You’ve got 8 seconds to get my attention!

“The average attention of a “millenial” is 8 seconds”.

Who said so?  Well, a “millenial” of course!  Not just any “millenial”.  This attention-grabbing claim was made by an impressive young man who was a presenter at a conference I attended this week in London.  Billed as a ‘disruptor’, (credit: Ilias Vartholomaios, Co-Founder of Owiwi) he spoke about the realities that those of us who identify with the 20th Century (I’m one) will have to come to terms with as we live out the remainder of our lives in the 21st.

Young people born after 1995 have not yet become part of the mainstream workforce. He informed us that, by the time they reach the age of 21 they will have spent (on average) 10,000 hours playing online games. As a comparator, that is pretty much the same amount of time an average US student will spend in high school between fifth grade and graduation, assuming a perfect attendance record.

So what?  Continue reading

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Choice, Happiness and the Quarter-Life Crisis

Last month’s post ~ Does Choice make us Happy? ~ attracted a lot of attention. Thank you for your excellent feedback. Some of the comments I received prompted me to consider this issue further, but this time from the point of view of the younger generation, particularly Generation Y.

Alice Stapleton writes sensitively and authoritatively about the phenomenon of the Quarter-Life Crisis. Unlike the well-documented mid-life crisis, which afflicts people in their forties or fifties, and is linked to feelings of stagnancy and a desire for radical change, the quarter-life crisis stems from anxiety about change, expectations, instability and identity.

Continue reading

Who Do You Think You Are?

“Dad! Dad! Can I be an astronaut?”

“Don’t be stupid son. You come from Doncaster.” ~ Steve McDermott

 

Last month I published a post in the wake of the killings in Paris called Hands up if you’re scared. The thrust of the piece was about fear, and the natural (and adaptive) reactions we have to dangerous situations. It was also about the exploitation of that fear, by both terrorists and political hawks.

In addition to those external voices of doom, we also have to be on our guard against our own internal enemy. The voice from within plays into the hands of the arguments of external fear-mongers. Many people have studied and written about the many forms our internal voice takes. Sometimes we can think of it as our conscience, our guide, our fairy godmother, looking out for us and keeping us on the straight and narrow. Or it may manifest in more malevolent form, talking down your talent or competence, criticizing your ideas or dreams, mocking your attempts to break free from “who you are”.

Over many years of working with people as they seek to overcome internal obstacles, I have heard people describe their ‘inner critic’ or ‘gremlin’ in many different ways, but whatever form they take, they tend always to say the same sorts of things to us.

  • “What makes you think you can do that?”
  • “You’ll fail and look stupid.”
  • “You’ll never amount to anything.”
  • “Who’s going to listen to you?”
  • “Who do you think you are?”

Screenshot 2015-12-11 13.26.33I recommend watching this interview between Oprah Winfrey and Brene Brown. The whole interview is fascinating, but if you only have a few minutes to spare, Continue reading

Hands up if you’re scared

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Hands up if you are more scared this week than last?  Hands up if you believe you are more likely to be the victim of a terrorist atrocity than you were before the Russian airliner fell from the sky? Or the killings in Paris?  I see a fair few hands raised. I’m guessing that your hands are not raised having quickly calculated the complex statistical probability associated with being mixed up in such occurrences. More likely, it is coming from something in your gut, or in your heart. Somewhere far away from cognitive reason and rationality.

creative commons

creative commons

And, of course, that is what terror intends. To switch people off from reason, rationality, logic and constructive discourse, and switch on our more primal decision-making systems. “I feel it in my water. In my gut. I can smell it. My heart is ruling my head”. Believer v Non-Believer. Black v White. Love v Hate.  For v Against. Polarisation, simplification. No room for the grey. Choose your side.

Operating in a state of fear is commonplace. Workers fear for their jobs, their livelihoods, and being able to fend for their families. Patients fear the worst when waiting their medical results. City traders fear the flashing lights on the trading board when they glow red for what it might be about to signal. Could this be another crash in global markets?

Fear serves a useful evolutionary function. It kept our ancestors alive, and we have their fear to thank for us being here today. Unfortunately it is the enemy of progress. It stunts creativity, blocks new ways of thinking. Neuroscience shows quite clearly that, when the fear system in the brain is active, exploratory activity is turned off. In other words we stop looking for new ways to solve problems.  We resort to what we know worked in our evolutionary past. We either cower and hide and hope the danger passes, we flee and turn our backs on the problem, or we retaliate with force and hope to win with might. Continue reading

No Time to Think

Perhaps ‘the’ most tantalising allure of any advancement in engineering or technology through the ages has been the promise of saving us time. Cars, trains and planes certainly get us places faster than horses ever did. Bridges and tunnels allow us to take short-cuts over rivers and through mountains, saving us hours. Advances in IT and robotics mean that tasks previously handled manually have been automated with exponential levels of increased productivity.

Why, with so much technology and time-saving gadgetry at our fingertips, do people still present at coaching sessions with issues and concerns about their ability to manage their time? After all, our lives have never appeared to be more organised ~ or perhaps I should say digitised!   More and more of us are hooked up to the Net from morning to night.

Our smartphones and tablets wake us up, we check our diary for appointments and read our messages before getting out of bed. We catch up on missed shows on iPlayer or Stitcher while we commute to work. We juggle collaborating on Sharepoint, with watching company Webcasts, while occasionally dipping into our personal Instagram, Twitter or WhatsApp accounts. We may even check in on Foursquare while grabbing lunch, and be just as likely to choose where to go by WiFi availability as the quality of the food. On the way home we might burn some carbs, having gained access with our fingerprint or iris, which are digitised on the gym’s customer database. We immediately wire ourselves up to the screens on the machines so as to catch up on news, or check Facebook activity.  And when we get home, after a microwaved dinner, and a quick skype chat with your mum, our relaxation and wind down time may well include logging on remotely to your work’s email to ‘finish off’ a few things, and give yourself a fighting chance of making a clean start on things again in the morning (fat chance!).

Continue reading

Can Emotion Recognition be Taught?

Being able to accurately process emotional cues from others is a critical ability that underpins effective and appropriate interpersonal relationships.  If we misread signals, or miss cues from others altogether, it can lead to some embarrassing and uncomfortable moments.  We are neurologically wired to scan the faces and body language of others in our social groups to help us determine emotional states, providing us with clear survival value. Detecting anger or fear is useful, not least in helping us avoid getting too close to danger or making situations worse, while being able to identify happiness or joy in others is key to establishing or enhancing positive connections and initiating relationships.

Some recent studies on emotion recognition have concluded that individuals with conduct disorders (CD) and antisocial behaviours (ASB) are significantly worse at recognising emotional signals associated with sadness, disgust, anger and fear, relative to controls.

It perhaps wouldn’t come as a surprise to people working within the prison system, and exposed regularly to ‘angry’ young men (most studies have focused on men within the criminal justice system), that their ‘sensitivity’ to cues may be different to the general population. The reasons for this, at least at an anecdotal level, may appear obvious. For example, take a young man who has been raised within an abusive environment, where the levels of anger he was exposed to were extreme. His normal baseline for detection of anger is likely to be set higher than the average person. He is used to seeing and hearing the cues of extreme anger, while possibly also experiencing their direct impacts. It may be reasonable to assume that this exposure to negative emotions will impact his sensitivity to detection of negative emotions such as anger, fear and sadness. Continue reading

How much of ourselves do we really control?

“So much of control is not authoritative action but mindful waiting.”               ~Cameron Conaway, Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet

In his book Drunk Tank Pink, Adam Alter describes a classic study which created quite a stir amongst sports coaches and prison warders, as well as psychologists and parents. The study by Schauss in 1979 suggested that simple exposure to one of two colours made a significant difference to people’s display of strength.  A large group of men were tested, one by one, on a simple strength test.  They were asked to raise their arms in front of their body while a moderate downward and opposite pressure was applied by the researcher to their arms. Nothing remarkable in this so far.  However, when the men were asked to stare at a large piece of cardboard which was coloured pink, their strength was dramatically weaker than when they were asked to stare at a piece of blue cardboard. Blue appeared to leave the subject’s strength intact, while pink depleted their strength.

source: http://www.mobypicture.com/user/PeterM_KOMO/view/10334383

source: http://www.mobypicture.com/user/ PeterM_KOMO/view/10334383

This curious finding quickly found practical application across a number of situations, one of which was the use of pink holding cells in correctional facilities. Angry inmates were reported as being calmed almost immediately by being placed in pink cells. The phenomenon went on to have wider application, and was even used in the world of sport, with boxers wearing pink shorts to ‘weaken’ their opponents, and American football teams painting their opponents’ locker rooms pink in order to reduce the visiting teams’ combativeness just prior to the start of the game.

Psychologists are now aware of many such phenomena which similarly influence our behaviour and our subconscious thoughts. They refer to these forces as cues. 

Within Drunk Tank Pink, the author goes on to chronicle a number of fascinating examples: Continue reading

What’s changing for you right now?

                  When we are no longer able to change a situation,  we are challenged to change ourselves. ~ Viktor E. Frankl

All learning happens at ‘the edge’.   Going to the edge, and looking beyond, creates uncertainty.  After all, when nothing is changing and your world is predictable, what is the need to change, or learn anything new?  Sometimes changes are forced on us, sometimes they are sought.  Either way, they induce learning and growth.

This appears to be at the very heart of our existence as a species.  Skulls found in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, the cradle of humanity, point to increases in skull capacity, and by definition brain size, at specific points in the earth’s history that correspond to periods of dramatic environmental change.

Professor Brian Cox’s recent BBC programme, Apeman to Spaceman,  explains that Brian Cox skullsthe earth experiences major and rapid climatic changes approximately every 400,000 years.  The skulls of various generations of hominin species (i.e. from australopithecus, to homo erectus, through to early homo sapien) reveal an almost doubling of brain capacity every 400,000 years.  The theory he advances is that human intelligence is quite literally a response to periods of rapid changes in the environment as a result of violent climate fluctuations.

And while this theory is concerned with enormous changes over thousands of years, the conditions for changes driving growth and learning are no less evident within single lifetimes.  Continue reading

Chattering lizards

“The reason why so few people are agreeable in conversation is that each is thinking more about what he intends to say than others are saying”.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld

How many unproductive conversations do you hear people having on a daily basis?  How many of those do you get involved in?  What do you see going on that makes them unproductive?

I’m talking about situations where the parties involved in a dialogue actually do want the conversation to be effective, and the outcome to be productive. This is, after all, the primary way in which business, commerce, negotiation, consultation and relationships work.  

So why do so many conversations not work successfully?  Well, as you might expect, it is down to the way our brains work. When people raise issues, concerns or simply want to share a point of view with another person, they typically display a set of predictable behaviours which show up in a number of ways. The underlying motivations driving these behaviours can be summarised as:-

  • A need to maximise one’s own comfort / while minimising the other person’s discomfort
  • A desire to win / and not lose (i.e. to get your way)
  • A need to maintain control 

These needs ‘leak out’ into conversations in a variety of ways, but, most typically as:-

  • Leading Questions (designed to lead other people to get to the conclusions you have already arrived at)
  • Piling (loading points and/or questions on top of one another to emphasise your argument)
  • Over-advocacy (over-zealous control of the arguments without providing space for discussion)

When these strategies are being deployed by people, what is actually going on in their brains?   Continue reading

Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias

We didn’t get where we are today by being positive you know. Oh no.  Survival is a tough, uncompromising business.  Our ancient ancestors needed the negativity bias that is neurally wired into our brains in order to be successful. And successful they were; the fact you are reading this today being proof of that. The paradox is that this very successful survival mechanism – ‘the negativity bias’ – can often get in the way of people being able to experience life positively.

Let’s look at a simple model of how the human brain has been built up over tens of thousands of years of evolution.  (see also Rick Hanson’s article on this subject).          We can think of it as being composed of three (evolutionary) layers:

1. The Lizard Brain            This is the ‘old brain’. It shares many characteristics with the reptilian brain. It tends to fire in a reactive way. It is alert to dangers.  One classic and well-know example that is often quoted is the ’emotional hijack’ – when our emotions take over and we can actually feel like we are at the mercy of another brain. In some ways that is true.  When the ‘red mist’ falls across our eyes in moments of fury or fear, the lizard has taken over the controls.

2.   The Mammalian Brain      The middle layer of the brain, which we share with other mammals (in an evolutionary sense) is much more concerned with seeking rewards. More sophisticated processing takes place at this layer than in the ‘old brain’, although in neuroplastic terms it is still relatively ‘rigid’.

3.  The Primate/Human Brain    The most recently developed, upper layer of the brains of primates and humans is concerned primarily with attachments and relationships.   We see this most clearly in the use of communication, language, social network development and extracted thought concerned with abstract concepts such as philosophy, religion and science.

Some of the most recent advances in the science of neuroplasticity have started to reveal amazing abilities for the brain to change and alter shape (by creating new connections and thickening existing connections) as a result of experiences and repeated use.  While neuroplasticity can, and does, take place at all three levels of the brain, it does appear that it is much more difficult to affect changes in the lizard brain than in the primate/human level (or neocortical region) of the brain.  For a superb in-depth treatment of this area, I refer you to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain.

Why is this important?  Well, it means that, no matter how sophisticated and developed our thinking becomes, no matter how much we believe we have our emotions under control, there is, deep within our 21st Century selves, a part of us which is operating on one simple rule, which is basically “Get Lunch – Don’t Be Lunch!”

Now, even in the wild, most anxious episodes resolve fairly quickly.  The highly attuned Continue reading