Advances in neurosciences continue to inform our understanding of what makes us human, and perhaps even more importantly, how we interact with each other. In this week’s post I recommend two excellent speakers and experts in the field of neuroscience to you, Dan Siegel and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.
We have passed through many periods of popular assumptions about the brain and the mind, including the tabula rasa (blank slate) theory that humans are born void of knowledge and acquire ideas and wisdom over time from the world in which they operate. And, until a few years ago, we believed that the wiring of our brains was pretty much determined and complete within the first few years of life. Advances in techniques for studying the brain, in recent years, have shown that development continues well into adolescence (and beyond), particularly in the pre-frontal cortex. During this period of development an especially important process takes place. Synaptic pruning. Underused synapses and connections in the brain are pruned, just like weak or dead branches on a rose bush are cut away. This is a vital phase of development of the brain, during which connections that are used are strengthened and those which are not are lost. Neurons that fire together wire together. (See also previous post on this subject: The “white stuff”, and what it means for your brain – March 2012)
Examples of this key stage of development are described wonderfully In this TED talk by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, where she demonstrates, among other things, why the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives is linked to both structural and functional development of the adolescent human brain, These findings have important implications for education in general, as well as for interventions such as teenage counselling and coaching of young people.
In this second, and related, video link, Dan Siegel, the author of Mindsight, describes how connecting your right hemisphere to someone else’s right hemisphere, when they come to you with a concern, or in distress, provides an opportunity to connect on an emotional level, before entering into any problem solving (which is of course a left hemisphere and rational activity).
This may seem obvious, but how many of us are still drawn to trying to ‘fix’ problems for people? We do not like to see people in distress, we want to help, and the way we think we can help is to make it right – with a solution.
We know at least two reasons why this is not a good approach.
First, the person at that point in time is not receptive to solutions and fixes. Their emotional state is such that the limbic system (their downstairs brain) is in control. The limbic system does ‘not do problem solving’ – it deals in more basic survival activity – e.g. fear, anger, shame, disgust, sadness – and the only way to relate, and hope to connect with those emotions, is to engage the other person through right brain activity – displaying and offering empathy, vulnerability and understanding. No fixes.
Second, even when their brain activity returns to the surface (the upstairs brain) and their pre-frontal cortex is back in control, people are more likely to be committed to and act on solutions that they have shaped and owned. As such, even when you do allow your left brain to start getting involved, it is important you keep ‘logical and rational’ intervention to a minimum. The ideas and solutions that are most likely to succeed are the ones that emerge from the other person’s feelings and thinking.
What are your views on how developments in neuroscience can help us improve in how we handle human relationships? What implications does it have for leadership development and coaching?
If you would like to understand more about how neuroscience can help in coaching, or would simply like to discuss ways that you or your teams could benefit from the latest thinking in this area, please do get in touch. Simply submit your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to contact you for an initial chat.