Tag Archives: neuroscience

NeuroLeadership: Collaborating with Others

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Collaborating with and influencing others is the third skill set that the NeuroLeadership Institute has identified as being integral to effective and efficient leadership. Leaders must be able to collaborate with others as well as manage and influence others in order to make sure their businesses run smoothly. In a world of increasing interconnectedness and rapid change, there is a growing need to improve the way people work together.

Understanding the true drivers of human social behavior is thus becoming increasingly important. In an attempt to better understand these drives, social neuroscience explores the biological foundations of the way humans relate to each other and to themselves…”

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NeuroLeadership: Self-Regulation

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“The NeuroLeadership Institute has identified Self Regulation as one of the four facets of effective and efficient leadership. Leaders must be able to effectively regulate their own emotions and actions in order to make sure their businesses operate with intentional forethought instead of impulsive reaction. Life, and especially business, is full of things that stress us out. Whether it is our daily commute, airline travel, workplace conflicts, or disagreements with spouses, serious challenges to our emotional equilibrium are many and varied.

First, we’ll go over how emotions arise in the first place. We will then discuss the five different strategies that we can use to regulate our emotions. And, finally, what all this means in regards to your leadership skills and how you interact others in your daily life…”

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NeuroLeadership: Making Decisions

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Making Decisions has been identified by the NeuroLeadership Institute as one of the four facets of effective and efficient leadership. Leaders must be able to make sound and timely decisions to make sure their organizations run smoothly. To move us beyond previous prescriptive, anticipatory, and behavioral approaches, neuroscience researchers have expanded our understanding of good decision making by using novel neuroimaging experiments to examine the neural substrates of the human brain.

They assert that “a fundamental requirement for promoting sustainable and resilient leadership in organizations, governments, and society is self-awareness and self-control” (Kirk 2015). And, in their studies, they have demonstrated that mindfulness training is the key to changing decision-making parameters, influencing competing decision-making networks in the brain, and avoiding flawed decision making…”

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Why NeuroLeadership?

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“When I first meet people and tell them about what I do, the most common question is “What the **** is NeuroLeadership?” It’s definitely a field of study that has not yet entered the mainstream leadership vocabulary, even if they are already acquainted with prevailing research. As defined by the NeuroLeadership Institute, NeuroLeadership is “a specific new field dedicated and committed to exploring the processes in the brain that underlie or influence human decisions behaviors, and interactions in the workplace and beyond” (Ringleb and Rock 2008). Specifically, it explores the neural basis of leadership and management practices and how they intersect with social-cognitive neuroscience, neurobiology, and the social sciences.

Now, that’s a mouth full! In layman’s terms, we’re talking about how to “improve leadership effectiveness within institutions and organizations by developing a science for leadership and leadership development that directly takes into account physiology of the mind and the brain.” More and more, organizations have noticed an increased need for the efficient and effective development of leaders and of processes for continuous improvement in leadership quality…”

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Where Neuroscience Meets Leadership

I was originally introduced to the concept of NeuroLeadership via an article that my step-sister was reading for a work conference – SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others (NeuroLeadership Journal, 2008). I was intrigued, since I had been researching effective leadership methods for the company I was with at the time, and so I googled around to see if there were any books or materials on the subject. I found a sole Handbook of NeuroLeadership on eBay and jumped at the opportunity.

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I started reading it casually in my spare time but soon found myself completely immersed. The idea that we could bring the rigorous study of neuroscience to the realm of leadership and actually study how the brain functions when performing in leadership capacities was fascinating to me. Previously, the leadership models were primarily based on behavioral science. They would observe what people did in leadership roles and find trends across sample populations. They would then hazard educated guesses at cause and effect, presumably trying to predict how future actions would play out. It seemed to be a somewhat reliable method dependent on predictable probabilities, but it was an imperfect system that didn’t really get to the root of HOW these leadership trends were taking place.

I’ve always been interested in how humans interact with each other and themselves, and, since I was on a quest to find real answers and solutions for the organizational problems that my company was facing, it seemed like NeuroLeadership might be THE answer.

The researchers assert that the four tenets of NeuroLeadership are: Decision Making, Collaborating with Others, Self Regulation, and Facilitating Change. After years of analysis and study, the NeuroLeadership Institute has discovered that those four factors determine whether someone will make an effective leader or not: They must be able to make sound and timely decisions, they must be able to collaborate with others as well as manage others’ inter-collaboration, they must be able to effectively regulate their own emotions and actions, and they must be able to enact organization change in an efficient and non-threatening manner.

The researchers even went as far as studying the mechanisms within the brain that are vital to such processes and are in the process of determining ways in which people can strengthen and enhance their leadership skills by training their brain. Sound theory and action, all in one? Sign me up!

After I had read through as good portion of the 600-page Handbook, I decided to further my education and take advantage of the Foundations of NeuroLeadership Certificate course that the Institute offered online. The course confirmed my recent realization that, in the realm of business development, businesses can only develop as far as the individual people running the business were willing to develop themselves. They could try and enact external changes to the business – trying different processes, organizations, or procedures – but the changes would be slightly effective at best and downright destructive at worst.

This concept of personal development fascinated me since I had been on my own personal development journey for a while already and, to be honest, trying to excel in the world of small business development by trying to get unwilling colleagues to enact new changes to the way they did things was a frustrating endeavor. I was already reading all kinds of personal development books in my spare time so I started looking into how to make personal development into my career.

I had considered life coaching briefly when I had first shut down my store two years earlier, and here I was at a crossroads once again (probably more like a brick wall). But, now, I had the resources to do a certification so I did some soul-searching and mind-mapping. I realized that I had the perfect combination of experience, interest, and opportunity to finally launch into the career of a coach.

Now, as I move into expanding my coaching business, I am creating services for Wellness Coaching as well as NeuroLeadership Coaching because I want to create a coaching practice that incorporates neuroscience to maximize the potential benefits for the client. As always, I will try to keep you guys updated as I progress. Stay tuned!

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Well-Formulated Plans

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, I’ve been on one hell of a journey in the last two years. Shortly after my last post, I picked up a third part-time job to help make ends meet. I was working well over 40 hours a week and did not have the time and energy to keep you guys updated on my journey.

That said, I’ve had a wild ride! Post-2015, I wanted to put my health and happiness first by cleansing and purifying my life. I wanted to reduce my life down to the essentials in an effort to cultivate mindfulness, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency.

But you know how all well-formulated plans work out in the end… I thought the answer was to throw myself into anything and everything that came along. I thought the answer was to follow my immediate desires, I told myself that I would do what I want when I want how I want. As a result, I had six part-time jobs at one point in 2016 (only three of which were actually paying me anything substantial). On the plus side, I ended up losing a lot of weight but that was only because my income varied between $500-$1300 per month and I just couldn’t afford to feed myself. Whoops.

This clearly was not working out. I had to come up with a new plan, so I officially closed down my store at the end of 2016 and started to look for full-time positions. Luckily, I was able to negotiate a promotion with one of the companies that I was already working for and became their Business Development Director at the start of 2017.

This was it, I thought. This was The Job that I had been waiting for. They knew me, they liked me, they believed in my abilities, and, above all, I was finally going to get a proper living wage! They were excited for me to get to work and get their business organized, systematized, and self-sufficient. I dove into everything related to business management, I read books like:

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The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

An excellent book for managers of all types, Stanier gives concrete steps on how to connect with your staff members in a way that focuses their efforts, saves time, and develops their potential. Highly recommend.

 

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One Minute Manager Series by Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

Another excellent book for managers, Blanchard & Johnson provide three very simple, easy-to-follow steps to give both negative and positive feedback to staff members. Highly recommend.

 

After studying business management for a while, I started to notice this trend of connecting with staff members in a way that was not really taught in business school. These connections were forged using honesty and integrity in a direct and compassionate way. Successful business leaders were coming out and saying that, yes, interpersonal skills actually matter. Pushing ahead through sheer force of will and ambition was no longer seen as effective, and, in fact, could be downright destructive to a business’s success.

This idea (and the issues that I was seeing in my own job when it came to people management) pushed me to start looking a little deeper. It seemed like, at the end of the day, an organization could only grow so far as its staff members’ willingness to self-improve. Basic business skills could be taught, but there would be no growth beyond the fundamentals unless the staff members were willing to see room for further improvement within themselves. If you’re trying to get new results, you have to try new things.

I have to admit, I was absolutely enraptured by this concept. Since I was on my own Transformative Journey, I immediately saw the potential benefits in this type of approach. But, first, I had to convince everyone else of its merits, so I picked up books like:

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An Everyone Culture
by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

A great examination of how to build successful businesses by investing in your employees. The whole concept of “An Everyone Culture” revolves around how to make growth mindsets not only encouraged at work, but a required part of day-to-day routines. How can leadership embolden and drive employees to constantly and consistently self-improve and push their personal boundaries? Highly recommend.

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Radical Candor
 by Kim Scott

Scott is a genius. She somehow manages to boil down the idea of driving employees to embrace growth mindsets to the simplest formula: care personally but challenge directly. She provides salient examples of what goes wrong with Ruinous Empathy, Manipulative Insincerity, and Obnoxious Aggression in the workplace while simultaneously displaying the merits of using Radical Candor instead. Highly recommend.

I spent a lot of time trying to translate these concepts to the people I was working with, but had limited success. Then, out of the blue, the universe blessed me with a little nugget of gold via my step-sister’s Instagram. She posted a picture of an article that she was reading as part of a work conference. I don’t remember which article it was in particular, but it was published by this organization called the NeuroLeadership Institute.

The NeuroLeadership Institute? You mean, they combined leadership theory with neuroscience? Like, they can actually see how the brain functions in leadership scenarios? I just HAD to look into this, so I googled it up and found a sole Handbook of NeuroLeadership available on eBay. Sold!

I was instantly hooked and, a couple weeks later, I found myself reading the 600 page tomb of research articles for fun! (I mean, really, who does that?) But I found article after article absolutely fascinating, from how insight happens and the neural substrates of decision making to the neuroscience of mindfulness and applying empathy and mirror neuron concepts to neuroleadership.

When I discovered that the NeuroLeadership Institute offered online certificate courses, I knew I had to enroll. But that’s a story for another time! I will cover how the NeuroLeadership Certificate course changed my life in my next blog post. Until then, love, peace, and clarity to you all!

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Rethinking the Placebo Effect: How Our Minds Actually Affect Our Bodies

 

“In 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a mind-bending debate on the nature of “nothing” – an inquiry that has occupied thinkers since the dawn of recorded thought and permeates everything from Hamlet’s iconic question to the boldest frontiers of quantum physics. That’s precisely what New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb explores with a kaleidoscopic lens in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion(public library) – a terrific collection of essays and articles exploring everything from vacuum to the birth and death of the universe to how the concept of zero gained wide acceptance in the 17th century after being shunned as a dangerous innovation for 400 years. As Webb elegantly puts it, “nothing becomes a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and even what it is to be human. It reveals past attitudes and present thinking.”

Among the most intensely interesting pieces in the collection is one by science journalist Jo Marchant, who penned the fascinating story of the world’s oldest analog computer. Titled “Heal Thyself,” the piece explores how the way we think about medical treatments shapes their very real, very physical effects on our bodies – an almost Gandhi-like proposition, except rooted in science rather than philosophy. Specifically, Marchant brings to light a striking new dimension of the placebo effect that runs counter to how the phenomenon has been conventionally explained. She writes:

It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself – rather than a particular drug – might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.

She cites a recent study at the Harvard Medical School, in which people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and informed that the pills were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.” As Marchant notes, this is absolutely true, in a meta kind of way. What the researchers found was startling in its implications for medicine, philosophy, and spirituality – despite being aware they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average. In other words, they knew what they were taking wasn’t a drug – it was a medical “nothing” – but the very consciousness of taking something made them experience fewer symptoms.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

This dovetails into recent research confirming what Helen Keller fervently believed by putting some serious science behind the value of optimism. Marchant sums up the findings:

Realism can be bad for your health. Optimists recover better from medical procedures such as coronary bypass surgery, have healthier immune systems and live longer, both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.

It is well accepted that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. Stress – the belief that we are at risk – triggers physiological pathways such as the “fight-or-flight” response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. These have evolved to protect us from danger, but if switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

What researchers are now realizing is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have a positive effect too – feeling safe and secure, or believing things will turn out fine, seems to help the body maintain and repair itself… Optimism seems to reduce stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It may also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter governs what’s called the “rest-and-digest” response – the opposite of fight-or-flight.

Just as helpful as taking a rosy view of the future is having a rosy view of yourself. High “self-enhancers” – people who see themselves in a more positive light than others see them – have lower cardiovascular responses to stress and recover faster, as well as lower baseline cortisol levels.

Marchant notes that it’s as beneficial to amplify the world’s perceived positivity as it is to amplify our own – something known as our “self-enhancement bias,” a type of self-delusion that helps keep us sane. But the same applies to our attitudes toward others as well – they too can impact our physical health. She cites University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who has dedicated his career to studying how social isolation affects individuals. Though solitude might be essential for great writing, being alone a special form of art, and single living the defining modality of our time, loneliness is a different thing altogether – a thing Cacioppo found to be toxic:

Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, depression and death, whereas people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and respond better to vaccines. The effect is so strong that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

Marchant quotes another researcher, Charles Raison at Atlanta’s Emory University, who studies mind–body interactions:

It’s probably the single most powerful behavioral finding in the world… People who have rich social lives and warm, open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.

Marchant points to specific research by Cacioppo, who found that “in lonely people, genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response were up-regulated, and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active, too.” Marchant explains the findings and the essential caveat to them:

[Cacioppo] suggests that our bodies may have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in wound healing and bacterial infection. An isolated person would be at greater risk of physical trauma, whereas being in a group might favor the immune responses necessary for fighting viruses, which spread easily between people in close contact.

Crucially, these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people think they are, rather than to the actual size of their social network. That also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, says Cacioppo, because being among hostile strangers can be just as dangerous as being alone. So ending loneliness is not about spending more time with people. Cacioppo thinks it is all about our attitude to others: lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and come to see others as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies … he found that tackling this attitude reduced loneliness more effectively than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.

Illustration by André François for Little Boy Brown, a lovely vintage ode to childhood and loneliness

Paradoxically, science suggests that one of the most important interventions to offer benefits that counter the ill effects of loneliness has to do with solitude – or, more precisely, regimented solitude in the form of meditation. Marchant notes that trials on the effects of meditation have been small – something I find troublesomely emblematic of the short-sightedness with which we approach mental health as we continue to prioritize the physical in both our clinical subsidies and our everyday lives (how many people have a workout routine compared to those with a meditation practice?); even within the study of mental health, the vast majority of medical research focuses on the effects of a physical substance – a drug of some sort – on the mind, with very little effort directed at understanding the effects of the mind on the physical body.

Still, the modest body of research on meditation is heartening. Marchant writes:

There is some evidence that meditation boosts the immune response in vaccine recipients and people with cancer, protects against a relapse in major depression, soothes skin conditions and even slows the progression of HIV. Meditation might even slow the aging process. Telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, get shorter every time a cell divides and so play a role in aging. Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues showed in 2011 that levels of an enzyme that builds up telomeres were higher in people who attended a three-month meditation retreat than in a control group.

As with social interaction, meditation probably works largely by influencing stress response pathways. People who meditate have lower cortisol levels, and one study showed they have changes in their amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.

If you’re intimidated by the time investment, take heart – fMRI studies show that as little as 11 hours of total training, or an hour every other day for three weeks, can produce structural changes in the brain. If you’re considering dipping your toes in the practice, I wholeheartedly recommend meditation teacher Tara Brach, who has changed my life.

But perhaps the most striking finding in exploring how our beliefs affect our bodies has to do with finding your purpose and, more than that, finding meaning in life. The most prominent studies in the field have defined purpose rather narrowly, as religious belief, but even so, the findings offer an undeniably intriguing signpost to further exploration. Marchant synthesizes the research, its criticism, and its broader implications:

In a study of 50 people with advanced lung cancer, those judged by their doctors to have high “spiritual faith” responded better to chemotherapy and survived longer. More than 40 percent were still alive after three years, compared with less than 10 percent of those judged to have little faith. Are your hackles rising? You’re not alone. Of all the research into the healing potential of thoughts and beliefs, studies into the effects of religion are the most controversial.

Critics of these studies … point out that many of them don’t adequately tease out other factors. For instance, religious people often have lower-risk lifestyles and churchgoers tend to enjoy strong social support, and seriously ill people are less likely to attend church.

[…]

Others think that what really matters is having a sense of purpose in life, whatever it might be. Having an idea of why you are here and what is important increases our sense of control over events, rendering them less stressful. In Saron’s three-month meditation study, the increase in levels of the enzyme that repairs telomeres correlated with an increased sense of control and an increased sense of purpose in life. In fact, Saron argues, this psychological shift may have been more important than the meditation itself. He points out that the participants were already keen meditators, so the study gave them the chance to spend three months doing something important to them. Spending more time doing what you love, whether it’s gardening or voluntary work, might have a similar effect on health. The big news from the study, Saron says, is “the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

Philosopher Daniel Dennett was right all along in asserting that the secret of happiness is to “find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Each of the essays in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion is nothing short of fascinating. Complement them with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the science of “something” and “nothing.”

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June 30, 2014 · 6:51 pm