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.

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Right Brain-Left Brain — Is It All a Myth?

Well there certainly was some interesting and provocative stuff about the brain in the news in 2013. Last summer, the whole right hemisphere/left hemisphere dominance thing (controversial in neuroscience for quite a while now) was fairly well refuted by researchers at the University of Utah.  In November, a new book came out also dismissing the importance of understanding the two hemispheres in favor of looking at top and bottom brain processing differences (note: it’s a bit simplistic and was not universally well-reviewed). And just before the end of the year, there was new stuff about the difference between male and female brains, once again looking at the hemispheres (and adding fuel to the gender wars).

fingers-in-earsFrankly, it’s all had my head in a bit of a spin, because at BEabove we’ve been digging into the right and left hemisphere in our advanced coaching series, encouraging coaches to use this as one way to understand where their client may be coming from. I’ve also written blog posts here about the different aspects of each hemisphere, spoken about it at conferences, and all in all, held this part of neuroscience as a key thing to understand in both coaching and leadership.

So you can imagine my reaction! Part of me wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and say “la la la I can’t hear you.” But my better angels prevailed, and instead I sat down and tried my best to make sense of it all. Here’s what I’ve come to, and let me say it is an emerging and probably imperfect understanding (just like our overall understanding of the brain itself at this point in humanity’s development):

1) IT’S TRUE — We really should probably  stop calling people “right brained” or “left brained.” According to brain imaging studies, it’s not accurate. At most, it’s a metaphor that is not literally true. As the University of Utah study found, we’re simply not more likely to use one side or the other based on our overall personality. No matter who we are, we use both to do most things. Creative people (who we tend to think of as “right-brained”) use their left side as much as logical people, and logical people (who we tend to think of as “left-brained”) use their right as much as creative people.

2) HOWEVER — There is still much to be learned about who we are by examining and understanding the differences of each hemisphere. Our brains are specialized for a reason — it is what enables us to have the giant brains we have and still walk upright. Our heads just couldn’t get any bigger and still pass through the birth canal, so each hemisphere took on different tasks, and a different way of looking at the world (for more on this, see Come On Over to the Right Side). Which brings us to…..

3) PERHAPS — According to the lead author of the Utah study, “people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-side brain network. It seems to be determined more connection to connection.” This means we could be seeing more right or left hemisphere activation around particular issue although not in the entire brain or personality as a whole (see point #1). Thus, understanding the different way each hemisphere sees the world can be very helpful with our journey of self-awareness, as well as understanding our clients and helping them move forward when they are stuck.

4) BECAUSE — Ultimately, it’s not about right or left (or top and bottom, either). It’s about how integrated we can be. For example, research on so-called “resonant” leaders (who tended to put their followers in an open, creative brain state) versus “dissonant” leaders (who tended to create an avoidance state in their followers) found that resonant leaders had more neural firing in both hemispheres of the brain. And long-term meditators develop stronger areas for both positivity (left hemisphere) and compassion (right hemisphere), as well as a measurably thicker corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres. This bridge helps both connect the two hemispheres as well as allowing each to effectively inhibit the other as needed (see Inhibition and the Brain for more on inhibition and its link to effectiveness). We don’t need or want to be “dominant” in one or the other hemisphere in order to be more effective. We need to become more integrated between our hemispheres, stronger not in one, but in both.

And so, let’s by all means be accurate and up to date, but not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ok, it’s not accurate to call someone “right brained” or “left Throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-waterbrained.” We can give that up or use it as a metaphor. Fair enough. But understanding the differences between the two hemispheres does, in our opinion, remain interesting and helpful in the process of working to create more integration and ultimately, higher levels of effectiveness. So there. And la la la I can’t hear you if you insist on telling me differently!

Sigh. Not really.

Empathy for the Non-Empathetic

So here’s the story: I have been renting a lovely house in a suburb of Minneapolis for the past four years. I love it. I am surrounded by trees, it’s on a small river, it’s cute and cozy and tucked away. And I have one of the world’s worst landlords. Every time I need to deal with him, I have to gird my loins for battle. When the washing machine broke, for example, he just said “sorry, I’m done putting money into that house. If you want a new washing machine, buy one.” I had to both cite the lease to him AND threaten to move to get any action at all. And that’s just one example of many times simple things have become unexpected and ridiculous conflicts. It’s exhausting.  At one point, I noticed that, against my principles, I was saying things like “I hate my landlord.”

Now, it’s honestly true that I try not to hate anyone, but this guy–sheesh! So it got me pondering, why is it easy to have empathy and compassion for people when they are sad or afraid, and so hard when they are rigid, inflexible, or angry? Ok, ok, you’re probably thinking why should I have empathy or compassion for him? He’s not honoring his end of the deal! Well, here’s why. I truly believe most people don’t really want to be jerks. They just get caught up in patterns and fears and beliefs that have them act in jerky ways. Therefore, compassion is my goal, always, with everyone.

Which sometimes is easy, and sometimes is hard. And I think this has to do with the brain. You see, there are some things that hang out together. In the right hemisphere, it’s most emotions and our mirror neurons for empathy. The right hemisphere gets activated in sadness, depression, fear, grief, and emotions like that. It’s all about feeling lost, afraid and small. Which we tend to have some degree of compassion for. And we can relate to others’ feelings through our capacity to sense and feel their emotions ourselves through the power of mirror neurons.

The left hemisphere, on the other hand, gets one emotion, anger, no mirror neurons for empathy, and a tendency towards rigidity, superiority and being right. People who are more left-dominant (and yes, I know brain dominance is controversial, but just give me this one for now, ok?),  tend to want to control everything and be emotionally one-note. Everything makes them mad. And along with that, they just aren’t as in touch with their mirror neurons for empathy (since those are in the right hemisphere), so how other people feel — or even that they feel can be mysterious and not particularly personally relevant. In some cases, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and some other forms of autism, it may even be that the mirror neurons for empathy aren’t there at all.

And here is where it potentially gets even more interesting. Take someone who is touch with their right hemisphere mirror neurons for empathy (we’ll call them RH), interacting with someone who is not (we’ll call them LH). RH says or does something that LH doesn’t like, and so LH respond with their one emotion, anger. RH — because of their mirror neurons — feels this anger intensely and it activates RH’s own left hemisphere and makes RH angry too. But even though RH is feeling what LH is feeling, RH has now lost their own compassion and empathy because they’ve gone over to the left hemisphere themselves.

And thus, it is harder to have compassion for anger, control and rigidity than it is for sadness, fear, and a sense of overwhelm, because empathy doesn’t live in the same room as anger (etc.), and when you go there, it stays behind. Thus, even those of us who truly desire to love everyone can get hooked.

So what does it take to have empathy for the non-empathetic? You have to stop, breathe and go back to the other room. Let go of the anger, know it is not actually personal, and find a way to understand this person.

In my case, I had an “aha,” helped by my brother, an IT professional who has seen a lot of LHs in the IT world (my landlord is a software engineer). He has noticed both that the rational, non-emotional, logical world of computers attracts them, and also can reinforce and make left hemisphere tendencies worse, because the positive aspects get rewarded and the negative ones ignored. I realized that this is the profile of my landlord, so of course he is difficult to deal with when the issue is seeing things from my perspective. He doesn’t care how I feel, and it’s not personal. It’s just who he is, and it’s certainly not doing him any favors in life.

And thus, rather than spending my energy on hating him, I found compassion. I’m also moving, because I prefer to deal with people who are more aware, and more connected to both hemispheres of their brain. My new landlord? He turned down renters with cash in hand because he didn’t think they were a good fit for the other tenant, rented to me sight unseen based on his intuition (I was in California teaching) and sent a thank-you note with the copy of my lease.

I love the guy.

Valugration

applorangeNo, it’s not a real word. Ursula and I made it up last fall when we were sitting in a restaurant in Washington, DC. I said to her, “I feel like I have values that are in conflict with each other. I want them both, but in the case of some values, it’s just too darn challenging to hold them at the same time.”

My example was my value of HUMILITY and my value of BIGNESS. I both want to be part of everything — not special — and take my rightful BIG place in the world. My brain was telling me, “Well that’s nice, but you have to pick one. They negate each other.”

Damn.

I hate that.

As we relaxed and ate our salads, we talked about why this happens, and it occurred to us that it wasn’t the values that were in conflict, per se, it was the two hemispheres of the brain. In the case of my value of humility, my right hemisphere wanted connection and oneness, not to be distinct and different from everyone else (for more on this aspect of the right hemisphere, see Jill Bolte-Taylor’s powerful TED talk). My left hemisphere, on the other hand, wanted the separateness and distinction of bigness. And they both wanted what they wanted.

As we talked more about this, we started to see that when values are difficult to reconcile, typically there is a perceived conflict between the two hemispheres of the brain. We want structure (left) and freedom (right). We want to relax and we want to be productive. We want to play and we want to accomplish things. It’s enough to drive a person mad.

Suddenly, the words of an old Huey Lewis and the News song came to me. He sang, “I want a new drug,” and I thought “Well, I want  new word! I don’t want to choose.” I wanted a word that would capture both hemispheres, one that would help me integrate these desires, these seemingly opposing forces in my life. And thus, the game of Valugration was born. It stands for Values+Integration. And the rules are simple. You take your opposing values and combine them into a brand-new word that can hold both. In this instance, mine was HUMILiGNESS. Humility+Bigness.

Finding the right word take a little finesse. Here are a few pointers from our experience doing this in our classes and presentations:

  • Be sure you are integrating a right hemisphere value and a left hemisphere value. The hemispheres are not typically in conflict within themselves.
  • The new word needs to inspire you and not have a connotation that takes you away from the experience.
  • Because the right hemisphere holds the whole, while the left is focused on parts, we find that the brain tends to like the right hemisphere word to come first, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule.
  • It is best if it really is a brand new word, one that you don’t already know. This will make you think about it newly, see it with fresh eyes, and approach living into it with curiosity.
  • Write it down so you don’t forget it.

That’s it — pretty simple, actually. Oh, but I almost forgot the second part of the game. The second part is to try it on and ultimately live your new word. You play that part of the game the rest of your life.

To play VALUGRATION with your BEabove Leadership Valugration experts, come and visit us in the exhibitor area of the Midwest ICF conference June 20-22 in Minneapolis. 

To learn practical, hands-on neuroscience for coaches, come experience our advanced coaching series! Places are still available in our August 7-11 retreat in Northern California

Metaphors are Lint Catchers for the Brain

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

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

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

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

Inhibition and the Brain

Let me be clear. Freedom is one of my core values. Self-expression, living outside the box, taking risks — these are defining aspects of my being. Strangely, however, I am finding I have a new respect for the word INHIBITION, at least as it concerns my brain. In fact, one could say it is the brain’s ability to inhibit that allows us to live uninhibited lives of joy and freedom. Let me attempt to explain….

I’ve thought (and taught) that one of the most powerful aspects of coaching is its ability to help connect the two hemispheres of the brain, so that they can “talk” to each other. The Left Hemisphere (LH) gives voice and language to the Right Hemisphere’s (RH) intuition and sensing. The RH sends its creative ideas to the LH, who makes them practical and puts them into action, etc. It’s not that we are ever solely “in” one hemisphere (pretty much everything we do requires both), but coaching and personal development seem to make us more able to use what’s most helpful from each in an integrated manner.

While this is indeed the case, there is also something else going on that is even more dominant in the brain. The stronger the corpus callosum (the interconnecting “white matter” between the two hemispheres), the more able each hemisphere is to inhibit the other. In fact, it is much more the job of each hemisphere to inhibit the other than it is to connect with it. We exist and thrive in the tension between our LH and RH impulses.

At the extreme, the LH holds the space of rigidity, the RH, chaos. Our lives flow in between the two, ideally not becoming beached up on the dry side of rigidity or lost in the floods of chaos. Each hemisphere holds the other in check so that we can move forward. We need enough structure to keep things focused, with enough freedom to keep them moving. This is the balance all human beings,  groups, systems and organizations strive for — and often struggle with.

And so, how is inhibition key? First I want to make a distinction between inhibition and suppression. Suppression is shutting something down, trying to contain it, not allowing it to be. Suppression (whether of people or emotions) does not work. It actually creates a build up of energy (the old adage “what you resist, persists) that can explode. Inhibition, in the sense I am using it here, is not about shutting one hemisphere down. It’s about bringing things back to the middle of the river so life can continue to flow.

Let me give you a personal example of the value of inhibiting each hemisphere (by the way, as coaches, you are helping your clients do this all the time, even if you didn’t know it). Yesterday I got an email from my ex-husband saying that I owed him some money (a fairly large amount) for costs on our property in Costa Rica. This DID NOT make me happy and I experienced some negative aspects of each hemisphere in my initial response. On the Left side, I was aware of being angry and wanting to blame him. I wanted to be sarcastic and confrontational about it, ask demanding questions like “how did you let this happen?” and “why can’t you manage things better?” HOWEVER, my RH was there very quickly, reminding me to look at the big picture, asking me if that is the sort of person I want to be, and helping me remember that he is probably doing his best — after all, 20 years of knowing him has shown me his competence and integrity. (The RH understands wholeness, context, connection, and the importance of relationships.)

Now — being the complex human I am (and we all are), I was also aware of some of the negative aspects of the RH that got triggered as well. I felt hopeless and overwhelmed, wondering when this black hole of a money pit will ever sell. I felt the “poor me’s” come on as I tossed this additional bill onto what seemed like a huge (and growing) pile. And then, blessedly, my LH jumped in, telling me I had enough money in the bank to cover this expense, and that rental income from the high season would start coming in very soon. It reminded me that summer is always tough, and that someday the property will sell at a profit. (The LH understands facts and figures and brings logic to the situation. It’s also more positive than the RH.)

Interestingly, I was able to do this without suppressing how I felt at all. My RH wasn’t saying to the LH “don’t be angry,” and the LH wasn’t saying the the RH “don’t be depressed.” It was more like they were each saying to each other “come back,” each hemisphere helping the other come more to the middle, to the flow of the river.

I’d still love to sell my house in Costa Rica, and I’m not thrilled about writing the check, but you know, I’m ok. I don’t have to carry that upset with me. I have inhibited but not suppressed, and it’s a beautiful day.