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.

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!







Consciousness and the Brain, Part Two

The Brain at Different Levels of Consciousness

We’re lucky that while there is much we still don’t know about the brain, there are a few things that are now pretty clear, and which seem to correlate well with the expansion of consciousness: the basic limbic response of “fight or flight” and the role, dominance and ultimate integration of the two hemispheres of the brain. Let’s look at how things seem to play out at the different Levels of Effectiveness.

Fight or Flight—Below the Line

In the first three levels, our strongly ingrained fight-flight-freeze response dominates.  One of the oldest parts of our brain, the limbic system, governs this response. Below the line, when a challenging or negative stimulus comes at us, the brain’s relay center sends messages very quickly to the amygdala, whose job it is to react to perceived threats. (See The Whoosh for more on this phenomenon). The more below the line we are, the more quickly the message gets to the amygdala, causing a fight, flight, or freeze response, depending on the dominant level of consciousness.

The levels increase in energy from one to seven, and here we see this play out in the brain. In the level of Hopelessness, there is very little energy or feeling of efficacy in life, thus the response is often to freeze, to feel overwhelmed, to be unable to cope and therefor shut down. In the level of Fear there is an increase in energy; enough to flee, to find a way to escape the threat, to put up protective barriers and defend oneself. In Frustration, energy increases even more, giving us enough to desire to fight back, to go on the offensive, to attack.

The brain below the line is quickly reactive, and thoughtfulness, rationality, and accurate assessment of “friend or foe” are in short supply. The higher brain, the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), will eventually receive information and come on line to assess the situation, but often long after damage has been done from the amygdala-ruled reactive state.

Fight or Flight—Above the Line

As consciousness increases, the amygdala is still in operation, but the signal to the PFC seems to speed up as well. The PFC helps us assess, plan, and think long term, and when it comes online, chemicals are released that help calm down the fight-flight-freeze reaction. From the levels of Courage and above, the speed at which the PFC is engaged when a limbic response has occurred continues to increase as consciousness itself increases. We may react, but our higher selves will move us toward apology, waiting until we are calm to respond, taking the other person’s point of view, and increasingly simply noticing our reaction as human and letting it go.

In working with this model for the past ten years, we have seen that the gap between automatic reaction and thoughtful response simply gets narrower and narrower as consciousness increases. This means there is less and less clean up to do, less time wasted in blame, and overall, dramatically increased effectiveness. Not only does this (hopefully) seem intuitively correct, it fits with Daniel Goleman’s wonderful work on Emotional Intelligence and its critical role in effectiveness in life.

The Hemispheres of the Brain

Just what the two hemispheres of the brain “do” is a highly debated, very contentious area of neuroscience. It seems that the best current thinking points us not to the what, but to the how of the way these distinct parts of our brain operate. And this is, to me, most helpful to understanding their importance from the perspective of consciousness: how the different parts of our brain see the world.

The Right Hemisphere (RH) holds a holistic view. It understands context and meaning, and the parts of us that experience empathy and most emotions (except, notably, anger) live here. At its furthest over-calibration, it is the energy of chaos, of everything at once and nothing distinct.

The Left Hemisphere (LH), by contrast, cares about the individual part and not the whole. It can take something from the totality and bring it into focus to be dealt with. The parts of us that experience the desire to compete, to distinguish ourselves, and to focus intently live here. At its furthest over-calibration, it is the energy of rigidity, of the desire to control things and reduce everything to simple, understandable parts.

What this understanding points us to is the critical importance of both sides of the brain. We need the freedom of chaos and the focus of rigidity. And we believe, as consciousness increases, life more and more flows effortlessly between these two extremes. In the lower levels, we see an over-calibration of one or the other (RH in Hopelessness, LH in Frustration, both in Fear), while in the higher levels the hemispheres seem to become more and more integrated and available for use as needed and appropriate. (Interestingly, this correlates with research on long-term meditators, whose corpus callosum—the interconnection between the two hemispheres—is thicker than average and develops more mass the longer they meditate.)

In addition, hemisphere dominance changes the more one increases consciousness. The LH is traditionally considered the more valuable hemisphere, for its drive, competitiveness and ability to focus. The empathy and holistic view of the RH have traditionally been considered a bit “soft.” It is, however, only by allowing the RH to take the lead, to chart the course, and to set priorities for one’s life such as connection, inclusiveness, love and oneness that the highest levels of consciousness become possible.

Thank you for reading Part Two of Consciousness and the Brain. It is a limited and very incomplete overview of what we at BEabove Leadership think may be happening as we grow, develop and transform. Stay tuned for Part Three—Coaching at the Different Levels of Consciousness.

BEabove Leadership is now offering the Advanced Coaching Series—Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Transformational Coaching. Available to all experienced coaches, registration is open for classes in Minneapolis in August 2012, San Francisco in September 2012, and a residential intensive in Pennsylvania in November 2012.

The Whoosh

We all know it. That feeling you’ve been taken over by forces beyond your control. Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame) coined the term “amygdala hijack” a number of years ago to describe what happens when our buttons have been pushed so hard our rational brains are no longer in control. I’ve started calling it “the whoosh” because that’s kind of what it feels like in my body.

I really noticed my own “whoosh” when I was going through a divorce a few years ago. It was a difficult process because my ex was angry at me for leaving. His emails negotiating terms often had a bitter and sarcastic edge. I would see his name in my in-box and WHOOSH, a flush through my chest, my face would get hot and I’d feel butterflies (no, something bigger, maybe gila monsters) in my stomach. I’d read the email and I’d have an immediate nasty response. Or I’d want to run away all together.

Perhaps this sounds familiar — it should, if you are a homosapien. We have a very strongly ingrained fight-flight-freeze response,  which lives in one of the oldest parts of our brain, the limbic system. The amygdala (small, almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep within the brain) is a key part of this system, and  its main function is to scan for threats. It’s one of the earliest parts of the brain to develop , both historically and developmentally. In other words, as humans we’ve had it for a loooooong time, and it’s one part of the brain that is highly developed at birth.

When a threat is detected, the amygdala sends notifications to other parts of the brain to put us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Chemicals race to our extremities to make us stronger and quicker (or, in the case of freeze, so much that we imitate death by freezing) and into our higher brain to shut things down. These chemicals in motion are what I call “the whoosh.” And yes, as I said, part of their job is actually to shut down the active functioning of the pre-frontal cortex. This is where we think, plan and make productive choices.

Here’s why, in overly simplified terms (in other words, the way I have to think about it). If you and I are sitting by the campfire and a saber-toothed tiger comes over the hill and I sit there and calculate how fast it’s moving, how fast I can run, whether the fire will deter it, etc., and you run right away without thinking (fueled by a burst of adrenalin), then guess who gets eaten and whose ancestors are not sitting here writing a blog? At certain times, the higher brain just gets in the way.

However, we rarely encounter true saber-toothed tiger quality threats in our lives these days. Instead, it is the little things that bring in the whoosh. An email from an ex-husband. Too much traffic. The prospect of a performance review. Criticism by a boss or peer. Even weight going up on the scale or a child who is dawdling can activate the amygdala and thereby diminish our ability to think rationally. And once it’s been tripped, it trips more easily, so the cumulation of small stressors has an impact, as does being hungry or tired. Most of us in Western society live with some degree of whoosh on a daily basis.

Here’s the main point I want to make, and what I hope you will take away from this article. When we are in the whoosh, we are not capable of thinking clearly or doing the most productive thing (see my blog on Pre-Frontal Cortex for a more detailed explanation as to why this is). Luckily I knew this when I was going through the divorce, so I figured out how to manage myself. I’d write a bitter, angry self-righteous email back to my ex, and I’d put it in my Drafts folder. I told myself that if I wanted to send it the next day, I could. Often there were as many as five drafts (I’m not kidding) before I sent the email I felt good about. Each one was less angry, calmer, and more clear.

It worked, and we got through it, and I am incredibly proud of myself for never (well, ok, almost never, I’m not perfect) escalating the situation. I now train all my clients in the whoosh, and recommend the drafts folder as one self-management tool. Because email comes through with no emotional cues, it seems particularly good at activating the limbic system.

The main thing that is needed when we are in fight-flight-freeze mode is a way to move upward, to our higher brains. Taking a beat, deep breathing (adding oxygen to the system helps diffuse the chemicals) and techniques that activate the pre-frontal cortex. When this part of our brain comes “on line” it releases a chemical known as GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), which acts as a kind of pepto-bismal for the brain, calming down the other chemicals causing the whoosh. Many things we do as coaches activate the pre-frontal cortex and help our clients think calmly again — I’ve outlined some of the best in my post on Coaching and Stress.

Happy coaching, and watch out for saber-toothed tigers.