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

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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!).

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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

Congratulations

A huge congratulations to the three winners of the competition to win signed copies of “The Vital Edge”.

The winners are:-Screen Print Book Cover

Shaun Coffey
Sheila Richards
Barry Millar

 

“The Vital Edge” will be winging its way to them shortly.

All three winners nominated truly awesome sports people as the ones who had inspired them most.

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Performance dips. Is it all just statistics?

source: wikispaces.psu.edu

source: wikispaces.psu.edu

In the age-old debate about which works best – positively rewarding desired behaviours or punishing non-desired behaviours – we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of making a causal attribution that does not actually exist. We may be observing nothing more than a mere consequence of statistical distribution known to students of statistics as ‘regression to the mean’.

This is described in the excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (p 175), where he describes an Air Force trainer who objected to Kahneman making the claim that rewarding improved performance was more effective than punishing mistakes. His objection was based on his experience. When he positively praised someone for performing a manoeuvre well, on the next occasion the individual inevitably performed worse. On the other hand, when someone did badly, he would blast a condemnation into their ear which, in the view of the trainer, always caused an improvement in performance.  Ergo, negative reinforcement works more effectively than positive.

source; aperfectchef.hubpages.com

source; aperfectchef.hubpages.com

And, so it might seem, on first inspection in this example. That is, until you think about these situations as being distributed levels of performance around a mean. It makes sense that one single piece of outstanding performance is very likely to be followed by one that is closer to the mean than before. Likewise, an extremely poorly executed manoeuvre is more than likely an aberration, and (even without the blast in the ear) is likely to result in an improvement, and a performance closer to the mean on the next occasion.

What the trainer had stumbled upon was a rule of statistical distribution, and not a profound principle of psychological reinforcement theory.

What we do know, however, is that the brain is wired in such a way as to be biased toward negativity.  This is a consequence of our evolutionary journey and is one of the reasons that we have survived as a species.  It was critical, and indeed life-saving at times, for our ancestors to be alert to danger, to be primed to detect predators, to see risks everywhere. Neuroscience demonstrates that our emotional centres are biased toward negative emotions, and, for this reason, positivity does face an uphill battle. It is working against the tide of our emotional make-up, and to overcome the bias (or at least redress it) we need to experience at least a 3 to 1 ratio of positive thoughts or experiences over negative ones on a daily basis.  (for a deeper treatment of this area see the previous post Overcoming the Brain’s Negativity Bias).

Negative reinforcements and punishments have their place in a world associated with danger and risk, but in a world where our safety is less of an issue, and the emphasis is on how well we thrive, grow and develop, the powerful effects of positive reinforcement are in the generation of optimism, creativity, empowerment and confidence.

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If you feel that you or members of your management team would benefit from exploring ways to make substantial improvements to personal and collective effectiveness and productivity, please do get in touch.       Simply  submit  your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to get in touch for an informal initial chat.

About me:  I enable people in business to operate more successfully.  You may be struggling to implement corporate strategy, you may want to get more productivity out of your teams but don’t know where to start,  or your people may not be having as effective conversations with each other as they could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you to lead more successfully.  

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The Power of Silence

“Silence is true wisdom’s best reply.” Euripides

How comfortable are you with periods of silence during conversations?  Do you feel uncomfortable? Are you compelled to fill the void and keep the cascade of words flowing?

I was prompted to think about this by a short article I read recently by Angela Dunbar, in which she claims that almost all coaching and talking therapies are designed to work by encouraging the client to open up and talk about what’s happening for them, to speak their thinking aloud and verbalize any insights they may be having.  All of this is based on the (not unreasonable) assumption that, by expressing out loud what’s going on in your mind, problems will be unpicked and solutions found.

The article goes on to point to research in the field of cognitive psychology (see paper by Schooler, Ohlsson, and Brooks) that suggests that the act of verbalizing thoughts actually prevents insights arising. This may be because the brain has limited resources, and if they are concentrated on the conscious activity of talking, there is reduced capacity for the non-conscious activities that are necessary for insight to occur.  The research evidence suggests that insight involves processes that are distinct from language, and which benefit from not being distracted by speech.

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Visualise your way to happiness

source: uppereastsideinformer.blogspot.com

source: uppereastsideinformer.blogspot.com

Among the many advantages that the evolution of the human brain has afforded us, is an often overlooked capability – the power to ‘simulate’ the future. Humans are able to visualise and dream about future events. When you think about this, it is a pretty amazing ability. Future thinking is key to planning, anticipating, speculating and visioning. Imagining how events might turn out in your head before trying them out in real life turns out to be a skill that provides us with tremendous advantages.The brain’s pre-frontal cortex acts like a psychological immune system, that helps us alter our views of the world so that we feel better about things. This is displayed most dramatically in the way that humans synthesise states of happiness, regardless of what is actually going on in their world.

But is synthetic happiness of the same quality as ‘natural’ happiness?  Do we ‘know’ the difference?  Dan Gilbert describes ‘natural’ happiness as 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

Are you ‘On the Bank’ or ‘In the Flow’?

“It is not required that we know all of the details about every stretch of the river. Indeed, were we to know, it would not be an adventure, and I wonder if there would be much point in the journey.” ― Jeffrey R. Anderson

Where do you find yourself most often as you wend your way on life’s journey?  Are you firmly in the midst of the river, going with the flow, navigating the hazards and enjoying the thrill of the ride?    Or are you bumping along the banks, stopping regularly to re-appraise the situation, before venturing tentatively back in to the turbulent currents in mid-stream.

source: sea2summit.net

source: sea2summit.net

The ‘river’ metaphor is very useful, and works on many different levels. I listened this week to Dan Siegel (the neurobiologist and author of Mindsight, among other recommended reads) as he discussed the nature of the mind. He spoke about the healthy mind as being integrated and harmonious (‘in flow’), and characterised the troubled mind as tending toward being either ‘chaotic’ or ‘rigid’ in manifestation.  He refers to these two states as being like opposite banks of a river. When we drop out of ‘flow’ – the balanced state of coping, experiencing well-being, and functioning optimally – we tend to drift toward one or other bank. (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for a detailed treatment of ‘Flow’). Which bank you end up on will depend on the condition and situation being experienced, but people also tend to have a dominant bank they gravitate toward. Continue reading