To philosophy and back again

1 cubic mm of brain tissue has tens of thousands of neurons, a billion connectivity sites and 4km of connections (Churchland, 2013). Wow, I still struggle to comprehend that even though I’ve been reading about it for over 4 years now. I think struggling to comprehend the scale of what the brain truly is just from that perspective is partly why we view it as magical, but simplicity at that scale could create the complex behaviours that are us. When it comes down to that level, computers are pretty simple although that simplicity is exquisitely woven together and the end result is pretty impressive.

I’ve enjoyed reading Patricia Churchland’s book “Touching a nerve”. As she is a neurophilosopher it has some interesting discussions which intrigue me. She bravely tackles the conversation about the soul whilst illustrating her points with related information about what the brain actually has to do to get us to behave as coherent human beings. I like how she concludes the soul chapter with “brain science seems to have the leg up on soul science” which cleverly allows for the possibility that soul science may catch-up at some stage. She also covers morality, aggression & sex and warring tendencies with some interesting diversions and thoughts. I agree with her thought that if a criminal pleads that his brain did it and he wasn’t in control, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be locked up for everyone’s safety. In fact, I felt that that type of argument would make it worse for the criminal as he’s effectively saying “I can’t control this problem I have within me”. Currently, with little chance of changing these brain issues, then surely the criminal is effectively saying, I should be locked up. Strange how we’ve taken “It wasn’t me. It was my brain” to imply that the person should be set free regardless of what harm they may cause to others.

However, I found the chapter on consciousness a little unsatisfactory as I felt she didn’t distinguish that well between being conscious and knowing you are conscious. Someone put it as ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing you know’. Which without language are pretty hard to research. She did talk about being conscious through images rather than auditory (that voice in your head). I gave it a go but unfortunately, I needed the voice, like a narration about the images. Although a colleague gave a different perspective on that today. She said that at times she had a feeling about someone that, say, she didn’t trust. We then debated whether she needed to name the feeling with language and what it meant, or whether it remained just a known feeling.

Also, if you can ‘know you know’ without language then it makes me wonder whether an animal knows there is a tomorrow or that it’s going to die? Perhaps that’s too far but do they know another animal in their group has just died, which doesn’t require a sense of time. It’s an intriguing puzzle to ponder on: whether different animals have various greater or lesser forms of being conscious depending on how much ‘processing ability’ and ‘storage’ they have.

Just attempting to think about what that would be like was difficult. I can do ‘just being’, where I am just getting on with stuff and time seems to not be on my mind – I am just doing, absorbed. But having a lesser form of ‘knowing I know’ was hard to compute. For a seemingly objective subject neuroscience certainly wanders into the subjective.

On another note, I am developing my presentation at the UWTSD Coaching conference in November: What angle am I going to take from my research? My supervisor suggested that people would probably like to understand, as a coach how am I using the neuroscience knowledge that I am learning? Good question, very good question. The essence of the question is “well it’s great that you know a lot about the brain, but how does that help your coachees?”

Anyway, fear and determination made me really think about pulling something together and a new coachee provided just the catalyst I needed. This coachee is successful and a cautious decision-maker; they like enough information and time to reflect. When they think about having to make a decision faster than they would like and with less facts, then they feel anxious. Perfect.

So, once we’d explored the situation and set the outcomes etc, I sat down and proffered that I believed it would be useful to know what we might be up against – how they might be self-hindering and thwart their own progress. I’d thought beforehand about doing this and decided to only explain as little as I needed to. I’ve never believed in needing to use lots of big neuroscience words when ‘a part of the brain’ will suffice. Also, I decided to start by asking them if they’d really thought about how the surge of anxiety was actually generated and why? It seemed a good way to raise their awareness to needing to understand this a bit more with respect to their coaching goals.

We discussed neural pathways being shaped by experience and the need to navigate life when younger; how strong emotions from years back are triggered in current situations; how those neurochemicals affect threat level and cognitive ability. To understand the seemingly conflicting dynamic that a surge of anxiety may not be appropriate for the current situation, but it will drive your actions unless you can start to erode into that emotional response. It allowed us to explored quite targeted actions for reducing anxiety and therefore have a chance of experimenting with faster, less-informed decision-making.

I also felt that they then knew what I knew; that we both understand the task ahead and what may hinder its progress. Also, as it was more factual, it didn’t feel at all like a therapy session or became uncomfortable: It was insightful for them.

Hope or Hype – what a difference a letter can make

Recently a colleague introduced me to the work of Sarah McKay, a neuroscientist in Australia who has decided to use her knowledge for practical application rather than just research. Her focus is mainly around being healthy towards your neurobiology which I think is starting to become a big topic. If there’s one thing that all this focus on neuroscience seems to have done, it is to bring attention to the detrimental effects of some of our workplaces and working habits. Otherwise it is a hidden consequence that we may well realise when it’s too late.

Sarah has a wealth of useful and pragmatic articles and links as well as running a distance learning programme herself, which I was thinking of doing although I’m a bit tied up with work and DProf at the moment. I have found the articles to be balanced around hype and hope which is refreshing. I’m definitely more cautious on neuroplasticity conversations and it is interesting to ask people what they mean when they say ‘neuroplasticity’, as many aren’t sure.

On the other hand, I am getting much more comfortable with people’s diverse views/ opinions when they are quite sure they are right (and therefore you are not right). I’ve had to rewrite my Ontology/ Epistemology (what information is appropriate for this research) section in several versions requiring different word limits and I am really embracing Interpretivism, as every time I rewrite the section I think about it some more. (And I wish universities would consolidate their forms – is 500 vs 300 words really that big a deal for the form, as it really is for the writer especially when it’s already been cut from 1500.)

Somewhere along the rewrites and thinking about how much neuroscience really is an interpretation – an educated guess – at the moment, a shift happened. I’ve realised that many of the articles and neuroscience TEDTalk presenters I’ve allowed myself to interpret as being very certain and sure about what they are espousing. Although it’s easy for that to happen if you choose to leave out (given the time constraints or word limits) the aspects that are less certain or cast doubt. I’ve read enough material now which includes the left-out aspects to remain hopeful but not hyped and I believe overtime firmer ground will be established.

So overall, I am now much happier with someone’s opinion really being just an opinion no matter how it’s stated. It’s quite liberating and I can see the difference it makes as I am less phased by those conversations now – I am much less affected by their certainty in how right they are. In fact, I had one yesterday during a coaching session where I might have backed off but I waited calmly whilst the coachee finished and then just as calmly stated my thoughts. It was much easier to wait and listen knowing it was just a view, an interpretation and I didn’t need to rush with my version. Both views ‘sat on the table’ with equal weight and I could see the coachee reflecting on each and contrasting them both. I don’t think he was used to people giving unconditional opinions and it allowed us to have a more balanced conversation afterwards.

For my first Literature Review book, I have read “The Power of Habit” (Charles Duhigg) which is very readable and is quite different to Kotter’s 8 Steps of Change. He does occasionally mention parts of the brain but I wondered why he bothered. In the end I decided that it helped support his premises surrounding habits and habit change. He focuses on ‘Cue – Routine – Reward’ and has these thoughts on changing a habit:

  • It’s vital to find the Cue – and use it to trigger a different habit or to avoid it
  • Experiment to understand what the Reward actually is – going to buy a cookie could be for the sugar rush or a break from boredom or to chat to friends
  • Practice, practice, practice the new Routine – it won’t change otherwise as you’ve practised the old routine a lot (Do coachees try to cheat this step??)
  • Change the Reward in some way if required especially if it’s unhelpful
  • Plan upfront on how to handle when it gets difficult and what might make you give up on the new Routine (I think this could be so useful in the coaching I do)
  • Wrap something new in the familiar as we like familiar (Interesting thought for my coaching too)
  • Enlist support and involve others, as making it social helps
  • Recording what actually happens can in itself cause change to happen. Apparently, people who consistently over time record what they really eat, lose weight much faster. It seems that they can plan ahead so the changes have a better success rate

For organisational change it was interesting to read about how the strong and weak ties between people and groups can also enable change. Weak ties cause habits to spread to more groups easier. Strong ties make it more compelling for people to want to or to have to change. He uses different well-known cases studies to illustrate the point and I found those as fascinating as the point they were illuminating.

On a final note, (UWTSD) the Wales Institute for Work Based Learning (WIWBL) is delighted to announce its inaugural one-day Conference on Coaching and Mentoring in the Workplace: Linking performance with wellbeing. It will be an interesting day. Please take a look at it here.