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.

Irresponsible or ground-breaking? Sometimes both

It’s funny how things come together, like ethics and irresponsibility. In my paper, my Advisor mentioned that although I had explored the ethics of my research method, I hadn’t looked at the ethical considerations of my topic. From exploring this, I realised that I need to be responsible about what I will be disseminating from the research – how it could impact coaches and coachees. This coincided with finding myself being more objective and sceptical about neuroscience findings. At the 2016 World Science Festival, Shahamy said that “as a society we get so carried away in how exciting this all is and its potential down the road that there’s a feeling that we are already there when in truth it’s a very young field”. Worth bearing in mind as newspapers articles and research articles can differ dramatically as well as researchers blatantly ignoring other research because it hinders their theories. This was levelling as I can easily put neuroscientists on a pedestal but they are just people like you and I doing work in a laboratory on a narrow topic. That’s not to say that that isn’t really dedicated or exciting. Just keep things in perspective.

I have had two recent examples which have driven these facts home. Firstly, I was reading a book which I will not name. It was going well until I came across a page which talked about the quantum mechanics double-slit experiment. This led into a discussion about probability waves and before I knew it there were links to ions in the brain and the fact that free will was influenced by neural probability waves. At this point I stopped reading. It just seemed rash to have put such a statement into a book read by lay-people with hardly any referencing or time to go through how that had been researched.

Then there is Ramachandran’s book ‘The tell-tale Brain’, which is an excellent book with many different insights. He really goes into how the brain works. I finished the book feeling that the brain is awesome and fallible, which I think is a great thought for a coach. It keeps me hopeful for reaching the coaching outcomes whilst remaining generous and curious towards my coachee. This Scientific American article gives a glimpse into some of the in-built assumptions the brain has, like how your brain assumes light is always above your head, which it was 50,000 years ago, so it adjusts what you see accordingly. We appear to have many assumptions built in.

The book also vividly demonstrates what happens with brain damage. I was amazed at how specific the resulting change can be and the inference that we have subsystems. Some thought provokers:

  • Middle temporal area seems to be associated with detecting movement. If it is damaged then moving things appear as snapshots or static.
  • You can be unable to ‘see’ something and still be able to point to it as they use different brain pathways.
  • Light at dusk is redder but your higher level colour areas compensate for it so you still see leaves as green.
  • In malaria stricken parts of Africa, lots of people are Sickle cell carriers. The sickle cells do not get malaria so those people survive better. The survival of malaria outweighs Sickle cell deaths so it is an advantage to have it.
  • Damage to Wernicke’s area: People talk gibberish and do not realise it although their syntax is correct. If they hear gibberish they do not realise that either. They don’t realise the look of confusion on other people’s faces. Damage to Broca’s area: People lose syntax but speak with normal other words; they just don’t use or recognise connecting words.
  • If all connections to the amygdala are disconnected then it feels as if you are in a dream. Depending on which circuit to the amygdala is damaged, you can also feel disconnected to the world or yourself.
  • The brain has an aversion to discrepancies so any bizarre explanation is better which is why some paralysed stroke victims claim their paralysed limb belongs to someone else.

He describes where people feel that part of their body does not belong to them and often they have that limb amputated. He talks about the brain having a ‘body map’. If you touch the person elsewhere on the body, the body map lights up but if you touch the disowned limb then it does not. So it seems that the person is telling the truth as their body map is faulty and has that part missing. Also these people often fall in love with people with the same missing limb. It’s as if the map helps the animal know who to, and not to, mate with. Maybe this sheds light on the gender identity debate. As a coach it helps me maintain my curiosity towards what the coachee feels is hindering them from changing. For them, it is real, however unreal it is to me.

However, in amongst all this insightful material, Ramachandran discusses mirror neurons and he is clearly a big fan of them. On p121 he goes as far as saying “for all intents and purposes reading the other monkey’s mind” which for me was too far. Again, irresponsible I thought, as lots of people reading that page could easily infer that he is saying that we can read someone’s mind. Whereas the monkey sees the other monkey’s hand moving towards the fruit which sounds like imitation not mind reading. So I queried mirror neurons with my supervisor. He sent through this link on ‘the myth of mirror neurons’ which is enlightening. So whether Ramachandran is correct or whether Hickok’s caution is correct I am not sure but I am learning to remain open. There is a lot that neuroscience is helping us with and I find it useful in my coaching, but it comes with a lot of hype as well which can be hard to detect.