functions), helps motivate us to do what is rewarding. And the sharpness of pain helps to keep us safe. Interestingly, perhaps because social connections have been evolutionarily critical to survival, the pain of social rejection (being severely criticized, having one’s heart broken, feeling like an outsider) are processed in a part of the brain adjacent to the pain centers. Not being part of things can literally hurt (and astonishingly, pain relievers can even help).

What to do about it: As every good parent knows, it is most effective to reward good behavior whenever possible and keep punishments to a minimum. The same is true with your brain. I occasionally have clients ask me to “be really tough on them,” and my response is (usually) that they are probably doing just fine in that arena themselves. I’m not interested in yelling at my clients or making them feel bad (I don’t get paid enough and that sort of work probably requires a completely different wardrobe). Instead, I’m more interested in helping them find something to move toward. It’s less of an internal battle to give the brain a compelling alternative and thereby make a new neural pathway (see my many posts on neuroplasticity, including this one for more) than to constantly try to stop doing what we have done a million times before by now inserting punishment or pain.

And negative commands have a way of strengthening the emotional salience of things. Just like when we tell a toddler not to pull the cat’s tail and they immediately do it, saying “don’t” to ourselves reinforces the idea that “Hey, there is something important and perhaps interesting here!” Again, far better to give the child a fluffy toy so that they ignore the cat in favor of something else. And so, instead of “getting tough,” my strategy tends to be to look for the fun way. You hate exercise but want to get in shape? Well, what do you love to do? What would make it not feel like a burden? What would compel you? Imagine being as kind to yourself as you would to an adorable child, and asking, “sweetheart, what do you want to do?”

2) Your brain makes many decisions emotionally and then tries to defend them rationally after the fact. Ever ask a three-year-old “Why did you do that?” Hah! Unless you are just going for the pure entertainment value, this is a losing proposition. Why? Because they don’t know why they did it. They did it because they wanted to. Because it was there. Because, why not? They’ll usually make up something, but the deeper truth is probably more along the lines of “I was experimenting to see if you really meant what you said about not getting out of the bathtub (cutting my doll’s hair, throwing my peas, etc.),” or “You said not to so I thought something interesting might happen if I did it,” or “I don’t know, I just wanted to,” or “It feels good.”

The only difference here between some of our own decisions and those of a three-year-old is that we learn to make our explanations more plausible and rational. Here’s how I understand this — our brains need to conserve energy. The brain makes up about 2-3% of our body weight, but it uses 20-25% of the calories we consume. And as such an energy consumptive part of our body, it is always looking for ways to conserve. Thinking, analyzing, and making decisions all take a lot more energy than emotionally responding, activating existing belief systems, and operating by assumptions. Psychologists call this type 1 processing: automatic, intuitive processes that are not very strenuous. Type 2 thinking, on the other hand, is is slower and involves processing more data and cues from all around us, and activates more of the highest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

In addition, all the research points to the fact that we are much better at type 2 thinking when we are well-rested and well-fed (See this fascinating study on the leniency of Israeli judges as one example) and not overly stressed. Add physical needs or emotional stress to the works and your brain just doesn’t have enough juice to operate at its highest level. It’s also the case that some of us just never learned how to move to a higher level of analysis. The brain is like a muscle–if certain parts are not exercised, they won’t be strong. And if someone’s background and training did not include practice in analyzing data and examining many factors when making decisions, all that is available is type 1 processing.

And so, whether we are stressed, hungry, tired, or just never really learned how to think in a more complex way, our type 1 thinking takes over, we respond more automatically, and then, when asked why we did something or think that way, our strong interpretive center takes over and makes something up that sounds good in the moment. Whether it’s rational or not. (For more on this, just watch American politicians for a while — many of them are experts.)

What to do about it: I am actually a huge fan of intuitive knowing, trusting one’s gut, etc. The body has wisdom and our internal sense of what fits and what doesn’t definitely deserves to be cultivated. So I’m not talking about dismissing one’s intuition. Rather, this points to strengthening our muscles of type 2 processing so that we can expand our decision-making capacity. We will always be dual processors, running both our emotional response (type 1) and rational analysis (type 2). If all we have accessible is type one processing, the three-year old in us takes over. And it’s also true that if all we have is type 2, we do not link what is most important and resonant to our choices.

One way to develop type 2 thinking is to take a philosophy (especially logic) or science class. The rigors of this kind of analysis will help to develop your capacity to move your thinking to higher areas of the brain. As coaches, we can also push in this arena to help our clients strengthen their brains by helping them analyze decisions logically, and then linking this consciously to the emotional resonance of their more type 1 thinking (and vice versa).

3) The good news–we can grow too! As I watched the adorable little boy in Atlanta, I noticed something else. He was a scientist, and life was his laboratory. For example, he’d give someone a high five, and then watch intently for their reaction. Like all healthy and well-adjusted toddlers, he was deeply engaged in the process of ongoing learning, pretty much at every moment. Checking things out, seeing what happened, and internally making micro-adjustments. We call this development, and we tend to think of it as the realm of children. But our brains continue to wire and rewire all throughout our whole lives, and when we bring consciousness, intent and support to this process, we can even give ourselves as adults some of what might have been missing in our early years as well as continuing to learn new skills and explore expanded ways of being.

This is one of the most important and significant connections between coaching and neuroscience, the fact that we as coaches help our clients create lasting change by supporting their self-directed neuroplasticity. And yes, children’s brains are more of a blank slate, but ours have unlimited potential as well. In that way, being like a three-year-old a great thing!

Coaching, Stress and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (VIDEO)

Here I am explaining and then demoing how to work with stress and the pre-frontal cortex as part of Boom Boom Go‘s great video library of coaching tools. Click HERE to watch (and HERE to read the article this tool is based on).

Note: this coaching tool is just one of many we teach at BEabove Leadership  in our Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program!

PFC Curve JPG

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.

 

My Favorite Green Shorts: Unlocking Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feedback or Unpack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

 


How I Got Here

I didn’t start my coaching-and-neuroscience journey as a true believer. I am constitutionally designed to be the bratty kid in the back of the classroom skeptical kid-resized-600rolling my eyes and thinking (or saying) “Yeah? Prove it!” I actually started my work intentionally looking for where we were wrong. I was anticipating the moment I could tell the profession we were off track and that hard core, rational science was pointing to an entirely new way of working with people. I thought that would be really cool indeed.

But it never happened.

The more I studied, the more I saw the opposite. Coaching works. Being schooled in the Co-Active model of the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), I focused my research primarily there, and saw again and again evidence from neuroscience of its effectiveness. I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a professional coach for the past twelve years, I had tons of anecdotal evidence that the skills, tools and “being-ness” of this model worked to help people shift, discover purpose and move past limiting beliefs and behaviors.

Why on earth was I so convinced I would find something wrong? Well, my own human arrogance and desire to be right, I guess! And I couldn’t get my head around the idea that something could work so well that wasn’t based in research, that was largely intuited. What I now humbly see is that what we know about the brain, especially as it relates to human growth and development, has been known throughout the ages. We didn’t need neuroscience to show us how to help people move forward. This, we have understood.

Somewhere along the way, I asked CTI if they were interested in my thoughts on the Co-Active model, and they said a big yes. And so I wrote a paper on the Neuroscience of the Co-Active Model. But not because they wanted to prove something. Because I, in my own skeptical (even bratty) way, had found powerful evidence that what we are up to, in a word, works.

So there.

Try Is How You Do

Note: this post as updated 9/30/13 (as I gain more discernment and understanding about the process of neuroplasticity). Updates in blue below. Bottom line is that the the key take-away remains the same, although the process of how we get there is a bit different than I thought. Thanks for your patience and understanding 🙂 

We’ve been told there is no try, only do or not do (thanks, Yoda), and there is truth to this. Saying we are “trying” has a different energy than saying we are “doing.” Trying implies tentativeness and brings with it the possibility of failure. Doing, on the other hand, brings with it a fullness of commitment, a level of engagement and YES that says it WILL happen.

keep_trying_by_jelisa1188-d3phrekAnd yet, there is a paradox here. How many of us (or our clients) make it all the way to any sort of lasting change on the first try? We try, we fail, we try again. And sometimes we give up, saying, “I’ll never get it, there is no point in trying.” And that, my friends, can be simply wrong. Because the brain actually loves the try. Each time we focus our attention on what we want, we engage in positive neuroplasticity (simply put, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to rewire and change. See My Best Neuroscience Argument for Coaching for more on neuroplasticity). With focused attention over time, we can create and reinforce new neural pathways, locking in patterns and behaviors that are more effective than some of our old habits.

In our advanced coaching course, we explore what is needed to create new patterns for our clients (and ourselves, of course!) Recently, one of our students had the insight that the process of trying is a key part of changing the brain, and should be honored as such. We tend to focus on the fact that we failed, rather than that we did, perhaps, do something towards being able to change at some point.

When a new neural connection is made — for example, we commit to a new habit (in this student’s case, it was healthier eating), there then exists the potential for a new neural pathway (actually many neural connections would be involved in something like a change in diet, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll pretend there is one “healthy eating” pathway). Think of this like a channel in a river. Our dominant pathways are where the energy naturally wants to flow. The more well-used the neural pathway, the more habitual the behavior. When we create a new potential pathway, that’s all there is–potential. Then, each time we use this pathway, a process called “myelination” occurs. Myelin is a fatty coating around the axon of a neuron. The more myelinated the pathway, the stronger it is.

9/30/13 update: it turns out that myelination does not play as big a role in neuroplasticity as I thought. Instead, let me quote Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself ) “When two neurons fire together (or when one fires, causing the other to fire), chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly.” It’s not the myelin coating that creates the strong neural pathway, it is the firing itself. And neural pathways that get used a lot tend to be in a state of readiness to fire,  their connections strengthening with usage over time. 

Myelin is not completely out of the picture though. Myelination is part of what creates dominant neural pathways such as those for language. The developing brain has a LOT of myelination going on. And the more myelinated the pathway, the more efficient the impulse is, because myelin is like insulation around a bundle of electrical wires. The more insulated, the more efficient, because less of the electrical impulse gets lost along the way.

There is some evidence that myelination continues into adulthood and is thus part of the process of developing mastery and expertise. But other aspects of neuroplasticity also play a role. For example, with practice, we use fewer neurons to do tasks than we do at the beginning, focusing and specializing our efforts and leaving more of the brain available for other things. Also, the more sensory input we can associate with a certain habit or behavior, the stronger the pathways for that habit will be. 

Our student realized that trying is part of how we  strengthen the new neural pathway. “If I resist having a cookie on Monday, but then give in and have one Tuesday, I have still helped create the change I want,” she shared. “The trick is, over time, to NOT have the cookie more than I have it!” She went on to say that she used to feel like such a failure every time she gave in and went off her diet, which would simply cause her to give up completely. But this knowledge helped her change her perspective dramatically. “Now I just say, ok, I reinforced an old habit pathway, let’s see what I can do with my new ‘healthy eating’ pathway. I don’t have to give up, or beat myself up. It’s all part of the process of change. I used to think trying was a cop-out. Now I see that sometimes, try is how you do.”

So next time you “fail,” whether it be on a diet, a commitment to turning off your cell phone, or keeping your cool in a difficult meeting, don’t be too hard on yourself. Old habits are well-entrenched neural pathways, and they don’t usually change overnight. Instead, remember what our student so wisely said “try is how you do,” and get up, dust yourself off and send more attention down the pathway you want to empower. Sooner or later, it will take over and become dominant.

Henry David Thoreau knew this over 200 years ago. He said:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathways in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. 

And don’t worry if you end up on the wrong path — it’s normal. The other path is waiting for you, and you can walk it at any time.