Putting the Wizards to Work

img_1963Growing up in Minnesota, I think I got the proverbial Protestant Work Ethic deeply installed in my neural operating system. There is a part of me that feels distinctly uncomfortable unless I am being Productive And Responsible At All Times. Which can, of course, lead to a feeling of being ground into a fine powder as I try to wrestle my ever-burgeoning to-do list into submission.

So when I learned about the Task Positive Network and the Default Mode Network (covered in more depth in the link) of the brain, it was huge relief. These two networks are “anti-correlated,” that is, they almost always fire one at a time: when Task goes on, Default goes off, and vice versa.

Task activates when we are focused, paying attention to external stimuli, planning and actively figuring out how to do something. I think of this network like my team of engineers. They are hugely helpful at solving logical problems, figuring out the steps to take, planning my day productively, and so on.

But sometimes you need magic instead of engineering. And this is where the Default Mode Network can help. Here is where we have meaning, dreams, vision, insight, introspection and other people’s perspectives.

I think of the Default Mode Network as my team of magicians, living deep in a cave and highly sensitive. Whenever I look too directly at them or try to force them to work, they quit. They can only cast their spells when I am not paying attention. And the best thing is to give them an assignment and go do something else that is not task-focused.

My magicians like it when I go for a walk in the woods, drive in the car (the motion soothes them), take a shower or bath, paint, draw, listen to instrumental music, nap. And when I give them an assignment beforehand, such as “please figure out how to teach the Task and Default networks in an experiential way,” they never disappoint. (In this case, I saw an image of a river with bridges, and developed a process called “Crossing the River” to intentionally activate each network during a coaching appointment.)

We all have both of these networks, but in today’s task-driven world, the power of the Default Mode Network is often underrated. My rule is, whenever I get stuck, can’t figure something out, or there doesn’t seem to be a logical answer, take the job away from the engineers, give it to the magicians, and wait.

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A Neuroplasticity Holiday–making new pathways in the snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where is Co-Active in the Brain?

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

sun_moon_tattoo_by_faeroneCO-ACTIVE in the Brain

The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess

~William F. Allman

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

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

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

THE RIGHT AND LEFT HEMISPHERES

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

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

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

Empathy, emotional content

Oneness and connection

Codes sensory input as images

Synthesizes things in space
(things are here or there)

Deals with new information

Gives things spaciousness and openness

Awareness of the important of freedom

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

Logic and analysis

Separateness and individuality

Codes sensory input as words

Analyzes over time
(things are linear and sequential)

Deals with representations of information

Gives things form and sequence

Awareness of the important of structure

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

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

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

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

Hopelessness

Shame

Too much information leading to paralysis

Chaotic thinking

Judgment and blameSeeing people as things

Anger, frustration

Not enough information leading to impulsive decisions

Rigid thinking

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

The Default Mode Network and the Task Positive Network

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

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

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

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

Long-term memory

Gauging other’s perspectives

Theory of mind (understanding others)

Introspection

Self-referential thought

Focus on taskActively paying attention (external)

Goal-orientation

Reacting to and working with sensory information

Short-term (working) memory

Planning

Abstract reasoning

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

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

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

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

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

The Human Intuition System

color lightI was recently asked to write an article for the International Coach Federation’s magazine, Coaching World. They (bless them) said I could write anything I wanted, so I decided to write about something that has been intriguing me lately — what I call The Human Intuition System. Check out the published article on pages 24-27. There’s some other cool stuff here as well!

August 2013 Coaching World

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.

Shifting the Brain’s Negativity Bias

As they say in Tibet, if you can take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. We can turn good moments into a great brain.
~Rick Hanson

I recently had the delightful experience of listening to author and psychologist Rick Hanson (The Buddha’s Brain) on the NICABM brain science webinar. He spoke at length about the so-called “negativity bias” of the brain and what we can do to help our brains overcome it so we can be happier, less stressed, and more effective. His wisdom elegantly maps on to what we are trained to do as professional coaches. In fact, it is one area where it seems to me we are particularly well-equipped to help our clients make lasting, positive changes in their brains.

big_sabertoothWhat is a “Negativity Bias?” 

To put it quite simply, the brain is designed to remember negative things more easily than positive ones. Dr. Hanson puts it like this: for negative events, the brain is Velcro, for positive ones, Teflon. Our amygdala uses about two-thirds of its neurons scanning for threats (see The Whoosh for more on our friend the amygdala), and the memory of something hurtful or scary goes into our long-term memories with ease. This makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary biology perspective — that growling noise that preceded a saber-toothed tiger attack? Stuck into my cavewoman brain permanently. A bias towards negativity helps us stay alive and avoid threats.

In our ancestral days, this alertness wasn’t as much of a problem as it is today. We were designed for short bursts of “fight or flight” where we burn resources faster than we can refuel, and then long stretches relaxing and recovering from the stressful event. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we encounter far too many perceived threats (most of our fight or flight reactions in day to day life are unecessary) and have far too little recovery time. Thus, training our brain to be less attuned to the negative and more focused on the positive is a way to live a healthier, less stressful life.

Encoding Our Brains for Positivity

In order for a positive experience to make it into our long-term memory, we must hold it in our field of attention for at least 10-20 seconds. Otherwise, the experience simply slips away. Hanson says that when we do hold positive experiences in awareness for this period of time, we not only encode these experiences into long-term memory, we tune and sensitize our amygdala to focus less on the negative and more on the positive. And because the brain sees what it expects to see, what it is “primed for” (think of buying a new car — all of a sudden there are red Toyotas everywhere!), being more attuned to the positive means we actually see and experience more positive things in our lives.

The Impact of Coaching

According to Hanson, the process of encoding our brains for positivity, what he calls “taking in the good” (that 10-20 second focus on positive experiences), has three key steps or aspects:

1. NOTICE or CREATE a positive experience.
2. STAY WITH the experience, be with it.
3. ABSORB the positive experience. 

In coaching, we routinely help our clients do some or all of this. First, we often call to attention the good things that are happening in their lives. We ask them questions like “What are you proud of?” “What are you celebrating today?” and “What was good about that?” We help them find something worth honoring even in a difficult situation or one they are deeming a failure. And we help them create positive experiences for themselves. We encourage them to do things in alignment with their values, to reconnect with their joy, and to stop doing those things that are unrewarding or unduly stressful.

We also know how to put on the pause button when our clients are inclined to brush past something positive on their way to talking about a problem or issue. We say “Hold on a minute! We need to spend some time on that accomplishment before we go to looking at what’s wrong.” We ask them how it feels, really, to get the promotion or finish the project. We slow them down so they can actually relish their lives and “absorb” the experience.

Hanson also mentioned one other step or aspect:

4. Pair positive and negative experiences

Pairing is when you have the client hold both positive and negative aspects of a situation in mind at the same time, or go back and forth quickly. This, he says, helps the positive infuse into the negative neural networks and thus create very powerful changes. I think as coaches we do this when we are helping our clients look at things from multiple perspectives (at CTI we call this Balance Coaching) or go deep into an experience (what we call Process Coaching). Process coaching often starts with some difficult situation the client is having trouble facing, and instead of trying to fix it or find a solution, the coach will take them “into” it by using body geography, metaphor, and other tools to keep the client present and aware of the emotions, sensations and wisdom therein. Usually, after some time spent being present to the negative aspects (being present is distinct from being overwhelmed or lost in the experience), the client will find and begin to explore positive aspects as well, in the process infusing them into the negative neural networks. At CTI, we have seen for many years that Process Coaching is extraordinarily effective at shifting places where the client is very stuck or challenged. (NOTE: Process coaching is also very useful for steps two and three above in terms of Staying With and Absorbing positive experiences.)

Coaching and Positivity

I think that in general coaches tend to have more of a positivity bias toward life — it’s what makes us so much fun to be around! It’s not that we are naive about risks or problems, it’s just that our whole profession is focused not on what’s wrong, but on what’s possible. Through the process of one to one coaching, we also gain so much evidence that people can and do create amazing things for themselves through effort and intention. And of course, as we help our clients focus on the positive for that crucial 10-20 seconds (or more), it means we are also focusing there, thus strengthening the positivity circuits in our own brains.

Isn’t coaching amazing?

Advanced Coaching Series Intensive, November 13-18, White Haven, PA

Have you grown a little stale with coaching?

Are you looking for something that will not only provide excellent, interactive professional development, but will also set you apart in the competitive coaching market?

Do you want to be inspired and amazed?

Join Ann Betz and Ursula Pottinga of BEabove Leadership for an amazing journey through Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Transformational Coaching.

We’ve combined the first two modules of this four-module powerful program (modules three and four will also be offered as a combined intensive in Spring 2013), added a beautiful retreat setting with mouth-watering organic food, and seasoned it with community and connection.

This five-day residential retreat will take you deep into the heart of neuroscience through experiential processes that give you new tools to use to help your clients shift and transform. It’s an intense five days, but rest assured, you will come out deeply grounded in a cutting edge understanding of human development and transformation that is practical, useful and grounded in science.

And you’ll have a lot of fun doing it!

Click here for dates and registration. We look forward to seeing you there!

The Neuroscience of Co-Active Coaching

Hello everyone! Today I just want to share a link to a new white paper where I explore neuroscience links to the Co-Active Coaching model. Co-Active Coaching and the Brain walks through the four cornerstones, three principles and five contexts (whew) of Co-Active Coaching.

Even though this paper looks specifically at the coaching model taught by the Coaches Training Institute, there is much in it that is applicable (and hopefully useful) to all coaches.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it!

Warmly,

 

Ann