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.

Music on our Minds

We like music. It provides enjoyment. It also apparently offers insight into how our brains dynamically process incoming information per a recent Stanford study.

The research team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory. Peak brain activity occurred during a short period of silence between musical movements—when seemingly nothing was happening.

It is this predictive process that is one of the items of interest. With music the when of something is typically known because of underlying beat patterns, but the what aspect remains unknown. Surprises in what is expected trigger partitioning processes within the brain that may offer further insight into processes involved in focusing our attentions.

For thought – how might this information play into coaching situations?

Link: Music moves brain to pay attention, Stanford study finds

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.

Practice Giving for your Health and Peace of Mind

“Giving is the most potent force on the planet … and will protect you your whole life,” says Steven Post, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and head of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL). Far from being a metaphysical think tank, the Institute sponsors multidisciplinary research studies that are part of a growing paradigm-shift among scientists beginning to contextualize health within a broader framework.

IRUL research is part of a significant shift under way within key scientific disciplines from focusing just on the deficit or disease model of human nature to studying the positive, virtuous, and thriving aspects. In the process, the research is broadening the understanding of what contributes to health and longevity.

“For a long time, medicine was boxed into a biomedical model … but there’s a need for a broader view,” says Doug Oman, of the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “There’s an ongoing, probably long process of trying to conceptualize … influences on health that take into account classical virtues and spirituality…. Compassion and altruism are key topics for expanding that understanding.”

So says a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor.

Over 50 multidisciplinary studies of altruism have been sponsored by the Institute. And their work builds upon at least a decade of over 500 such studies by other organizations.

Post emphasizes that the empirical evidence demonstrates that it is the feelings behind the acts rather than the mere activities themselves that benefit participants. (See also Paying Taxes makes me Feel Good?) Giving promotes beneficial neurological processes that are a natural part of healthy brain activity. And apparently, it may also play a natural part in our overall health and well-being.

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Seeing a Memory Form

What memories are made of, at least at the cellular level, has been visualized for the first time by a team of scientists at the University of California at Irvine. Changes in the size and shape of synapses, the connections between neurons, store our memories. This both verifies recent thinking and opens the way to map the storage of memory across the entire brain.  The research has important implications for the management of memory-related disease and other disorders.

Link: University of California, Irvine

How about Self-Coaching?

Maybe you’re the type of person who likes to do things on their own. Or perhaps you don’t want to try and weed through the numbers and styles of the already 50,000+ (and growing) life coaches currently practicing.

A new book, Every Day Matters: How You Can Improve Your Life in 7 Weeks or Less, offers readers practical advice based on time-tested research and insights drawn from Dr. Agata Dulnik’s own coaching experience. “This is not a book about commiserating. This is a book about providing solutions by offering a uniquely simple-to-follow process that is quick to learn and incorporate into every day life,” she says.

Self-coaching isn’t necessarily for everyone. But even if you pick up just a tip or two it might be well worth a read.

Link: Every Day Matters

Life Coaching for Boomers

A new life coaching and planning website, www.myplanafter50.com, is aimed directly at the boomer generation, a segment typically under served in the online social networking world. The site serves as both portal and online community and has already registered over 500 users. With forums, articles, online coaching, e-learning, a My Plan after 50 workbook and other resources, the site seeks to provide “all you’ll need for planning a vibrant life after 50.”

If I Trust you I may Feel Better

Research from the University of Michigan Health System suggests that individuals who respond to placebos have significantly more dopamine activity in a specific portion of their brains than those who do not. The dopamine activity seems to be proportional to the amount of benefit that the individual anticipates.

This anticipatory aspect is interesting from a coaching perspective. Anticipation of a benefit is based upon trust in the source, which in coaching is based upon relationship. In a coaching relationship the trust factor has significant influence on whether an individual will consider the coach’s advice. In a good relationship he or she will be open to trying the coaching suggestions, even if they seem counter-intuitive to what the individual thinks or feels. This study suggests that in a good coaching relationship, the expectation of a benefit (say, for instance, relief from being ignored due to poor social skills) may cause the release of dopamine and make the coaching recipient feel better as they go about the process of following the advice. And this increases its chances of success.

Link: ScienceDaily

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See also: The Brain, Trust and Free Markets 

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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