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.
Hate surprises or love them? Our brains handle surprises and attraction and aversion (valence in techno speak) in different ways. The amygdala processes emotional responses and a new study indicates that two distinctly differing sets of neurons within it respond to either reward or aversion. And not only that, but that the expectation of reward or aversion also triggers these networks of neurons. The speculation is that the intensity of reward and aversion effect is intensified by surprise and that neural circuitry is required to process both surprise and the degree of attraction or aversion that an individual feels towards specific events.
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:
- Something happens in the Real World.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I draw some conclusions. I hope I’m being fairly logical. I also hope I’m in touch with how I feel and why.
- From these conclusions I adopt some beliefs. I think this, therefore I believe that. I feel this, therefore I believe something else.
- 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.
Maslow’s Well-Known Hierarchy of Needs
The title says it in a nutshell. The third primary division in our brain processes, at least in the model that I use, has to do with drives. When you’re hungry – it’s hard to think about anything else. As is the case with thirst, or sex, or any of the other fundamental drives that determine significant aspects of who we are. Literally, we can be driven to distraction.
It’s a similar situation with less physical drives. Security. Intimacy. Self-fulfillment. And a whole number of others. Opinions differ as to what constitutes a drive. Or even what “drives the drive” if you will. But unmet drives and associated needs have a significant impact on our behavior. And on our worldviews.
Three buckets if we must – thoughts, emotions and drives. Together they define a fair portion (though not all) of who we are. Individually – and collectively. Think of these three buckets as Ted, or everyman. Ted thinks about where he (or she as the case may be) wants to go in life. He has goals. He wants to get along with others. But he keeps doing things that unravel everything he wants. Shooting himself in the foot as the old saying goes. Sometimes wrong thinking does him in. Sometimes it’s his emotions . . . and other times it’s a need. Sound familiar? Yeah, we’ve all been Ted.