Category Archives: brain

Tagore, Delight, my Brain – and Memory

On a personal note, Tagore’s early letters have been a delight of late. Something moves me in his early, reflective writing – the discovery by youth of something of the mystery of self, perception and the world around it. On an extended, lazy river trip he writes –

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man. Shelidah, 10th August 1894.

Many other things move me as well of course. And of many things that they have in common, a piquant poignancy is one important thread among many – a poignancy that not only occurs “in the moment” of the actual event, but is brought forth again and heightened by the simple act of remembering.

Memory is a tricky thing – that which we remember is but one approximation of the actuality – colored by who we are and what we’ve experienced. Events often becomes more pleasant in memory than the actual event itself. Our brains are pretty good storage instruments in many regards – not so much of data perhaps, but of information (data interpreted) and experience (data acted upon). But they act more effectively as interpreters than storage instruments. (Check here and here for the drier explanation if you like.)

And that is significant. For us as individuals data alone is fairly irrelevant. But data that is interpreted, experienced and colored by the complex emotional components that spring from our brains is the stuff of which our memories are made.

I think that’s why experiments such as Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits, while important, and even useful as tools, ultimately remain only that – tools of recall for our brains and minds. The data is just data. Its significance lies in the act of recollection.

And so Tagore’s words move me in my memory some 100 years after they were written. It isn’t merely the data that he left behind – but what those words cause to resonate within me. And it is that resonance that causes me delight – even as it reminds me of the limitations of my mind.

Birth of a Brain Cell

As adults we continue to create new brain cells. This is good news both for future disease treatments as well as for maintaining a healthy brain as we age (so keep mentally active). Until now researchers had not been able to visualize this process.

Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, assistant professor of neurology at Stony Brook University in New York State, has developed a method utilizing a chemical marker that successfully allows scientists to see the birth of these new neurons. While the make-up of the marker remains unknown, Maletic-Savatic speculates that it is a blend of fatty acids in a lipid (fat) or lipid protein.

Link: Scientific American

Somewhere over the Brainbow . . .

. . . Neurons are blue, and red, and green and some 87 other colors.  Neuroscientists at Harvard University have developed a methodology for using fluorescent proteins to color individual neurons within the brain.  Using a well-known recombinent system known as Cre/lox scientists have been able to build a transgene from portions of DNA, insert it into mouse DNA and cause the switching on of flourescent protein genes.  The technology allows researchers to see the individual neurons and connections of the brain in unparalled technicolor detail.

Brainbow Image by Tamily Weissman

Link: ScienceDaily

Wired for Optimism?

Future seem gloomy – or full of promise?  A new study suggests that specific parts of our brain may be hard-wired for optimism.  It found that portions of the brain (the rostral anterior cingulate cortex) are consistently activated in response to thinking “positive thoughts.”  Which might give a bit more credence to the anecdotal evidence we’ve heard for years from various self-help groups.  You can read the abstract here, or this brief mention in the Boston Globe here

Brain Activity Differs For Creative And Noncreative Thinkers

This just in from ScienceDaily –

A new study by John Kounios, professor of Psychology at Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University indicates that basic differences in brain activity between creative and methodical problem solvers exist and are evident even when these individuals are not working on a problem. The study shows that greater right-hemisphere activity occurs even during a “resting” state in those with a tendency to solve problems by creative insight. This finding suggests that even the spontaneous thought of creative individuals, such as in their daydreams, contains more remote associations.

The study compared a methodical versus a more diffuse “aha” type of thinking.

Link: ScienceDaily

Angry? Get a little Sleep

Sleep deprivation causes the emotional centers tied to the amygdala to become quite a bit more active. 

“It’s almost as though, without sleep, the brain had reverted back to more primitive patterns of activity, in that it was unable to put emotional experiences into context and produce controlled, appropriate responses,” said Matthew Walker, director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory and senior author of the study, which is to be published in the journal Current Biology.

This lack of sleep was found to increase amygdala emotional response by over 60%.  It also caused the brain to first connect to the ocus coeruleus, the oldest part of the brain which releases noradrenalin to ward off imminent threats to survival, rather than to the prefrontal cortex. 

This has a certain logic.  A tired animal needs to react quickly to survive.  But, as humans, we need to be able to cognitively assess all situations and this neurological predisposition leads to increased volatility in emotional responses such as anger.  Worse, it increases the likelihood of making inappropriate responses to situations – doing things that we would normally not do in a rested state.

Bottom line – make sure that a coachee is rested before having a heart-to-heart.  And when that is not possible, be prepared to factor in the extra emotional response.

Link:  ScienceDaily

The Brain, Myth and Coaching

Our ability to accept and promote inaccurate information and mis-perception can often seem astonishing. This is, in part, fueled by how our brains process and remember information. Here are a few factors in our brain’s assessment of information that help propagate these misunderstandings, along with relevant coaching principles.

  • Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Therefore, when coaching – repetition, repetition, repetition is a key to change.

  • Long-term memory is more apt than short-term memory to retain the bias that well-remembered false information is true.

Get the coaching information into long-term memory for change to stick. Repeat, repeat, repeat as above.

  • Once an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge.

Planting the coaching idea is the first step and its mere planting is useful.

  • The brain is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something.

The coachee may not remember that you gave him or her the idea, but they may well remember the idea itself, and our egos aside, that of course is what’s most important.

  • When accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true.

You must respond to a coachee’s assertions with something in order to affect change.

What we are referring to here is the difficulty that we, as coaches, find in changing people’s mental models. Often a coachee seems willful or even malicious in his or her obstinacy to retain incorrect beliefs and affect change. What is suggested here is that at least a portion of this behavior involves brain hard-wiring and that if we will work with that hard-wiring we can obtain better results.

Link: Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach

This is your Brain on Advertising

An article in BusinessWeek highlights the emerging field of “neuromarketing” – using brain imaging technologies to test, and ultimately help clients control, consumer response.  To quote:

Do you ever get the creepy feeling that advertisers know how to put a lump in your throat, inspire subconscious brand loyalty, or make your mouth water? Just wait: It could get worse. An emerging technique called neuromarketing that uses brain scans to measure human response to promotional messages is starting to catch on in Europe—and soon ads may become even more effective at prompting you to pull out your wallet.

Which begs the question, of course – how much control can I maintain over my own brain?  With increasing refinement of brain imaging technologies and continually deepening understanding of how our brains actually function we face the recurring and inevitable question of how to use this knowledge.

This is the world of mental models, of philosophy, ethics, theology and other disciplines.  It is also the place of coaching.  How do we coach?  What do we coach?  How do we answer those difficult questions revolving around making our individual and collective lives better?

Link:  This is your Brain on Advertising

Greed is Counter Productive, but Feels Good

The brain acts as a complex choreography of cooperating physiological structures and process systems. Many distinct brain systems work together to solve complex problems. Our goal-oriented behavior involves at least two systems. Another network manages cognitive reserve. There is the distinction between left and right brain processing as well as the interactions between emotional and cognitive systems and structures. Surprise and attraction/aversion involve cooperating networks. And it all works together seamlessly for the most part.

Sometimes working seamlessly doesn’t mean working for our best interests. We can distinguish between our reflective (thinking) and reflexive (emotion and reward-seeking) brains. The reflective brain “thinks.” The reflexive brain “reacts.” One continuing aspect of coaching involves managing the reactions of our reflexive brain so that it networks well with its reflective side in ways that support our best interests. This is “coaching Ted” – not always an easy task.

One reason is that some actions and the thinking behind them just plain feel good – even when they prove detrimental to us and our reflective selves know it. A recent example is found in David Zweig’s book on investing, Your Money & your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics can make you Rich. Zweig finds that “Making money feels good, all right; it just doesn’t feel as good as expecting to make money. In a cruel irony that has enormous implications for financial behavior, your investing brain comes equipped with a biological mechanism that is more aroused when you anticipate a profit than when you actually get one.” Which sets up a physiological basis for greed – the behavior feels better than the result which loops to feed more of the behavior.Overcoming such behavior (and coaching to do so) involves saying “no” in a manner that proves stronger than the good feeling. There are many productive strategies for doing so, ranging from the personal accountability of partners and self-help groups to alternative rewards. At their heart they involve bringing reflexive behaviors under the control of our cognitive selves. And that’s easier said than done.