Category Archives: Mental Models

The Eyes have it

A bad pun indeed, but how do I know where I am? I wake up every morning and look around. I look down and see my arm – I see “me.” I have yet to wake up and find myself somewhere else in the room looking at my body lying on the bed. This fundamental question about the relationship between human consciousness and the physical body has long been the topic of discussion in philosophy, theology, psychology and the popular press, but has been rarely seen within controlled clinical settings with healthy subjects.

Dr. Henrik Ehrsson, University College London Institute of Neurology, devised a recent experimental method that allowed him to induce an out-of-body experience in healthy people under controlled conditions. By setting up separate video displays that feed live images of participants’ backs into each eye he provided the subjects a viewpoint in which they perceived that they were sitting behind their own bodies. Using two plastic rods to simultaneously touch points on both their real bodies and where the perceived bodies were located he was able to induce the test subjects to feel that they were indeed sitting behind their bodies and watching the action.

“This experiment suggests that the first-person visual perspective is critically important for the in-body experience. In other words, we feel that our self is located where the eyes are,” Ehrsson said.

The eyes’ perception “trumped” the actual feel of the plastic rod on the participant’s skin.

To try a simpler version of this yourself:

For a quicker, less powerful jaunt outside your bodily confines, try the double-mirror trick: Position two mirrors facing each other and then lean toward one so that two thirds of your face is reflected in it. Scratch your cheek and stare deep into the hall of mirrors you have created, past your original reflection, past the image of your back, and settle on the third reflection—your own face but slightly obscured. Within seconds, you won’t recognize that reflection as you, says neuroscientist Eric Altschuler of the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, who reported the phenomenon in the April issue of Perception.

Links: Scientific American

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.

Attention is Biased towards Emotion

Events filled with emotion are more likely to capture our attention. The media has known this for a long time of course. And we know that we pay more attention when spouses finally become angry and yell after we’ve found ourselves only half listening to what they say.

We are not passive observers of the world. To some degree we choose what we see (or our brains do it for us), and then we give it significance according to the well-known “ladder of perception” model. We’ve all experienced the heightened awareness that we have of an event when we feel truly emotional about it.

Neuroscientists can now suggest that emotional significance does indeed influence our perceptions – and that the amygdala is the portion of the brain that is responsible. Researchers at Yale and New York University have shown that the amygdala “alters the ease by which events with increased emotional value reach awareness.”

These findings suggest that our perceptual systems are exquisitely tuned to the occurrence of emotionally significant stimulus events, requiring much less attention or effort to reach conscious awareness compared to events of neutral value.

In other words, out attention is biased to pay more attention when emotion is involved. Motivational speakers know it. Preachers know it. Good teachers know it. Coaches need to know it as well. A little bit of passion can go a long way.

I have long remembered something that was said to me some years ago in the midst of an emotional turmoil at the time – “People will forget what you say to them. They will never forget how you make them feel.” I’ve found that to be true over the years.

Link: EurekAlert

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Friday the Thirteenth

20438510.jpgI’m not particularly superstitious, so this day doesn’t cause me undue angst. Nevertheless, I still find myself thinking about it due to the general chatter in the media, at the office water cooler, and so forth. And despite my disbelief, it’s still hard not to think about it, at least momentarily, if something goes wrong. I find that I have to mentally reaffirm that I think it’s just coincidental. That’s my personal mental model.

Now, a University of Oregon study indicates that people on average can retain only four items in active memory at once. Whatever the number, the clarity with which items can be remembered varies from person to person. And even the people who can remember more items do not necessarily remember them more precisely.

Now I have a new reason to forget about this day. If I have to remember that it’s Friday the thirteenth does it follow that I can only keep three other items in my memory? Being that’s it’s hard enough to remember things as it is, this adds fuel to my mental-model fire if you will.

For more on this memory study (without the thirteenth hoopla), check out this link.

Paying Taxes Makes me Feel Good?

Under certain circumstances . . . yes. At least according to a recent study by three University of Oregon researchers. In situations where taxes went to help a charitable cause the same pleasure centers in the brain were activated as when eating chocolate or some other favored pleasure.

“The surprising element for us was that in a situation in which your money is simply given to others – where you do not have a free choice – you still get reward-center activity,” said Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology. “I don’t think that most economists would have suspected that. It reinforces the idea that there is true altruism – where it’s all about how well the common good is doing. I’ve heard people claim that they don’t mind paying taxes, if it’s for a good cause – and here we showed that you can actually see this going on inside the brain, and even measure it.”

What might this mean for our old friend Ted? His threat level is down because he’s not afraid of being penalized for failure to pay his taxes. And emotionally he’s feeling pretty good as his reward-centers give him good feelings. As to his thoughts, well the idea of giving to a charity, even involuntarily, resonates with his personal ideas about what it means to do “good.” All three of his systems are pretty congruent and Ted’s at peace with the world for the moment . . . whatever his personal feelings on the how, what or when of it all.

There are of course other factors besides reward that play into altruism. A recent Duke University study suggests that worldview might be more significant than individual action in fostering altruistic behavior. (Activation of Brain Region Predicts Altruism). And there are many other points in the continuing research and discussion.

Interesting implications for coaching situations would seem to revolve around motivation and self-interest. To highly altruistic individuals, appeal to the common good could prove a sufficiently motivating force. To the less altruistic, the University of Oregon study suggests that encouragement in terms of personal reward might be a pragmatic motivational tool.

In any case, it seems that an appeal to altruistic behavior through the “it will make you feel good” rationale may have some actual physiological validity.

Link: http://Paying Taxes, According to the Brain, can bring Satisfaction

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Yawning your Way to Alertness

Psychologists Andrew Gallup and Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany suggest that yawning boosts blood flow to the brain and enhances alertness by cooling it down. And “catching a yawn” in a group setting may actually serve to collectively enhance group attentiveness as it passes from one person to another. It may well be physiologically true. But the next time you’re coaching along and your coachee begins yawning . . . he may maintain that he’s only trying to be more attentive (rather than finding you boring). Yeah, right – and how’s that for a difference in mental models?


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The Brain, Trust and Free Markets

Paul Zak, Director of Claremont Graduate University’s Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, has been awarded a $1.5 million grant to study what happens in the brain when people experience feelings of generosity and compassion. The purpose of the research is to explain the mechanisms of the brain at work during normal economic behavior. Zak will be testing the hypothesis that the actual engine driving the free-market economy is good behavior and trust rather than self-interest alone.

He will be building on earlier work in which he determined that an accurate barometer of the economic health of a nation is the level of trust in the country between people, especially strangers. Countries with higher levels of trust do better economically than countries with low levels.


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