Category Archives: Emotion Management

Where is Visual Beauty?

goldenratiosculptures.png 

In the brain of the beholder? 

A study in which art criticism-challenged subjects (most of us) were asked to view sculptures in which the classic Golden Ratio parameters were tweaked suggests that our perception of visual beauty is partly instinctive and partly learned.  Test subjects showed more activity in the brain’s limbic insular cortex, part of our emotion mediation system, when viewing sculpture that has been deemed classically beautiful over the ages.

As summed up nicely in Wired – “Thankfully, the researchers did not reach too far in their conclusions. The results, they said, merely suggest that beauty is mediated by separate but overlapping processes. One is learned, the other instinctive — and therein lies the power of art to speak across ages, long after its makers and their world have disappeared.”

Perhaps, as people, we share more in common across cultures than we sometimes admit.

Link: Wired

Men and Women Cope Differently under Stress

How do you deal with stress?  University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researcher Dr. J. J. Wang, Assistant Professor or Radiology and Neurology, reports that the brains of men and women respond differently to performance stressors.

In men, it was found that stress was associated with increased cerebral blood flow in the right prefrontal cortex and reduction of cerebral blood flow in the left orbitofrontal cortex. In women, the limbic system — a part of the brain primarily involved in emotion — was activated when they were under stress.  Men had increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as opposed to women.
In simpler terms, men exhibited typical “fight or flight” responses while women were found to exhibit a more nurturing “tend and befriend” type of behaviour.  One potential from the study –

“Women have twice the rate of depression and anxiety disorders compared to men,” notes Dr. Wang. “Knowing that women respond to stress by increasing activity in brain regions involved with emotion, and that these changes last longer than in men, may help us begin to explain the gender differences in the incidence of mood disorders.”

As to coaching – factoring this difference into personal coaching is congruent with a variety of techniques in team dynamics and other interpersonal situations.

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

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.

Consciousness and the Brain Stem

Suppose consciousness exists at a more fundamental level than the brain’s cortex. Swedish neuroscientist Bjorn Merker suggests that “primary consciousness,” which he regards as an ability to integrate sensations from the environment with one’s immediate goals and feelings in order to guide behavior, springs from the brain stem. “To be conscious is not necessarily to be self-conscious,” Merker says. “The tacit consensus concerning the cerebral cortex as the ‘organ of consciousness’ … may in fact be seriously in error.”

Merker bases his proposals on observations of cortically-deprived children with a condition known as hydranencephaly, the absence of most of the brain’s cortex. The children that he observed “recognized familiar adults, liked familiar settings, and preferred specific toys, tunes, or video programs. Although saddled with limited mobility, some kids took behavioral initiatives, such as learning to activate a toy by throwing a switch.”

He also built his theory on earlier work conducted by Canadian neurosurgeons Wilder Penfield and Herbert Jasper. Their work in removing large portions of cortex in the treatment of severe epilepsy helped isolate physiological bases for “absence epilepsy,” a sudden loss of consciousness, that indicated brain stem involvement in primary consciousness. Merket adds that animal research activity since that time confirms the brain stem’s involvement in primary consciousness.

He proposes that such a consciousness yields a two-dimensional view of the world with moving shapes. It also is able to respond emotionally in ways that are recognizably human, suggesting that the brain stem is more than a mere reptilian vestige. “The human brain stem is specifically human,” Merker says. “These children smile and laugh in the specifically human manner, which is different from that of our closest relatives among the apes.”

Link: Consciousness in the Raw

For more information: NINDS Hydranencephaly Information Page

One support group’s experiences and observations: Rays of Sunshine

The Liberal and Conservative Brain

The brain neurons of liberals and conservatives fire differently when confronted with tough choices, suggesting that some political differences may, at least in part, be hard-wired.

David Amodio, Assistant Professor of Psychology, New York University, is a self-described social neuroscientist. Using methodologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging in combination with behavioral measures he examines the interactions of the brain with its social environment.

Intrigued by previous studies showing strong links between political persuasion and certain personality traits as well as the fact that such affinities between political views and “cognitive style” can be heritable, Dr. Amodio brought together 43 test subjects.

Using electroencephalographs, which measure neuronal impulses, the researchers examined activity in a part of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex — that is strongly linked with the self-regulatory process of conflict monitoring.

The match-up was unmistakable: respondents who had described themselves as liberals showed “significantly greater conflict-related neural activity” when the hypothetical situation called for an unscheduled break in routine.

Conservatives, however, were less flexible, refusing to deviate from old habits “despite signals that this … should be changed.”

As to implications, Dr. Amodio stated, “The neural mechanisms for conflict monitoring are formed early in childhood,” and are probably rooted in part in our genetic heritage. But even if genes may provide a blueprint for more liberal or conservative orientations, they are shaped substantially by one’s environment over the course of development.”

Which leaves the question of “nature or nurture” still unanswered – at least for the moment.

But it does provide interesting thought for coaching. As we consider our political views and actions we do well to remember that our first and most powerful responses tend to be emotion-based. And so we learn to factor in emotional bias. This study suggests that we factor in as well the idea that political leaning and cognitive style may have some degree of hard-wiring involved.

So what?

Since perceived threat, one of the fundamentals behind conflict-monitoring, drives certain predictable behavioral responses, we know in advance that to have any sort of constructive dialog across such divides we need to alleviate the threat. Issues aside, the threats for conservatives and liberals are processed differently according to this study.  Recognition of that fact can let us make allowances for differences in thinking styles rather than attributing differences to intent.  And that at least adds another tool for building an agreed-upon arena for dialog if nothing else.

Link: Homo politicus: brain function of liberals, conservatives differs

The Political Brain

One current discussion involving the brain’s emotional bias is to be found in and circulating around Drew Westen’s recent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Whatever one’s political persuasion, the book suggests among other things that emotion trumps reason when it comes to choosing political candidates.

Westen’s book is based upon studies done at Emory University.

The study has potentially wide implications, from politics to business, and demonstrates that emotional bias can play a strong role in decision-making, Westen says. “Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts,’ ” Westen says.

The mechanism can be seen as an illustration of confirmation bias, the seeking of information that supports existing beliefs while ignoring or discounting contradictory evidence.

What can be done? Factoring in awareness of emotional bias is a start. A process of positive skepticism, as suggested by Michael Shermer (publisher of The Skeptic, no less), might be a useful methodology. And there are many others.

What remains foundational, whatever our arena of decision-making, is the strength of emotional bias within our mental processes and the need to manage it well.

The Great Dualism

We’re not talking here about THE great dualism (being and non-being), but about the great dualistic argument between thinking and emotion that is always going on in our heads. The argument goes back and forth thusly – I think this, but I feel that. This battle between thought and emotion remains one of the great management issues in our personal lives – and in the work of coaches.

The problem is that emotion has such a primacy in our hardwiring that we must often take great pains just to bring our more “rational” side to the table as it were. I have flashes of emotion that can instantly bring my whole body into sync with an emotional state. I have yet to have a flash of cognition that does the same.

This is important because I need to recognize my filters if I want to change something in my thinking or my actions. In terms of the Ladder of Inference the battle looks something like this:

  1. Something happens in the Real World.
  2. I select “data” from that event. The great dualism begins for me at the conscious level here, even though a great deal of processing has already been going on “beneath” my consciousness. The great battle begins over what I think about the event – and how I feel about the event. I select data, typically from both camps.
  3. I add meaning to this event from my culture and my personality. The great battle rages between intellectual meaning and emotional meaning. Emotional meaning carries more force unless I aggressively manage it.
  4. I now make some assumptions from this meaning that I’ve added. The great battle continues. I make immediate assumptions based on my visceral feelings. I make what I hope are fairly objective assumptions based on reason.
  5. I draw some conclusions. I hope I’m being fairly logical. I also hope I’m in touch with how I feel and why.
  6. From these conclusions I adopt some beliefs. I think this, therefore I believe that. I feel this, therefore I believe something else.
  7. I finally take actions based on these beliefs. Either passionately, coldly and rationally, or some combination of both.

That’s a pretty quick and basic thumbnail view. And of course, we’re not even addressing drives and gene expression and the other basic parts of Ted that influence our behaviors.

The point to keep in mind, both about ourselves and others, is that this great dualistic battle is always raging, and that it takes a bit of effort to keep one side from dominating the other. That’s why we have family and friends. That’s why there are coaches.

Emotional Bias and Mental Models

Our attention tends to be biased towards emotion. We will tend to pay attention to information that is conveyed with emotion more quickly and more often than we will pay attention to the same information delivered in neutral tones. This is a simple matter of brain hardwiring.This is partially why we find it so hard to do something that we know that we “should” if we don’t feel strongly about it.  We’re wired to pay attention to emotion first.

The first step we take in building a viewpoint about any information is to select that information from the world around us. What is significant from a coaching standpoint is that we will tend to pay attention to information with emotional significance first. Which can mean that our perceptions about any particular event are more likely to be charged with some degree of emotion. We will have an opinion, a feeling, a reaction. Ever notice how difficult it is to think objectively and dispassionately about something? It often takes an active effort on our part.

This just means that within a coaching situation it is important to keep this emotional bias in mind as we explore the worldviews involved. It may or may not have significance in any given situation . . . but it will be there. And our understanding of that fact can help us as we address inconsistencies or other self-defeating processes within a particular viewpoint.  Replacement behaviors, strategies, and so forth are most likely to get attention if they have emotional content that is at least as strong as that which they’re attempting to replace.