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.

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.

The best and worst of academia

My eldest son says that blogs are good because ‘we are on the journey with you’ although after this week I am glad that that is only metaphorical for you.

Anyway let’s start with the best of academia. The last 12 months have been rewarding and challenging although in a robust and supportive way, via my Advisor and DProf colleagues. As a group, we’ve been meeting about every seven weeks and we’ve found it tremendously helpful. Partly it is a sense of belonging, of being on a journey together and learning from each other. It has also been useful for me in understanding the level, or not, of what is required, as I am finding that much of a DProf is about the quality, rigor and depth of understanding rather than about being more complex than other degrees. Someone said that you end up knowing a lot about very little. I am beginning to see that because you are answering a very very specific question. Something worth remembering when you next see an article about how red wine, etc can improve your health: It may in one aspect but that might not negate its detrimental aspects or mean that something else doesn’t have more of the magic ingredient and is healthier.

I have also embraced using the DProf group in road testing things and they have not held back on politely, although firmly, telling me where things don’t make sense. I’d rather understand that now than later. The academic rigor thus far has forced me to justify my project. It has made me clean up or remove any vagaries and hasn’t allowed me to move on until I stand on firm ground with clear rational. Feels as if this would be helpful in a number of business meetings as we seem to be kidding ourselves more and more about how much we can rush or skip.

I have also noticed a difference in my writing and my views about what I am reading. I have certainly striped neuroscience of any glamour. Before you think I’ve gone off neuroscience, I haven’t as there is some useful stuff happening; it’s just that much of it is further back than we think or the press would have us believe.

On the other side of academia, I had my project panel recently. I was told that it would be an informative and productive discussion although challenging; that they were looking to help me make my project the best it could be and would ask about things that they were unclear about. Unfortunately I think someone forgot to tell the panel members that that was what it was about. I am struggling to raise it above pointless and destructive. Although I have been told that I have passed with conditions, which most people do, I am enraged about it as it feels to have added no value to my project proposal and actually that is what I wanted it to do. I think I would have been better off revising how to do Meta-model questions than revising my submission. Hopefully the written feedback will surprise me and be helpful. I certainly understand firsthand the upsides and downsides of a body full of cortisol: stunning uplift in my running ability and compromised thinking ability.

I read an interesting article, whilst revising, ‘In search of a human self-regulation system’. It talks about how self regulation often fails if we’re near temptation (reward cues) and that it is impaired due to emotional distress, social problems or depleted self-regulation resources. If we try too much to self-regulate then this causes our self-regulation system to become exhausted over time. So taking it in steps might prove more beneficial.

When it is depleted, we are more vulnerable to temptation, less able to control emotions and more likely to violate social norms. It may also change our motivation away from effortful control and shift it towards rewarding the self. Neuroscience studies have shown that if it is depleted the amygdala is more sensitive to emotional scenes. As a coach it may be worth thinking about how the coachee can rebuild their self-regulation system and stop depleting it before tacking the other issues.

It seems that people who struggle more to control their impulses have heightened cue reactivity in parts of their brains related to what the cue is; for example olfactory regions for food smells. Various studies have shown that these people often have more weight and health problems. Also people, who abstain such as dieters or smokers giving up, tend to overindulge if they break their absenteeism.

Apparently, emotionally or socially distressed people show increased reward cue system activity when temptation is present. Not sure if the reward is perceived as bigger or if the reward cue system becomes more sensitive. But it is probably worth thinking about improving the situation before trying to resist the temptations. We even trigger the reward cue system when we are not consciously aware of the cue being present so taking ourselves away from temptation could be useful.

The article then looks at various brain regions related to the self-regulation system although it concludes that it is difficult to understand what this system is fully. Partly this is because inactivity can be attributed to low ability or skilful ability as neural networks consolidate once an activity becomes ‘natural’. Therefore, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.

There are some interesting references about how media multi-tasking leads to a greater spread of attention so people become easily distracted and find maintaining attention difficult. For me the fact that multi-tasking leads to strengthening one brain pathway means that you can probably strengthen a useful counter pathway to compensate although this may take longer as there have been many hours of strengthening. I must admit that I am becoming more of a fan of mindfulness and also HeartMath’s cardiac coherence practice as these seem to improve attention and reduce stress.

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.

The more I know, the more magical the brain becomes

After initial feedback on my paper I am now in the ‘polishing it’ stage which is a relief although I still need to create examples of invitations and instruction letters that I am sending to participants. I have also just written the reflection piece for this paper and, standing back, I really feel that I have come so far personally.

“Doing the project proposal has been a very adult and cathartic process as I have reflected on my expectations and reactions along the way. Understanding that the questioning and challenges were to create robustness of thinking, congruency and enable success was reassuring. It has also been humbling as I have reigned in my initial naive assumptions and gained a realistic understanding of what is possible and required. The journey of repeatedly questioning my project, albeit from different perspectives, was taxing although the end point is refreshing.

I have learned to have a conversation not to defend myself but to articulate my rationale such that others feel it is solid. I am now embracing and inviting thoughts from others as welcomed observations on possible flaws or issues showing me where I need to reflect or rethink. Alongside this, I am learning to decline questions and distractions which are not within the sphere of my project which is a new concept for me. These abilities will also be valuable in business meetings to maintain purposeful and focussed conversations.

I am definitely more thoughtful about my writing: What counts and what does not need to be said. I also notice that whilst reading, I am less accepting of sloppy writing where concepts are misconstrued or links feel tenuous.

I am also thoughtful about what I wish to bring to coaching as well as energised to see what I discover and to share it with my fellow coaches. Overall I feel grounded and considered about my project both in its possibilities and its limitations.”

Now I understand why ‘Doing a Doctorate’ books talk about this being a journey of personal development.

I have read Pinker’s “How the mind works” which I loved and learned a lot – exceedingly thought provoking. It is also controversial and you’ll see why below. I liked his thought that “Science is here to explain the largest number of facts with the fewest assumptions.” His theory is that “the mind is a complex system of neural information processing that builds mental models of the physical and social world and peruses goals which are ultimately related to survival and reproduction in a pre-modern world.”

The first half of it is more about the brain working and neuroscientific elements where he talks about the ‘Computational theory of mind’. He means that it computes information not that it is a computer. In fact he continuously demonstrates how much more complex our brain is than a computer. I was thinking about that today when logging into my Amazon account. For extra security, I had to fill in the letters that it displayed in a distorted format so I could prove I was a human not a computer. It doesn’t seem to need much distortion to fool a computer although I found it quite easy to read. The second half the book seems to be more about psychology although in a way I have not read before.

His overall premise is that we are a result of natural selection. That most of the aspects we have are because they survived better than other aspects – the human being with the improved aspect survived better and was more successful at reproduction. He’s quite pragmatic and a realist when he states “Don’t confuse how the mind works, with how it would be nice for the mind to work.” In this he means that we didn’t develop good eyes because we needed them but that people with better eyesight survived over those with poorer eyesight.

  • He talks about the brain having inbuilt assumptions about our world to solve unsolvable problems such as how our eyes adjust light so that we see things correctly. I understood this when I took a photograph of a beautiful rose-red cloudy sunset. The photo was a shock to me as it was yellow and orange, not red, and the sun beneath the clouds was a bright patch. It was quite different to the view I saw. He gives a number of other examples on this topic which are fascinating.
  • Glial cells take up more room in the brain than neurons but are less interesting.
  • Why is fear more useful to us than happiness? If food gets less then things get worse as food gets less. If food gets plentiful then you only need so much more and then the effect flattens off. So people respond more to loss than gain.
  • In talking about memory retrieval he discusses how costly (energy and time) it is to retrieve too much information, thus information is only retrieved when its relevance outweighs the cost of retrieving it. Also we remember commonly retrieved and recently retrieved information much better. Finally, when we retrieve information we retrieve the emotion attached to it as well which helps us take steps towards having more pleasure and less pain. He also talks about needing to funnel the information towards an executive controller, perhaps the anterior cingulated sulcus, which selects a plan amongst all the competing aspects such that we remain coherent in our actions.
  • Later chapters discuss the role of love, war, emotions and art amongst other things.

Some people are questioning whether neuroscience is stripping the magic out of being human whereas for me it is the opposite as I begin to understand the amazing things our brain can do and have to cope with.

Finally, I thought this was interesting article in the Nature magazine, called “The race to map the human body — one cell at a time.” It has some wonderful animations of travelling through tumours in the body: More Pixar than Hammer Horror.

Three levels of consciousness

The paper I am writing for this module definitely follows the 80-20 rule: The 20% being the Knowledge and Information Review. I can’t believe how long 1000 words took to write as I couldn’t nail down what I was actually trying to conclude. I had numerous concepts swirling in my head which luckily lent itself to doing a cluster diagram. That crystallised out the heart of what I was trying to say from everything I could say. I finally cracked it one night between 11.30pm and 1.30am – which is far too student-like but my brain woke up and having struggled for three days there was no way I was going to put it off until the morning. Then the real fun started as I remembered far more than I’d “meticulously recorded”. Yes I know, earlier I’d been so pleased about how organised I was but it wasn’t thorough enough. Although I didn’t have to re-read everything, I did spend three days locating and re-reading loads of sections to find the one little bit that underpinned my thinking. It’s a real balance between the pleasure of reading and the interruption of note taking. Hence a few upgrades on the organisational front: Firstly after reading or watching anything, no matter how small, I need to log it and write a summary about it. Secondly, I need to ‘cite it’ at the point I find it as I spent hours re-finding where I’d got stuff from and how to reference it properly.

Therefore on a joyous January 5th I completed the first draft and sent it off for comments. Having learned from my first submission, I was much better at hitting the word count: At least that’s one improvement. I think it was easier as when I read it and thought about the questions I could get asked, I soon removed sentences I didn’t feel confident about. Consequently the feedback was generally much better and I felt relief-cum-satisfaction after that amount of effort. Furthermore I also have guidance on how to write the claim for ‘being a capable researcher’ (2000 words) – so now only 5000 words to go – gosh that’s depressing having just written that. This needs to be in before May which seemed a long way off but it’s not feeling like that at this moment.

Now I can read books again! With eight books stacked up I have been more regimented about reading time. 60 pages a day is a struggle as that’s about three hours with note taking. I did well with Damasio’s book, ‘The feelings of what happens’, which took just over a week. It is about emotions, levels of consciousness and the self. He starts by talking about how we look to maintain homeostasis (regulation of body functions within the narrow range required for survival). For him, an emotion is the response when homeostasis is lost so that the organism regains it. Emotions are chemical and neural responses which create biological changes, eg, increased heat rate, for the response of running away in fear. He believes “emotions are generated in few brain regions, most being sub-cortical, as in the Brainstem, hypothalamus and basal forebrain. Also the Periaqueductal gray (PAG) is a major coordinator of emotional responses. These regions process different emotions to varying degrees with each emotion having a distinctive pattern.”

From this he talks about consciousness and three types of self. At the basic homeostasis level he has the Proto Self, which is a representation of the state of the organism. We form non-conscious biases before we consciously realise it and these are built on doing more pleasant things and avoiding unpleasant things.

Then there is a Core Self which relies on moment to moment consciousness with only some mental ‘images’ being made conscious (having special attention). Our Core Consciousness is constantly changing as different ‘images’ intrude and we become aware of them. Therefore our Core Self is transient, changing from moment to moment. He discusses cases where people are reduced to their Core Self for a while. These people can pick up a coffee cup and drink, go out the door, etc but have no idea as to what or why they are doing things. They also seem emotionless. Although Core Consciousness “gives us enhanced wakefulness and focussed attention”, if left alone in our world they would not survive very long.

However, experiences are laid down as autobiographical memories and it is this that gives rise to Extended Consciousness which creates a timeframe and larger context. We can have purpose to our actions above and beyond just responding in the moment which creates the Autobiographical Self. The Autobiographical Self is steadier and changes over a longer timeframe as we store different memories. He advocates that extended consciousness increases survival rates and therefore that consciousness is useful to us.

Throughout he connects his theories to parts of the brain wherever he can.

  • Lots of brainstem activity for sadness and anger. Little activity for happiness.
  • Significant disruption of core consciousness often correlates to damaged sites near the brain’s midline.
  • Commas come from minuscule brainstem damage. The PAG is one of the areas damaged. ‘Sleep’ and ‘wakefulness’ periods are controlled by the brainstem.
  • Apparently blinking and up/down eye movement happen via the back of the brainstem and all other movements happen via the front. Sometimes the back of the brainstem is undamaged and these people are paralysed except for blinking and up/down eye movement. From communicating in that limited way, we can learn a lot about their thinking.
  • ‘Locked In syndrome’ patients are much calmer than you’d expect. Maybe as the body is in a calm state and registers nothing, the brain reads this as ‘calmness’.
  • People with ‘face amnesia’ do not consciously recognize friends and family but their skin conductance changes so their brain recognises them and reacts.

Damasio’s 2012 book looks interesting. Also the BBC’s magazine FOCUS is good and often has a summary article of many new neuroscience developments.

Neuroscience or Neurobabble

There has been a lot going on this month as I’ve stopped reading neuroscience articles, as I was doing the research, and started writing my Transfer Paper (12,500 words). I have been furiously writing, with the aid of a fellow student’s submission for guidance on what’s actually required and so far I have written 8,500 words with just the Literature Review between me and my first draft. Finding a ‘how to do the Delphi Method’ book was a breakthrough despite being about nursing research: The Delphi Technique in Nursing and Health Research (2010). I have to admit that I am nervous about this method as Delphi relies on a number of neuroscientists wanting to participate and they may not. Still, at the moment it feels a really good method to get me moving forwards so I’ll tackle that problem later – if it occurs.

In gathering together my Literature material I am coming across new articles as one bibliography leads to new reading and another bibliography and so on. I now understand the problem of knowing where to stop! Here are a few items that I thought you might like. They cover a fascinating array of topics.

First, a bit more on Seung’s Connectome book (remember some of this is hypothesis):

  • Four developmental phases: neurons being created, moving to their proper place, extending branches and connecting.
  • 100+ neuron types each with a distinct function.
  • Some neurons drain electrical current from a neuron and act as Inhibitors – reducing the likelihood of something happening.
  • Different synapses pass on different levels of current so not all neurons have the same influence.
  • Grey matter contains neurons, axons and dendrites. White matter only contains axons and is myelinated by white fat molecules. Axons bundle together in white matter like wiring looms.
  • 90% of axons stay within the brain. So it mainly talks to itself.
  • Brain information is restricted due to how long it takes to analyse. Apparently, one cubic millimetre of brain tissue would take a million person years to analyse for its connectome due to current computing power. Hopefully by 2100 a whole brain could be mapped.

Seung believes that the way neurons connect is heavily shaped by experience although the initial ‘wiring set up’ maybe similar and heavily determined by genes. There was also an interesting debate about how much rewiring can be done along with a discussion about understanding more about neuro-developmental disorders such as Autism and Schizophrenia.

This led me onto wondering about plasticity and an article called “Return to the Teenage Brain” which backs up Seung’s assertion that adult brains are less plastic, and for good reason. However, I think the quest has started on how to recreate our plasticity again although what changes with increased plasticity may not be totally in our control. If the whole brain becomes plastic how do you control which parts are changing and think of the energy required for that – teenagers sleep a lot for a reason.

Being slightly sceptical, my attention was grabbed by an article called “Coaching the brain: neuro-science or neuro-nonsense?” I agree with a number of the points where neuroscience is being sprinkled around to gain more coaching business, some neuroscience research claims are being overcooked by the press and many are from quite small sample sizes. I think neuroscience is useful to coaching and once it loses its ‘emperor’s new clothes’ status it will be good. The article “What psychotherapists can begin to learn from neuroscience: seven principles of a brain-based psychotherapy“ is a good summation of that if you can think of it in terms of coaching practice rather than clinical practice.

However, I hadn’t realised there was an interest to see if you can use brain scanning to prove the effect of coaching. Preceding ‘neuro-science or neuro-nonsense’ in The Coaching Psychologist journal, the main article “Perspectives and challenges for the study of brain responses to coaching: Enhancing the dialogue between the fields of neuroscience and coaching psychology” echoes my thoughts by saying that neuroscience perspectives “hold the ability to open new avenues in the study and validation of coaching approaches: by making it possible to compare how different schools might deliver results via enhancing specific brain functions and leading to differential changes in the levels of associated biomarkers, relevant information on the nature of each coaching approach may emerge. Consequently, multimodal techniques could be, at the brain level, shown to be more effective to improve wider range of skills.” (Dias, Palmer, O’Riordan, Freitas, et al, 2015). So as with medicine, neuroscience may help clarify successful coaching interventions whilst still allowing for varied practitioner application.

Finally, the World Science Festival lecture called “My Neurons, My Self” is a fascinating debate between neuroscience and psychology. For example “We are what we remember” and “If we had the same values, the same self, then asking ‘who are you?’ wouldn’t be worth asking”. In the Q&A there were some good questions: “If there were two exact clones, would they have the same Self?” and “If there is no free will then who is responsible?” I think that there was general agreement that although we do things via our neurons that they are continuously changing due to our experiences and what is happening in that moment as well as from our previous memories, experiences and our genes. It ended with their thoughts on the definition of the self: The self is our centre of deeply held values, the values that connect us to others who are like minded (J Prinz); We are what we have learned and remembered from our experiences, with a specification that that is reflected more in what we actually do that defines who we are rather than who we think we are (D Shohamy).

For me, I am realising it’s not the concept of the self I need to look at but rather the Core Moderator; the bit that decides how we work. (New name courtesy of my Coaching Forum’s ideas.)

Neuroscience beyond neurochemical and brain part functions

When neuroscience is applied well in real life it can be insightful and helpful rather than just describing brain parts and neurochemicals. Yesterday I went for a health check at SOZA Health. I was a bit nervous as I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Last year Mark did the free NHS one and wasn’t happy afterwards. Two visits and three weeks later, all he got told was that his cholesterol was high and to reduce it or take statins. He didn’t seem to get any more than that from it. My check-up took 45mins and the report was instantly ready so Dr Tomasz George talked me through it. Glad to say I am in very good shape and there were a couple of areas he felt I could improve. Not surprisingly my mental stress reaction could be better and I now have some very specific actions to take. My magnesium levels are slightly deficit which doesn’t help with the stress reaction and yet I take a supplement. He recommended absorbing it through the skin as this is much more effective. The check covers nine major categories, each with sub categories which is where I needed to focus. The 33 page report covers all those categories and gives possible options for improvement. Needless to say Mark is booking an appointment tomorrow.

Apologies for the silence at the end of October, with holiday and work it went into free-fall. The blog would have been rushed and caused more stress which I promised myself it would not do: I want to enjoy blogging. The only downside is that there has been so much happening; I’ll need to be terse. So. At September’s meeting I defended my research topic and it went well. Magically the ‘you can’t do this‘ went away and the conversation focussed on how. I learned a lot: If they push you need to push back – so get your arguments solid; they ask questions so know when to deflect rather than answer them; get the language that works – “I want to develop an explanatory model rather than a descriptive model” works and “I don’t want to deal with just concepts” doesn’t. (Jedi mind tricks and Dr Who’s blank card come to mind.)

One hurdle over. Now to tackle the next. The ‘how’ is a large question but a good conversation with my Advisor really helped. The Delphi Method looks as if it combines what my supervisor is interested in and being able to stand a chance of getting a doctorate too. It is used for complex or ambiguous issues where there may be incomplete or conflicting information. A panel of experts anonymously create, through iterative rounds, predictions of forward thinking, future direction or new theories. It needs a robust question to be posed for it to work though. Currently my ‘how’ question is, to understand which are the significant conversations that the experts recommend coaches should be listening to: What do they think will give us the biggest insights into how our coachees operate as human beings in the world which would sharpen our coaching practices and enable coachee’s to making enduring change. This came from needing to write a short piece for a poster at my university’s coaching conference.

On holiday I read ‘Connectome’ by Sebastian Seung. I learned so much that I didn’t know about neurons and brain functions, such as the fact that neurons having a weighting system for incoming excitation from other neurons. Therefore not all synapses have the same impact. And there are inhibitory neurons which drain electrical energy away from a neuron. It’s very readable although it was sobering around how much plasticity you really have. Now I need to get updated on this area as it may be this Central Integrator is a weighting system, or function, rather than a part of the brain.

The other aspect is to find a more easily understood phrase than ‘central integrator’ especially as I am now broadening my thoughts as to what that could be. I asked a Coaching Forum meeting to help with this and they spent twenty minutes coming up with new ideas. Someone articulated my question better than I had by writing “The bit that decides how we work”. So does Central Integrator sum up ‘the bit (mechanism) that decides how we work’? They had lots of intriguing words and phrases for me to check out.

Homo Deus is another book I have read. It is engrossing, provocative and I hope it’s wrong although my son concurred with the scenario. It sounded familiar to me as well and I agree with his summation of why and how we have ‘controlled’ people thus far. Some of his analogies annoyed me as, for me, he switched analogy part way through to prove his point:- Motivation is a conceptual energy whereas electrical energy in a neuron is not. I know motivation boils down to neurons but he was not using it in that way. On this point of levels of abstraction in language, I have had to pull out my book on Language in Action to be able to reduce the number of abstract conversations that it can be easy to fall into with academics. I know they have their uses, abstract conversations that is, and I don’t want to have those at that time. I think I realise why a doctorate takes 4-5 years as there is a lot of other parts to it. I will definitely have completed a huge amount of personal development and hopefully at some stage actually got into researching my topic.

Last week Middlesex University had a coaching conference and finally I have sorted out my ontology and epistemology. Alison Hodge’s presentation and seeing some others, gave me the courage to say what I felt. So I am definitely a pragmatist. I am also happy to move along the continuum from Post-positivist (explanatory) to Constructionist (descriptive) although in this context I definitely want to be closer to post-positivism

Forget learning and learn interrupting forgetting

I’m knee deep in books I need to read although I’m being distracted by some other interesting books, such as “Making it stick” (Peter Brown). The book’s information has certainly stuck and has made me think about my training and coaching. The basic premise is that to learn thoroughly you need to struggle somewhat in applying the learning to your actual situation. I know we all say that we construct our training to do this but I think this book challenges what that really means. It encourages: Trying stuff before you really know how to do it; swapping between topics you’re learning; struggling to apply the learning until you can do it and spacing the sessions. Overall, it is about interrupting forgetting and being competent rather than just being able to recite textbook pages. It’s about needing to ‘dig deep’ to recall what you learnt thus strengthening those neural pathways. The book has many examples of how this improves exam grades and robustness of application. Sadly and despite the proven outcomes, owing to the effort it takes most people don’t do it this way. I think this is also to do with the social norms around you and whether colleagues are doing the same. But I think it does explain my youngest son’s shock exam result. Over the Easter break he really struggled with one particular subject. There was lots of frustration as he tried past questions and struggled until he worked them out. He was worried he might fail that subject or barely pass. So he really wasn’t expecting to get 93%. I’m hoping he continues to put this level of effort into his learning as not only will he get a good degree, he’ll also be able to apply his knowledge well.

So in my coaching I have decided to be more comfortable with coachees struggling to understand or apply insights: To pull back on how soon I ‘save them’ and to think of different questions to get them to apply it themselves. Also in training, I will be more congruent in handling the participants’ desire to have the learning made quicker and easier for them, as my focus is not on whether they can recite the information but on them making a difference with it in their work. Also I would be more in favour of a modular approach spaced over four or five weeks rather than two full days. Five years ago we were forced to design a training workshop in that manner and it was highly successful. I had always wondered how much having weekly sessions had contributed to that. Now I am sure it did.

It is spooky how things come together: Two weeks ago I attended an alumni day for neuroscience and coaching although it was very much about wellbeing. At home I have a copy of “The Polyvagal Theory” by Stephen Porges as it is about the ‘neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self regulation’. A number of articles referenced it so I thought it would be good to read at some time. Ten years ago I had been recommended to read “Healing without Freud and Prozac”. Despite the title, the first chapter on cardiac coherence turned out to be a revelation. I called it ‘happy heart breathing’ as fundamentally it was deep regular breathing focussed on breathing in warmth and compassion, on the in-breath. It really did calm my nerves and anxiety although it was difficult to know when you had coherence so I didn’t use it with others. Anyway, back to the Alumni day. So I was really excited when HeartMath gave us a demonstration of their device which is all about monitoring and achieving cardiac coherence or Heart Rate Variation (HRV). If you work with people around stress, anxiety, self regulation or anger then I would suggest having a look at the Heart Math website or the ‘Healing’ book I mentioned. I’ve started using a HeartMath device so I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now I’ve started to read ‘The Polyvagal Theory’ and it is about the same thing (HRV) although in much more technical detail. The real icing on the cake, for me and my doctorate, is the statement on page 6 “…I immersed myself in the literature and read hundreds of articles and numerous books …. The polyvagal theory was the product of this work …” Sounds very much how I envisage my research being undertaken in Phase one. It is such a relief to know that someone else has done something similar and has been successful. I suspect the push back will be that he’s been in this arena since the 1960’s. Also, as with my starting point, his work emanated from his “curiosity in biobehavioural systems and (his) dissatisfaction with the prevalent models that integrated physiological state with behaviour”. I think this could be part of my opening statement when presenting my research proposal.

I have now started investigating which neuroscientists are looking at ‘The Self’ or something which unifies or regulates everything we do for our own survival. There seem to be quite a lot of promising leads although I could do with knowing who is currently working in this area – any thoughts?

Currently I have come across Ramachandran and he has some interesting material: Radio 4 lectures, Brain website and article on the Electric Brain. He is at the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California. He appears to be the person who developed the mirror technique for resolving phantom limb problems.

Finally, I need to look deeper into Dan Siegel’s work as his introduction to the HeartMath eBook talks about the Mind as a self-regulating and complex system. Seems as if I need to read up on Complex Systems Theory but I think I need another cup of coffee (and a holiday) before I do that. Oh yes, and there’s those 500 dense pages of Schore’s book as well!


“Inventing the Individual”

An apt title considering my research topic although reading a book on the development of liberalism from Roman times isn’t quite what I envisaged when I started my doctorate. I also didn’t think it would take two days of Googling to find an article on the medical profession in the 18th century. However, I discovered a wonderful article titled “Medical Knowledge and the patronage system of 18th century England” by N. Jewson. It describes beautifully how physicians had their own theories about the body which emanated from the Greek Humours. They also had a rich benefactor who liked that theory which meant the physician protected the theory so as to protect their income. Other theories, even scientific ones, were ferociously attacked meaning the period of Enlightenment took some time before creating today’s modern medical profession. It sounded familiar: Think about coaching, psychology and neuroscience. There’s a quote from the philosopher, Patricia Churchland, (2002) saying “Questions about self-representation are steadily shifting into the province of the brain and cognitive sciences” and a few colleagues feel that in ten years, psychology as we know it will no longer be taught.

So my defence has begun, or rather, the argument for my research question has begun which is why I am reading such diverse texts. “Inventing the individual” cites a 19th century author, Fustel de Coulanges, who wrote an influential book because he insisted on understanding from first principles how the Romans viewed life: “If we desire to understand antiquity, our first rule should be to support ourselves upon the evidence that comes from the ancients”. This is akin to me understanding the Self from the Neuroscience rather than the Social Sciences perspective. The questions I am now looking at to bring together my argument are: Why neuroscience? What models of the Self are there? How scientifically sound are they? What is happening in coaching at the moment regarding neuroscience? What other topics have I considered and why am I not choosing those? What is there in the neuroscience literature that indicates that this topic is worth researching? Why is the Self important to understand?

Also I suddenly understand the element in the research proposal about my Ontological and Epistemological view point. At heart, I am curious about, and love understanding, why things work and do what they do or don’t do what they could do. I am not satisfied until I can get that explanation as solid as possible, which for me means science. I am comfortable that science is always unfolding to deeper levels so things change but it’s from solid science, we just know a bit more. I like Explanatory models rather than Descriptive ones although at times descriptive is the best we have and that’s a start. They can also be insightful and for a lot of people they appear rational which is why they are often popular. Sometimes science can be counter-intuitive which is harder for people to accept.

My questions have led to some interesting reading such as Dan Siegel’s ‘Pocket Guide to Interpersonal neurobiology – An integrative handbook of the mind’. (Although I think he must wear baggy trousers as it would need a large pocket.) I am also looking forward to his new book: ‘Mind’. Any book that connects people’s behaviour and quantum physics is a must read for me! Regarding neuroscience and the self, a lot of it seems to be around self-awareness, self-perception and self-regulation. This video demonstrates this and provokes thoughts about what is ‘real’: The neuroscience of self: how the brain creates ‘me’. The book, ‘Understanding the self’ edited by Richard Stevens comes from a similar angle albeit from a psychology viewpoint. In psychology there also appear to be numerous models of the self and I have started a similar search within the neuroscience arena with respect to a central integrator or self. Initially, the search yielded many articles containing extremely complicated words. I can see the need for a lot of slow reading using Google to find out what the long words mean. My other trick is to think, ‘that’s just a part of the brain or a technique and I don’t need to know more than that at this stage’.

To back up why I want to dive into the neuroscience literature, and study the self differently, I have been exploring how innovative researchers are becoming. Two TedTalks are great examples of this. The first is about how material used in babies’ nappy can be used to smoothly expand brain tissue rather than having to create even better microscopes. The second one is about using computer hackers to help stop the spread of malaria (at 12mins 21sec). Both are examples of a totally different way of coming at a problem with different thinking. Also they have created a semantic map of the brain (and video article) with an interactive brain map you can play with – have fun.

In the last month I have really enjoyed connecting to others who are going through a similar journey of finding out how different the academic world is. It’s an interesting mix of being very adult and needing to justify what you say with having everything questioned which feels at times as if that’s the only point – to ask questions whether they are useful or not. It has made me realise that an engineering degree doesn’t give the best grounding for arguing cases as you don’t do a lot of that in an engineering degree (at least not when I did it). However once we get to the research part then it will be valuable experience. I am presenting to our group in September so lots to read and arguments to construct and justify.

PS: Sorry to lengthen this blog but I have just read this and felt you’d like to know about it – it was an eye-opener to me. I knew anger and heart attacks were linked but was not sure why. In the book, ‘Understanding the self’, it says that when you are hostile, you release adrenaline and cortisol which releases fuel (fatty acids) from your body, ready for action. But in today’s society often there is no physical exertion so these fatty acids float around in your blood and form deposits on the blood vessels thus restricting the circulation system. Coupled with the associated increase in blood pressure, it is a lethal combination.