“almost every”

“almost every” is a mathematical catch phrase to warn that even though something is 100% true, there are instances when it is false.

(Smith, L. 2007. Chaos – a very short introduction.) This is the first term in the glossary of that book and it made me laugh. The more I get into my DProf, the more my post-positive (objective) view is unravelling – is nothing what it pertains to be?

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Well 2018 ended on a high note. On the 21st December I found out that my Ethics Form had been approved. So, 15 months after leaving Middlesex Uni I am ready to get researching again. Although my research project overall and my understanding are in a much more robust position.

My literature review is now in full flow and I know this because I have stopped reading to understand what is being said. Instead I am reading to see if the book or article has something relevant for me. In this way I have ‘sped read’, or should I say, ‘skip read’, the latest Handbook of Coaching Psychology in three days. Not bad for 580 large pages. What was interesting is that when I went to have a look at the Handbook of Coaching, it had almost identical chapters. So, I thought I’d give that a miss.

Anyway, two chapters appeared to reference the coaching dynamic I am exploring: Ontological coaching and a coaching practice new to me – Compassion Focussed Coaching, which seems to have come from the work of Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focussed Therapy. He has a book called Mindful Compassion which although cheap is exceedingly thick. Richard Boyatisz also seems to have done a lot on Coaching with Compassion. In fact, he gave a lecture on it recently which you can view here. He has an ‘interesting’ style which he explains around the 33-minute point. Both he and Gilbert reference the workings of the brain and how early life, structures much of your brain (and who you are) without you realising. Also, they advocate how sharing information on the brain helps coachees realise that they are not entirely responsible for who they are and that change is possible, which echoes my coaching stance.

For the other approaches in the handbook, the general theme appears to be: that beliefs and experience shape our thoughts and behaviours; that having a good coaching relationship and method will allow obstacles to be explored and overcome; otherwise the coachee was not really ready for coaching or was not truly committed to the coaching goals. Sound advice for most coaching assignments.

l subsequently did a Google search on ‘neuroscience for coaching’, which was depressing. “Neuro-coaching” is definitely a buzz word and there are a lot of them. For most of them, when they describe why neuro-coaching is so different to coaching, I struggled to get it. One said it was different because it was working with the brain. Funnily enough I thought that’s what I’d been doing for the last 20 yrs: working on thoughts, habits and perceptions. It was cringing to read website after website.

Patricia Riddell’s well written and pragmatic chapter on ‘Neuroscience and Coaching’, in the Handbook of Coaching Psychology says a lot. Firstly, it is short. Secondly it mainly says that neuroscience is predominantly underpinning with facts how coaching works and also how a scientific explanation works better for some people so they engage more fully into the coaching. One example discussed is neuroplasticity and how it helps people have more confidence that change is possible. In a few pages she summed up nicely, I thought, the current status of neuroscience and coaching, as does this slightly longer article which mentions that direct neuroscience developed coaching interventions are some way off.

Getting back into the neuroscience reading, ‘Mysteries of the mind’ is a good little Scientific America ebook. It is a collection of quite readable papers on various topics such as ‘Uncanny Sight in the Blind’, ‘The For-Real Science of Brain Training’ and ‘Lab-Built Brains’. At only $5.99 I thought it was a good way to catch up on some recent neuroscience topics from 2017. Although I knew a lot of it, it was useful to keep up to date on the current situation and finding an easy way to do that can be difficult. But as Patricia Riddell says in her chapter, if you are using neuroscience information in some way then you need to stay credibly up to date and ensure that what you are reading is grounded in some reasonable facts.

With that thought, here is a 2018 article entitled: Birth of New Neurons in the Human Hippocampus Ends in Childhood

I’ve also bought ‘The science of thought’ ebook which looks interesting. Its first paper is about the 10 things you don’t know about yourself and I think that is useful to know as a coach, both because you are human and to help with the person you are coaching. I’ve decided I’m very keen on coaches understanding and thinking about the person opposite them. From my literature review much of what is written feels as if it’s about the coach, the mechanics of coaching and what a coach does or doesn’t “do” to a coachee. Although the coachee’s beliefs, values and interpretation of the world are mentioned, the dynamics going on within the person is less written about. I think that is why I found NLP interesting as it is the next level down without going into the word of psychology. ‘Personality Adaptations’ also help and have a good level of depth. Both these give another level of insight into what is causing the behaviour, belief and values a coach may be seeing in, or hearing from, the coachee.

Talking of knowing the other person, and ending on a humorous note (or not), check out this article: Worried You are Dating a Psychopath? Signs to Look for, According to Science

Best wishes for a prosperous 2019,

Deni

The Advent Calendar of Neuromyths and more

With work and the coaching-based literature review I have felt somewhat lacking in neuroscience, so to hold off the withdrawal symptoms I went to the British Neuroscience Association’s Christmas symposium on Neuromyths – and it was great. (Talking of withdrawal symptoms, I found this neat video showing how caffeine affects the brain.) The BNA presentations were short and engaging: Lots of laughs and serious messages. So, to be festive, I thought I’d do 24 ‘neuromyths and more’ from my notes:

Cordelia Fine:

  1. Male and female brain articles tend to focus on, and exaggerate, the small small differences between male and female brains. There was a realisation that researchers typically use the phrase ‘significant difference’ when referring to a difference between two very specific things which are often a very very small part of something larger. Therefore, the context is important and repeatedly gets forgotten. It’s a bit like thinking human beings have been around on earth for a very long time without putting that into the context of how long the earth has been around.
  2. Research shows that differences relating to male and female brains get published but the large amount of research showing how similar they are is published far less, as it doesn’t attract readers.
  3. Every so often differences reported in male /female brains can be quite variable depending on the situation. A lot of research does not check out the variations in different conditions to see how stable they really are or indeed, how often the difference occurs.

Emma Yhnell:

  1. Ask ‘so what?’ as many brain training games have no application beyond improving your ability at that game.
  2. It appears the jury is still out on brain training as the results are mixed and advertising can be misleading.
  3. Commonly brain training studies have small sample sizes and can be quite variable which is why we regularly see articles saying that it does and then that it doesn’t’ work.

Duncan Astle:

  1. It seems as if schools often use programmes which have little scientific basis and there are still a number of widely held neuromyths in education. For example, the Top 5 presented, were:
    1. We use only use 10% of our brains
    2. Short bursts of exercise connect the right & left brains
    3. Pressing parts of the body activates the brain
    4. Learning styles – that a preferred learning style (visual, auditory etc) improves learning even though research shows that it’s not true. People believe they learn better but when tested it makes no difference.
    5. Difference hemispheres have different learning preferences.
  2. Research into children with learning difficulties is hard as they have a lot of similarities and cross-over symptoms. Therefore, it is challenging to get a ‘clean group’.

Anne Cooke:

  1. Aristotle thought the brain was a cooling system and that there was no brain at the back of our heads.
  2. Neuroscience is ever-evolving therefore some discoveries become alternative hypotheses, some persist despite being incorrect and some become damaging neuromyths.

Christian Jarrett:

  1. Neuromyths are often appealing, open to interpretation and have a grain of truth. Go and look at what the grain of truth really was.
  2. The truth is often more complex than the over simplified facts reported.
  3. Everyone seems to be racing to apply neuroscience to everyday life when in many respects a lot of research is not ready for that.

Chris McManus:

  1. The left/ right brain is a neuromyth which has been exaggerated and added to across the years but it is an appealing and powerful metaphor often fuelled by its presentation of the two hemispheres. When you are shown models showing the left and right hemispheres ask yourself whether some of those aspects are actually scientifically measurable 😊
  2. Sometimes pictures are flipped to show people as left or right handed to back up the myth. A lot of creative people such as musicians and painters are said to be left-handed when in fact they are not: Beethoven and Bob Dylan appear to be two examples.
  3. Humans are quite different in having lateralised brains, as not many (if any) other animals do. It appears that the right hand became dominant when language happened. Most language centres, but not all, are in the left hemisphere. It seems that left-handedness appeared later.

Neuroskeptic:  

  1. An interesting presentation on the fact that most of today’s personality profiles come from the Four Humours as the characteristics often match the four personality quadrants. Today the four main neurotransmitters have become the modern-day Humours.

Helene Joffe:

  1. In a research study of 3630 articles it found that 44% were about brain optimisation and 40% were about pathology/ male-female/ criminal brains.
  2. University press departments were also cited as sometimes being part of the problem by including words/ phrases that weren’t in the research paper. So, there is a need for the Researchers to control their own press departments.
  3. As articles move away from the original source, they become more value-based.

My comment – it seems that there is a section of neuroscientists researching how neuromyths are created and propagate in the general population.

David Nutt:

  1. Gave a passionate presentation on anti-depressants which seem to suffer more than most from myths.
  2. A film called Magic Medicine has been made of his psychedelic drug trial which covers the journey three people embarked on to help alleviate their non-responsive depression.
  3. He felt that serotonin gives you resilience against daily life and its ups and downs.
  4. Research suggests, for people with depression, that their self-referential default mode network is in overdrive and focuses on negative aspects of the person. Which I think interprets to, they spend a lot of time ruminating on negative aspects of themselves.

The BNA have created an open-access publication called Neuroscience: Past – Present – Future which is full of different articles. And I found a wonderful booklet that shows you some really close-up views of neurons, etc which I thought you’d like.

Have a wonderful Christmas and my best wishes for 2019 being a prosperous year for you.

The ‘…isms’ of research

I’ve finally cracked Epistemology: Finding straightforward literature which resonated with me helped greatly. Epistemology is basically about what information you think is adequate and legitimate and I finally grasped that my own epistemological stance was blocking my way forward on this topic: I had been looking for an objective definition of each ‘…ism’ and I realised that this topic is actually quite subjective. Crotty says that there are numerous methods and methodologies and that terminology is inconsistently used and defined – what a light bulb moment. In essence the muddle is how it is and there is no one consistent definition for each “..ism” because it is being treated very subjectively – as long as you can state your case it seems to goes. For example, Constructionalism and Constructivism appear the same in some texts and different in others. Crotty’s Constructionalism overlaps Objectivism and Subjectivism, concluding things are a blend of fact and opinion.

Realising the muddle was ok and I didn’t have to look for a Holy Grail was a liberation: I just needed to pick the ones to underpin my research. So now instead of ending up confused and fraught (which you may be after having just read that section) I’m just going with Crotty’s Constructionalism, as having to choose between being totally Objective or Subjective hadn’t sat well with me so finding something that blends them was a relief. Also, if there’s one thing I understand about Neuroscience at the moment, it is that it’s full of interpretation and in many cases, it can only be constructed, although hopefully it’s doing that using objective research.

So, Epistemology worked on, now time for my Theoretical Perspective which drives your research methodology and is about how you look at the world and make sense of things. Again, it seemed that the main options were quite compartmentalised – now I know why interdisciplinary research is hard work. So, digging further I unearthed Critical Realism. One author has it at the ‘facts might be tainted by research bias’ end of Post-positivism and another author has it at the ‘some things are much more fact based’ end of Interpretivism – perfect. So, I am deciding it is where the two overlap as both definitions are similar: ‘Whilst science can attempt to describe the world factually, that within doing so the researcher brings their own biases and interpretations. Therefore, things can only be known within the bounds of probability.’ Worth keeping in mind when you are reading neuroscience articles.

Having started out by wondering ‘what is the value in doing all this epistemology stuff’, I have discovered that it has helped me become more realistic about the nature of the information I am gathering and creating. And being blocked by my own epistemological bias made me realise that even when you think you clock your own biases that all you actually do is uncover the next layer and there is another one below waiting for you to discover in the future. Tara Swart talking on ‘Neuroscience and Nationalism’ has hope that our ‘in/out group’ biases can be changed, although to date they have been useful for our survival so will changing that be useful or not to our future? Interestingly, I read in Cozolino’s latest book that oxytocin is positively corelated with in-group biases so I wonder how far you can stretch that ‘in-group’ definition.

I think a big part of a doctorate is about making you find your own solid ground and being congruent with your reasons for that. One of the outcomes from this is that I am finding I am much more comfortable with asking people what is behind the question they just asked before I answer it. That has been quite an eye opener as their answers are often different to what I had assumed. That has affected how I have answered the question and, in many cases, how congruent I have been in my answer.

As I have been writing this blog, it’s also made me ponder on some of the realities around coaching. One thought that came to mind was the comment about leaving our biases outside the coaching room. I think the reality is probably closer to, we can do that to some extent although we can only ever be biased. Given we have all had different experiences, and these affect our neural pathways, we can only see things through our own perspective. We can attempt to look at it through others’ eyes, but ultimately, we can never truly do that and being more honest about that could be in service of our coaching.

We also talk about helping clients ‘reach their full potential’ but I wonder who’s ‘full potential’ we are talking about or what we mean by that. I feel that many clients would be happy with just properly embedding the things they want to work on, to improve or deal with their situation. Maybe in many cases the role of coaching is about helping clients to navigate their life now, much of which they didn’t have to handle in their upbringing. Given that much of the brain development happens in our childhood, Cozolino suggests the role of a therapist is akin to that of a parent, in aiding the person to purposefully adapt their neural pathways and make changes. His is also the first book I have read where it seems that the neuroscience is going to be in service of the topic in a meaningful way.

In his video “Nothing magical about consciousness!” Stanislas Dehaene similarly talks about how non-conscious processing influences our actions. It is also a good demonstration of how the same words are used to mean different things: I wonder how many articles on consciousness are really on conscious access? I’m sure that’s nothing to do with gaining reading figures! He mentions how new technology has enhanced neuroscience research and this includes wearable brain scanners which could be a game changer.

The layer below the hype is worth getting to.

Not for bedtime reading

I’ve just read ‘Why we sleep’ by Matthew Walker. On the back cover it has the usual ‘OTT quotes to grab your attention’ although with this book I’ve had to retract somewhat on that comment. O’Connell (Guardian) says ‘it’s been an eye opener’ and now I am agreeing with him. McConnachie (Sunday Times) says ‘you’ll never think of your bedtime in the same way again’ and again for me, he’s right.

The book is an absorbing and sobering read.

It has a lovely balance between being readable and yet giving neuroscience or other hard-hitting facts. When I picked it up, I read 120 pages that day as it was fascinating. It was a little bit repetitious but methodically works it way through explaining various aspects and then various consequences. The underlying theme is that we are designed for a different way of life than we currently live and there are consequences to that.

My lasting thought is whether mobiles phones and tablets are the equivalent of 21st century cigarettes: Addictive and carcinogenic.

He talks about how sleep is one of the most stupid things nature could allow us to do as we are so vulnerable, especially when paralysed in REM sleep. Therefore, it must be incredibly valuable. However, he also talks about how with ‘earlier risers’ and ‘night owls’, a group of people can effectively spread who is awake across 20 hours thus only being totally vulnerable for 4 hrs. It also means that for us night owls, early mornings required for work and school are not that healthy. Interestingly, dolphins rest (sleep) each hemisphere of their brain separately so that one half is awake and keeps them alive – being totally asleep underwater isn’t a good option. The info on birds made me smile. For birds that roost together in a line, say on a telegraph wire, everyone gets a full sleep except the ones at each end. They need to keep their outer eye, and therefore opposite brain hemisphere, awake to watch out for predators. So, half way through the night they supposedly turn around by 180o so that they can rest the other half of their brain.

I hadn’t realised that sleep is driven by 3 facets: The circadian rhythm which is our 24hr 15min clock rises and falls twice a day which is why we have a lull around 3pm and 3am. Melatonin release is triggered as the light goes down and is the signal to the rest of the brain to shut down for sleep. Walker has a lot to say about the effects of being on electronic devices, LED lighting and general bright lighting and how much that delays this trigger happening. As the morning light rises the Melatonin concentration reduces and we wake up. So, if you are feeling groggy in the morning then bright light is useful but, in the evening, lower level or mood light is much better. This is one thing I have changed as a result of reading this book – I use lamps or use fewer lights and resist the urge to have brightly lit rooms. I also have the blue light filters on my electronic devices and being strict about switching the m off around 8pm. Even reading on a tablet will push out the melatonin effect verses reading a paper book.

The third item is a chemical called Adenosine which I hadn’t heard of before. Basically, Adenosine starts building up from the point you wake up. Its effect is to build up an ‘urge to sleep’. The longer you are awake the more pressure it puts on you to sleep which is why you start to feel tired after 16hrs awake. Then when you get 8hrs sleep the Adenosine is flushed out from the brain and you wake up refreshed. Any less sleep time and some of the Adenosine remains so that next day you have a higher starting level of it already and thus feel tired more quickly. There appears to be a lot of evidence for the effects of 6 or less hours sleep which he says is effectively self-euthanasia. (He’s very passionate about sleep.)

He covers how learning, memory and cogitative abilities are enhanced or impaired with sleep. This couples with the information in ‘Anxious’ as the proteins that build long-term memory need 4-6hrs to do so either through sleeping or through being more relaxed after learning something otherwise the process is interrupted. A thought for L&D people perhaps.

He quite graphically covers how lack of sleep kills you and a number of the various sleep conditions. Narcolepsy sounds terrible. One aspect is that the switch, which fully paralyses you during REM sleep (except your eyes), is faulty so that with any heightened emotion or startlement it flicks on and at that instance your body paralyses itself. Not a good outcome if you are up a ladder or swimming. Apparently, these people learn to nullify their emotions in order to reduce this happening.

He goes on to talk about how to get a decent night’s sleep (p291) and how to do that sensibly. I have to say having followed one or two relevant items for me, I am getting off to sleep much better these days and I am much more committed to doing that having read this book.

On a lighter note, a colleague sent me through this YouTube video, which covers everything you need to know about the brain and it is hilarious.

And on a final note, at Cambridge University’s 30th Neuroscience Day I attended earlier this month, there was a research poster talking about how their ‘findings show that recalling more specific positive memories has long-lasting effects on cortisol and mood’ (reducing and enhancing respectively). This gives me more conviction when advocating this type of exercise to coachees.

I am off now to set-up the login to my new University Moodle website – 6 months after leaving the other one! Puts swapping banks or internet providers into context.

AtTention!

I read an interesting book, “Consciousness and the Brain” by Dehaene. It’s been on my stack for months and as I started reading it I thought, ‘oh I should have read this months ago’. But I am realising I can think that about almost every book so I’m just glad that I have now read it. The book is about what he calls, Conscious Access – we become aware of something.

Here are some of the highlights from it:

  • The image at your eyes moves around a lot and all the blood vessels are in front of your rods and cones, so images are blurred, blotchy and moving, yet we don’t see any of that. It seems that this can be tracked through the lower visual processing areas. It is not until it gets to higher neural areas that it’s sorted out; therefore, we see a clear and stable picture of the world.
  • Even if we are not conscious of it (eg. Famous gorilla and basketball experiment) the input goes a long way up into our brain. So, at any moment our brain is processing a lot of information that we never get to be aware (conscious) of. And some of it affects or biases our thinking.
  • These inputs get weaker as they travel upwards but some trigger higher neural areas which then send a signal back down to the sensory input. From my understanding, this signal is checking out what it thinks could be happening. If the sensory input comes back as agreeing then the higher cortical area gets more excited. A reinforcing loop gets set up and gains strength.
  • About 300ms after the initial stimulus the excitation gets strong enough that suddenly the cortex ‘ignites’, as he puts it, into lots of activity. It’s quite sudden and extreme.
  • This activity is the higher cortex sharing that information all over itself with lots of long-range axons firing. This neural network sends signals back and forth in a way that creates an oscillation of electrical activity, in the Gamma band (33+ pulses per second), which can be monitored outside of the brain.
  • The other thing that happens is that the active neurons tightly shut down (inhibit) other neurons so that your attention becomes very focussed. New sensory input will find it hard to trigger another neural circuit into activity, as at this time the brain deems that information to be irrelevant. In fact, the wave of activity is a positive voltage at the top of the head not a negative wave because there is more inhibition activity going on than excitory.
  • It seems that when we get stressed, the neurochemicals that cause vigilance increase and therefore we are more vigilant. This means we respond to fainter stimuli – I think this shows up as people perceiving things as more threatening when they aren’t. (It could be that when we talk about how important relationship is in coaching, that what we are doing is reducing the amount of these neurochemicals being released.)
  • It appears that in babies the wave of ignition happens but at about 1 second – probably due to the lack of myelination at this age.
  • He talks about Schizophrenia and how a disruption in creating a connected, excited neural network could create similar symptoms. It seems the brain gets the bottom-up sensory information but the top-down check from the higher areas to the sensory areas is impaired. This is checking for “I think it is this, are you sensing that?”. If it gets a signal back which matches its expectation of what it thought then there is no mismatch between expected and sensory input and the brain is satisfied it ‘knows’ what’s going on. If this loop is disrupted then the neural circuit does not get closure so the person will be ‘left’ with a feeling that something isn’t quite right or is missing. As the brain doesn’t like discrepancies, it invents a story to make sense of it. Also, when we do something, that part of the brain alerts the sensory areas to expect it – that’s why we can’t tickle ourselves and when we hear ourselves echoed back in a phone call we get disorientated as we weren’t expecting that. Again, if this is impaired then the person would not always realise it was them doing it, hence the claim of ‘other voices in my head’.
  • The brain is in a constant state of flux so these ignitions are happening without external stimuli. In fact, he reckons that the brain creates more of these ignitions internally or randomly than are externally triggered.

Dehaene, and others, are doing some amazing work with Comma, Vegetative-state, minimally conscious and Locked-In Syndrome patients. They are developing a test for consciousness in these patients. It seems that they have detected consciousness in Vegetative state patients who months later regain a further level of consciousness. Also in one very special 2007 case, a neuroscientist triggered a patient’s Thalamus area (electrodes) which is heavily involved in the system that determines how awake or vigilant we are. They thought this overall system might have been stuck in the ‘not awake’ mode and they managed to ‘kick-start’ it so the patient went from minimally conscious to a more stable state of consciousness. There are also some specific drugs which can bring back conscious to patients at the time they have them which points to the fact that if the system is not damaged then there could be a point in the future when we can awaken these people.

As a final snippet. I read (3 hours) a lovely book called, “The Little book of big stuff about the brain”: It is an easy and informative read about learning and reward, plus a bit on consciousness, and how to make those work well. Another book that took my eye, is called “Predictably Irrational”: looks like a thought-provoking business book although I haven’t read it yet.

 

Have a wonderful Christmas and I wish everyone the very best for 2018.

Deni

My love-hate relationship

I think I am coming around to the realisation that a doctorate is a love-hate relationship. Something I enjoy and at the same time frustrates me as well. I can hit the depths of ‘what the hell have I been doing for the past 18 months’ and the highs of, ‘wow that’s a real insight that’s popped out of being made to think about this for 18 months’. So, I hate being held to account on a pin head and yet love the result that that gets from me. Although I am working on alleviating the frustration and having more of the love moments.

I am in the process of moving to a new university, UWTSD, and one which I wish I’d found at the start as they are more structured in their approach and I can relate to them and the way they think. Overall, I feel they care about me and I am not just a means to an end. However – big however, this does mean that I have to get my research approved all over again as their process doesn’t quite align to Middlesex’s. I thought it might be relatively straight forward but I am now understanding how open the Middlesex programme was and the consequences of that. I think it would have caught me out in the end so I am glad to have hit upon it now and I think the end result will be more robust and meaningful. At least I am not going round in circles, as it’s a spiral, so I’ve been here before but this time it has shifted me to a different level.

They are still in academia and can have interesting ways of putting things. So, when I got asked to ‘situate my research in relation to existing coaching practices’, I blew a slight gasket and had a teenage moment of asking if they could put it into plain English then I might be able to do that but currently I didn’t have a clue what that meant. It turned out they meant  is quite simple and I probably should have been better at answering it a long time ago but it seems to have fallen off my radar when it should have been centre stage! The question is “what is the specific situation in your coaching that you really want this research to actually help you with? How will the research outcome help with that and enhance your coaching?” (The pin head). I’d moved on from here a long time ago when it appears I am supposed to use this as my anchor point. At last the Research proposal and the Project proposal make sense as I wondered how they differed.

Three days later, two very late nights, ten pages of scribbled notes from various ah-ha moments during my waking hours (I carry it with me now). And I eventually crafted my response: In a nutshell, I have some coachees who logically get what actions they need to take to make the change they say they want to but actually do very little towards it – they are very hesitant about the changes to be made. If I could develop a model of what mechanism is acting to maintain the status quo then I would have a chance of helping those coachees make the changes and get to where they’d like to be. Then I realised that the coaching assignments where this happens are really pushing into territory coachee’s might view as changing ‘who they are’, the Self, rather than more congruent, although stretching, changes. Given ‘who we are’ has been designed to help us navigate life safely and securely I might be a bit hesitant about changing it as well.

Yesterday I decided to listening to the AC’s latest webinars and Aboodi talks about coachee’s being “attached to their structure of interpretation”. So now I am tuned to looking at my research from a different place I am suddenly noticing different things that are relevant – or maybe I’ve just stubbled across them – a theme in this level of research I feel.

I really hope synaptic plasticity is true because mine must have been working overtime this week – hopefully in all ways. Yes, I didn’t realise that it happens in so many ways. We rave a lot about this and yet it is happening all the time. By the time you’ve read this your brain has already changed – synapse by synapse. Maybe one less-used presynaptic terminal died as it doesn’t get enough nourishment. Some post-synaptic terminals will be stronger and more effective at firing which can happen in a number of ways:

  • The pre-synaptic terminal creates more neurotransmitter or it releases its neurotransmitter for longer.
  • The post-synaptic terminal:
    • The receptors on it move to the part of the membrane closest to the pre-synaptic terminal – they gather together.
    • Receptors become more sensitive to the neurotransmitter so it is more effective.
    • It creates more receptors and sends them to the membrane edge. Also, these are held firmer by the ‘scaffolding structures’ so they stay at the membrane edge for longer. Signals are sent to the neuron’s nuclei such that more receptors are made. Having ‘tagged’ which dendritic spine needs them, they travel back to it. Overtime, this can lead to the postsynaptic terminal dividing into two followed by the presynaptic terminal, thus creating two separate synapses.
    • Also, there are silent synapses which become active.

All of this creates ‘long term potentiation’ – enhanced effectiveness which lasts for a long time. It makes me think that practising is really important within coaching as it starts to create and embed some of these changes. Serotonin is mentioned a lot so I am beginning to think about how I can affect that. When we talk about how important the relationship is in coaching, I think that is because it tends to support serotonin release which appears to enhance learning and inhibit the amygdala – makes it feel safer.

Is reality just a hallucination we all agree on?

This was the essence of Anil Seth‘s TEDTalk (Sussex University); he’s researching consciousness. It’s worth watching as there are some demos which really hit home the point that we construct the world (reality) in our brains. The sound example gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘our interpretation of the world is reality’ or in NLP ‘the map is not the territory; respect others’ maps of the world’. Food for thought for my coaching, as is Damasio’s talk.

This awesome-ness of the brain has been reinforced with my latest reading. I decided I need to understand sentences like “We have used purified neuroendocrine dense-core vesicles and artificial membranes to reconstruct in vitro the serial events that mimic SNARE–dependent membrane docking and fusion during exocytosis” if I am going to read primary research papers. So I have two textbooks: Principles of Neurobiology and Foundations of Behavioral Neuroscience Although it means I am reading with a highlighter (to mark key themes), a pen (to write on the page what the big words mean so when I read it next time I’ll know what they are), my phone (to Google what the big words mean) and my Kindle (to take notes which I can store as Word documents). It doesn’t make reading easy and it is very slow as it hurts my brain reading this stuff. But I now have a routine which helps: a short break every 30 minutes and a one hour break every three hours. Currently with the first textbook, I’m 150 pages in on 600.

With some other articles though, I get frustrated that simple everyday words aren’t deemed good enough. Take the wonderfully simple word ‘large’. What’s wrong with that? Everyone gets it and I can easily read a passage with it in. But no, obviously it is not good enough for some people who need to use, or invent, the phrase ‘high-dimensional’. I was seriously tempted to work out how much extra paper and ink was wasted by using ‘high-dimensional’ rather than ‘large’ but pulled myself up as I thought I was probably getting a bit obsessed about it. But throughout the article I had to keep reminding myself that a ‘high-dimensional cavity’ was a ‘large hole’ and a high-dimensional clique’ was a ‘large cluster’ – give me strength, as if this wasn’t hard enough to understand. There could be a sequel to the book, “Why business people speak like idiots”.

And to make it worse, from reading the textbook, I feel as if I know very little and that I should have known this stuff ages ago. But in good coaching style, I’m reframing this to the fact that I am now ready to read this, and it is an exciting read. Exciting because I had not realised what went on inside a neuron. It’s a whole little world of its own.

(For the next bit, I just want to put in a disclaimer: I wanted to tell you a few awesome things about neurons and I have limited knowledge so the next section is to the best of my understanding using analogies. But it is written with my best intentions at heart as I was stunned at the complexity of a neuron and at the fragility of it as well.)

In very simple terms from what I understood (Chapters 1-3 of ‘Principles of Neurobiology’) – There are bits going in and out of the neuron cell’s nucleus. Some bits (cargos) are carried by proteins via ‘microtubules’ (tubes) along the axon or dendrite. At the ends, many thinner helix structures help distribute them to various points. Sounds a lot like a logistics set-up for many online shops! At the axon and dendrite ends a lot happens with one thing leading to another which leads to another. It reminded me of the game Mousetrap where you essentially build a ‘marble run’ composed of many different components: Once built and triggered, various parts flip, roll, spin or fall to trigger the next section and at the end a net falls down trapping the mouse. Well it sounds rather like that – a cell membrane receptor has a protein complex attached to it inside the cell. Outside a neurotransmitter, such as serotonin, attaches to the receptor which changes the protein complex. Part of the changed complex then affects an enzyme which releases a chemical messenger. This goes off to a store of Calcium inside the cell and opens a channel so the calcium comes out into the cell. The increase of calcium inside the cell does a lot of different things, one of which will be resetting the initial protein complex. So, a neuron has at its centre a factory which takes things in and makes new things to send out, a logistics operation using a tube system to distribute things and get stuff back, and many games of Mousetrap which are initiated by elements inside or outside the neuron – simple! I wish.

A final thought: Some neurotransmitters inside the neuron are in little sacs. These sacs are placed close to the cell membrane and are ‘held’ by ‘coils’. These connect to similar coils on the cell membrane. When triggered, both coils pull tight so the sac and membrane move closer together and merge (Fig 1 – B). Then neurotransmitters can leave the cell and go off to other neurons. One way a muscle relaxant works is to disable one of the coils so it cannot pull tight when triggered. Thus the neurotransmitter which signals the muscle to contract does not get released as it should, so the muscle stays relaxed. That is how subtle these chemicals are and this is how delicate or complex our brains are. With thousands of these mechanisms and others in our brains I can start to understand how just the tiniest change can cause major mental problems or alter what we think happened.

Re my Dprof: I now have 60 further level 7 credits for my R&D Capability Claim paper and have resubmitted my Research Proposal.

Self comes to mind (Damasio 2012)

Is it really a month ago since I did the last blog? I suppose that means a lot must have been happening. Not quite so much on the neuroscience side as I have been working hard to get my resubmission sorted but I am reading (trying) Damasio’s latest book ‘Self comes to mind’. I definitely think I have learned more about human nature and behaviour through reading these types of books than any ‘Neuroscience for …’ book. I find the neuroscience elements go in subliminally as they are often being used and I don’t feel anxious that I need to know all that stuff. Anyway I have a proper textbook for that if I need it.

Let me give you a few themes from the book:

Simple cells, in order to survive, must be able to detect internal and external changes. They must have a response policy for these and be able to act to avoid the threat. The response policy needs to have conditions which if met trigger a movement as the simple cell does not ‘think’. It appears as if the cells act with intention but they don’t. They are just doing what they do which all adds up to a lot. Brains evolved to make this more effective and varied, so they can ‘sense, decide and act’.

The basic intention of the organism’s design is to maintain structure with the overarching purpose to survive so genes can be reproduced. (Easy to forget when life seems to be about which mobile phone or App to buy.) Therefore incentive mechanisms are needed for guidance, so chemicals are released to signal good things (dopamine, oxytocin) or threats (cortisol , Prolactin) to optimise behaviour towards or away from. However, if you have senses you have far more information on the external situation. Therefore, we have developed beyond mere survival to having certain ranges of well-being.

He’s also big on the brain making maps; maps of everything. Brains are constantly up dating their map of the body so it knows that it’s ok or whether it has to do something to get in back within that tight range of requirements needed for survival. He also suggests that event maps make up our memories. He feels that it is more efficient to store ways of recreating maps than every detail of a memory. In essence, the map retriggers the detail of that event within us. There certainly seems to be a lot of evidence that there is neural firing similar to the original event, which happens when we recall it. This can mean that if a memory gets triggered in some way – of which there are many – then a response happens whether we like it or not. Depending on its strength and our abilities to control it, it may undermine what we are doing at that moment. Sometimes we will know this is happening (typically from explicit memories) and sometimes we just know how we feel, and assume that the current situation is making us feel that way (usually from implicit memories). Useful to know when the other person acts ‘irrationally’.

He talks about how we might learn due to mirror neurons. These mimic in our brain what we see others doing. This means we encode how to do things and may be partly how we learn so many things as we grow up. He talks about how if we have encoded it through mirror neurons then we can act it out as required. It makes me think in coaching that maybe I might need to do more real-plays of situations that my coachees want to handle so that they have a memory of doing it. In essence it puts it in their system. I wonder if this is why visualisation has an effect. Seems like a topic that could have more relevance once further explored and understood, so maybe one to look out for.

The saga of my panel has continued and it has been interesting to notice how I have been going through the change curve and what has helped that. It definitely helped to know that I have passed, although the conditions I need to meet are as stringent as I’d feared. Knowing was a mixed blessing as it rekindled some of the emotions but at I least understood the size of the task. Later that week we met as a group and it was helpful to talk about it. Partly it ‘normalised’ the experience and partly it enabled me to explore my options going forward. I also untangled what I felt I could have done differently, from the situation’s dynamic. This certainly helped me think more rationally and tempered the emotional response. I read in LaDoux that the emotional response is about creating action to re-stabilise the system and that once that action happens, the inhibitory neurons are fired to turn off the fight/ flight response. So the act of creating a response quenches what initiate it.

Another week passed until I spoke with my Advisor about the conditions, so I started by tackling the obvious ones. Doing one thing helped me to think clearer and then another condition made more sense, so I started working on that as well. Then I understood another, so by the time I spoke with my Advisor I had sent through my plan for addressing 5/6 of the conditions.

One useful outcome is that I now feel even more certain that my research method is well chosen as I have had to put up a stronger defence of it. Martin Seligman in ‘Authentic Happiness’ says that people move on when they can make something ‘good’ out of the situation, no matter how small. I’d go with that. And although begrudgingly at first, I have got to ‘acceptance’ on the change curve mainly because I have separated what I feel is inexcusable behaviour from the extra thinking the conditions have made me do. Now I can handle the two things independently.