Four Ways to Parent Above the Line

In honor of the start of the 2017-2018 school year, yourcoachingbrain is taking a break from coaching to focus on the challenges of parenting. 

teenagers1Maybe it’s the start of another school year or the fact that my son at age 21 is now “officially” an adult, but I have been thinking a lot about parenting lately. Particularly in terms of how we both survived – and even thrived – during his teenage years.

And we didn’t have the easiest time at first, to be honest. At age 13 he went through an international move and his parent’s divorce. One day we’re living on 50 acres overlooking the Pacific ocean in Costa Rica and he’s going to a six-student supervised home school, and the next we’re back in Minnesota and he’s starting eighth grade at a huge junior high and splitting his time between two suburban houses with parents trying to figure out the next chapter of their own lives. Whew.

It wasn’t, shall we say, smooth sailing. My son and I bickered and yelled at each other, we hurt each other’s feelings, and we all too often missed the point of what the other really needed and was asking for. Understandable in a young teen, but I wanted to do better as an adult. And yet, it seemed no one could trigger me quite like he could, and I would lose my cool again and again. I was NOT being the mom I wanted to be and I wasn’t proud of myself. Nor did I find I was enjoying parenting—my son and I had always been incredibly close, and now I couldn’t figure out how to connect. A likable, easy-going kid had turned unpredictable and often volatile. Luckily, about this time, I started studying neuroscience, understanding the brain, and slowly (very slowly, to be honest) seeing a way forward. Here are few things I learned.

1) Don’t Expect Teenagers to Be Rational. Except When They Are. During the teenage and young adult years the highest brain, the prefrontal cortex, is finishing its development. Neural connections are being strengthened, and pathways deemed less important or unnecessary are pruned so that signal strength is stronger in others. (Hormonal surges play a role in this, not only in the development of secondary sex characteristics.)

I think of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as the executive director of the brain. It doesn’t run everything, but it manages and/or connects to many of our most critical functions. For example, a fully “online” PFC is capable of thinking things through, delaying gratification, remembering things, holding abstractions, and understanding how others think and feel.

For a teenager and young adult with a developing PFC, two things happen. One, some of these things may not yet be really operational, and in my own experience (note, this is anecdotal, I haven’t researched it), it goes in rough categories. On the one hand, some kids tend to get the empathy side of things while the logical planning and thinking things through eludes them longer. This was my own experience. I had difficulty making and following plans or focusing on long-term goals until my mid to late 20s. But I could understand others from a much younger age and was the go-to “counselor” with family and friends even before I hit my teen years. On the other hand, some have real focus and ability to work towards long term goals early on, while connection to feelings (their own and others) may be less developed. This was my son, who decided in eighth grade he would be valedictorian and never wavered from that academic path (and so he was, by the way). But when I asked him at 14 how he felt about moving from Costa Rica, he literally responded, “What are these feelings of which you speak?” However, later in his teen years he began have a deeper understanding of his friends, and now we regularly talk about how he feels.

The second thing that happens is that the process of developing these aspects is erratic. One day they may exhibit great concern for and interest in you, the next be totally and completely self-focused. One day they may rationally and logically plan for their future and the next do a completely stupid and self-destructive thing.

And so one of the things that really helped me as a parent is not to expect my son to be at a different place developmentally than where he was – and to have a great deal of patience with the up and down nature of this. In other words, frame my expectations for who he was being in the moment, with the understanding that it was like a spring weather system in Minnesota, highly changeable. So take an umbrella just in case.

Visit here for more on the prefrontal cortex. 

2) If You Honor Their Brilliance it’s Easier to Share Your Wisdom. The paradoxical thing about our wonderful prefrontal cortices is that at the same time they in the late stages of development, they are also at their best. The neural connections are fresh and there are more of them. Thinking in new ways is natural, because the pathways we establish with repetition and reward are not as well-worn as they are in later years. And so, it is natural that powerfully creative and innovative thinking comes from young people. This deserves to be nurtured, celebrated, expected and rewarded.

I think of the countless deep conversations I had with my son during his high school years. One of the parenting blessings of being trained as a coach was the ability to listen with curiosity and ask questions that helped him understand his own thinking, rather than jumping in with my solution. There were times I could almost literally see the neurons firing and connecting in his brain as he pondered some important issue out loud and I managed to restrain myself and really listen. As I realized more and more his capacity for subtle thinking, I even brought him challenges I was encountering in my neuroscience studies and was astounded by his ability to help me make sense of things. His neurons were often simply quicker and more creative than mine!

At the same time, there is an important role for the wisdom we accumulate through experience. We learn, for example, that much of life isn’t black and white, that emotions tend to rule logic, and that humans are endlessly complex. I found that the more I honored and respected my son’s brilliance, the more open he was to my wisdom. One of the ways I know we got through the teenage years ok is that he now calls me from college to get my perspective and advice. Yay!

Visit here for more on neuroplasticity.

3) Design Your Relationship (When You Are Both Calm). My son and I had a really bad dynamic when he was about 14 and 15. He’d get upset and angry about something and I would react. We’d both go to a state that Dan Goleman (of emotional intelligence fame) dubs an “amygdala hijack.” In other words, both of our PFCs would be very much offline, and all that was available to either of us was fight, flight, or freeze. It didn’t matter at that point whether his upset was rational, we were just two reactions bumping against each other. My son tends to be a fighter by nature, while I am more of a fleer. This sometimes meant him following me around the house trying his best to engage me in an argument while I just wanted to get the heck away. It was, to be honest, awful.

Because of my neuroscience studies, at some point I realized what was actually happening and that I could do nothing productive in the middle of the hijack. So one day when we were at dinner and all was calm and connected, I said, “You know, hon, sometimes it seems like we get into a bad dynamic and I get triggered and reactive. When this happens, my natural response is to want to get away, and I sense this is frustrating for you because you want to talk to me about something. But if you can give me ten minutes or so to calm down, I think I can talk about whatever it is you want to discuss. Could we try this?” (My idea was, of course, that in the time I was on my own calming down, he would be as well, but this framing of the issue as mine would be easier for him to take than me pointing a finger at his reactive state.)

This changed everything for us. Not right away, and not perfectly, because we would still both get triggered, but it gave us a tiny handhold on the mountain to pull ourselves up to a higher state. I’d remind him of our agreement as calmly as I could (not at all calmly in the beginning) and he’d persist a bit, but over time he started to let go more and more quickly. It sometimes helped when I reiterated that I WOULD discuss whatever he was upset about, I just needed a few minutes.

Funny thing is, I actually don’t remember ever actually talking about the issue, because I guess by the time we both got our PFCs back online, there really wasn’t one.

Visit here for more on having an amygdala hijack. 

4) Be the Person You Want Face in the Mirror. Your young person’s brain is wiring in patterns for life, and part of creating this wiring is how the people around them respond. If you can work (and work and work) at remaining reasonably calm in the midst of stress and their age-appropriate irrationality, lack of preparation, self-focus and poor decisions, you help their brains wire for emotional intelligence.

To me, this is a thoughtful balance of speaking up, letting go, and trust. When my son was unkind I did my best to say “it’s not ok to talk to me like that,” or some version thereof, and then let it go, trusting that this was part of his development. Same with other developmental areas, such as thinking ahead. When he got stuck his sophomore year without a summer job, I did my best to first help him find some sort of solution, then worked with him around what would have been a better strategy so that he had more conscious awareness for the next year, let it go and helped him financially that summer, and trusted he would develop this skill. The next year I just checked in a couple of times and when it was clear he had really learned from the past year, told him I was proud of him and let it go.

The speaking up honors my own values and keeps me active in the game. It also serves as a reminder of where we want the neural patterning to develop. The letting go honors where the young person is and what they are capable of right now, and the trust honors that what is happening is a developmental process.

One caveat to all of this parenting is that not all brains are what we would call “neurotypical.” Humans come with a wide array of challenges and gifts, and parenting some kids is honestly harder than others. But they all have things to help us discover in our own development as well. I often would refer to my son as my Zen master, especially during those early high school years. People would think I meant he was very calm and wise. “No,” I’d say, “he’s more like one of those Zen masters who hit you over the head with a 2×4 and see how you respond. He is master of teaching me patience, perspective and love.”

He’s also one of my most favorite human beings in the world, and I am ever grateful for what I’ve learned with, from and because of him.

 

BEabove Leadership offers a two-day communication workshop, the Seven Levels Human Relationships Program, focused on increasing connection and decreasing stress in all relationships. We offer practical tools for all relationships (business, romantic and family and friends) based on neuroscience and the Seven Levels of Effectiveness. Join us in the San Francisco December 9 and 10, 2017, and Ottowa Canada spring 2018. http://www.beaboveleadership.com/seven-levels-human-relationships-program/

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Making Affirmations Work

affirmationI recently received an inquiry about affirmations from a dear friend, wondering about a client who was convinced they just didn’t work for him. My friend, an accomplished and seasoned coach, asked me for some hard data that it actually works to tell say positive statements to ourselves. Does it, he asked, really re-wire the brain?

At BEabove Leadership, we’ve thought a lot about this issue. Affirmations are some of the stock in trade of us coaches, and so understanding whether or not they work from a scientific perspective is important. Here’s our thinking on the matter:

1) Affirmations are a way of activating neuroplasticity and the multi-modal nature of neural pathways. That is, many of our neurons fire when they are doing something, watching someone else do something, or imagining doing something (affirmations fall into this category).

2) As you know, we process on both a conscious level and a sub-conscious level. Affirmations are trying to make the subconscious believe the conscious. In other words, consciously working to rewire our subconscious.

3) When we say something to ourselves that we don’t actually believe on a subconscious level, such as, in the famous words of Stuart Smalley of Saturday Night Live fame, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it people like me,” the subconscious says “Nope. Don’t buy it, don’t believe it. I’m not and they don’t. I REJECT this thought.” This is true to the degree that some studies have found people with low self-esteem even feel worse after saying affirmations like this. It is disruptive to their internal belief system that has developed to keep them safe.

4) However, if we say it long enough and consistently enough, we may eventually begin to believe it, causing our subconscious to say “Ok, I get it, you’ve convinced me.” But this is a long slog and many people give up along the way. It can take a long, long time for affirmations to work, particularly with very deep-seated issues and core beliefs.

5) Therefore, using the following process is much more brain-friendly, and, we have found, consequently much more effective. (Note: this process comes from an energy healer named Sandy Radomski of Ask and Receive. Neuroscience analysis of the process is ours.) Say out loud the following statements (and repeat as much as you like):

There is a part of my being that already knows how to (fill in the blank) 

This part of my being is informing the rest of me now

It is doing so with grace and ease

My mind body and spirit are receiving this information

Information transfer now complete

Here is why we think it works so well:

We say: There is a PART of my being that already knows how to (fill in the blank). And our subconscious says, “Ok, I’ll give you that. It might be a very very small part, but ok, maybe there is a part of me that knows how to do this.”

This part of my being is informing the rest of me now. Subconscious says “Ok, good idea.”

It is doing so with grace and ease. Subconscious says “Great, I’m not interested in this being a struggle.”

My mind body and spirit are receiving the information. Subconscious says “Cool, I’m not sure which part of me is going to figure this out, so let’s call on all of it.”

Information transfer now complete. Subconscious says “Oh, cool, the Star Trek part.” (Seriously, I don’t know why this is in there, but it always make me giggle).

This way we reprogram the brain without resistance. You can even feel the ease of this as you say it. I use it in the middle of the night when I can’t get to sleep and can feel myself calming down (and there is some evidence to support that any sort of positive self-affirming statement can help reduce stress). And I have used it with numerous clients over the years, who all report that it has helped them move past things that felt stuck.

For an interesting review by Psychology Today, see this link: Do Self-Affirmations Work? 

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.

 

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 Art of the Pause

One of the most challenging things in terms of helping someone develop is to wait patiently while they figure things out for themselves. We know this as coaches, and, over time, develop an increased capacity to wait rather than jumping in to help. At the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), we call this “holding the client Naturally Creative, Resourceful and Whole,” and it is one of the key cornerstones of our coaching model.

pause (1)This idea makes a huge amount of sense from a neuroscience perspective. When we jump in to help, we rob the other person of the chance to make the connection in their own brain. As one student put it to me recently when I explained the importance of helping someone find their own answers, “Oh, I get it. I want the light bulb to go off in their brain, not mine!”

Exactly. As they say in the field of neuroplasticity, if it fires, it wires, meaning that every time we do something or think about something, a neural pathway either is being potentiated or reinforced. We can think of it like creating a path in the snow—the first time through it’s just a few footsteps, but walk it again and again and it becomes a track and then a trail. Walk it enough, even a road.

Learning is a process of making these neural connections stronger and more robust, and sustainable change means we need to practice the new neural networks over and over until they become more dominant than the older ones we wish to leave behind. In the brain, what this means in a practical way is that where there are strong, well-developed neural pathways, the impulses travel more quickly and require less conscious thought. It’s easier to walk on a well-traveled road than it is to break a trail through the woods.

Thus, the art of the pause. As a coach for almost 13 years, I have mastered this fairly well in my one-to-one work, even though like many of us, I started out wanting to fix things for people. But I am realizing that as a leader, I am often not as good about it.

At BEabove Leadership, we co-lead most workshops. I am the director of research, and bring to the table both an insatiable fascination and deep experience with neuroscience at an academic level. I spend a lot of my time speaking and writing about it, and honestly, at this point it’s easy for me. I have such deep and well-developed neural pathways I can speak about just about anything at the drop of a hat. This is not necessarily intelligence; much of it is experience and practice. Which I got by doing it. Over and over again.

When I am teaching a class with another leader, I am noticing that because my impulses fire so quickly, I generally have the answer a beat or two before my colleague. So of course, I tend jump right in, leaving them, inevitably, with the second word and rarely the first. It’s humbling to realize that when I do this, I am robbing my co-leader of the chance to develop connections in their own brains and thus create for themselves ease and mastery of the material.

So for all of us who ever work with people who are learning to present new material, from speaking in a meeting to teaching a class, I believe it is critically important to grant more pauses. They need us to allow a bit more space and time for connections to fire. It’s easy to make the assumption that the reason the other person isn’t speaking as quickly is that they lack either knowledge or confidence, but this may not be true. It could be that their connections just aren’t as quick as yours (yet), and they need you to allow a beat for the synapses to fire.

I’ve recently had the good luck to be on both sides of this situation. We are currently in the process of training new leaders for BEabove, where I have a lot of experience, and leading “front of the room” for CTI, where I am fairly new. I can feel the difference in the speed of my response. At BEabove, I know before a student in class is done speaking exactly the point I want to make and where I want to take their question. In CTI classes, I am definitely slower—not because my knowledge base or innate confidence are less, but because I simply have less experience teaching the material in a classroom setting, and less experience with the specific curriculum.

And so, in my BEabove classes, I am working to intentionally allow more space for my new co-leader, so that there is time for his or her synapses to make a connection. It’s not a lot, honestly—maybe a second or two at most, but it makes a difference. I’m also looking specifically for what are the easy entry points for my new co-leader; that is, places they feel especially confident and ready to take the lead. And at CTI, I am beginning to design with my more experienced partners the grace of a pause for myself.

It’s also important to know that for those of us who are new, we do need to push and challenge ourselves to step up and take the ball even when we don’t feel as comfortable. The way to become more masterful with the material is to try – and fail – and try again.

And the result? The class or meeting gets exposed to more diverse thought and therefor a richer experience, and the process of mastery is accelerated for the learner. And what about the more experienced leader? Well, we get a wonderful lesson in patience and trust.

 

 

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!

 


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.