Category Archives: Thought Management

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

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.

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 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

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.

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.