December 20, 2014

Understanding Emotions is Essential to Brain-Based Learning Strategies

golden-gate-bridge-84I just attended the 37th Learning and the Brain Conference, in San Francisco.  This my 3rd such conference, and as usual, the speakers did not disappoint.  The theme was using brain science to build social and emotional skills.

Brain-based learning, up until fairly recently, has focused on building cognitive skills.  Such skills include executive function skills such as focus, memory, reading and the like.  In both education and in the workplace, the role of emotions in optimizing learning and performance has not been studied as closely as these other aspects.

However during the conference, it was made clear that the brain is first and foremost a social organ.  The cortex is shaped by social interactions.  How much we feel that we are a part of something has much to say about how ready our brain is to learn.  I was struck by the number of speakers who had learning disabilities but who went on to complete advanced degrees from the some of the loftiest academic institutions:  Harvard and Stanford, for instance. Each of them credits significant figures or groups in their lives who made them feel connected, safe and empowered.

This is very critical.  I remember a teacher I had in 8th grade who didn’t like me, at all.  In fact, when my father went to a conference for my brother who was a year older, she wanted to talk about how there are good kids and bad kids and I was a bad one.  I had another teacher in high school who told me I wasn’t going to get into college, let alone the college of my choice.  Today, I would like to hit her over the head with both of my diplomas from the college of my choice!  And by the way, she was in no way an inspiration as if I had to prove something to her.  She was just awful.

Now things could have turned out rather badly if it weren’t for my father who wrote me a letter of support- basically saying that he loved me and wanted the best for me. He urged me to give my full effort because my world would be opened onto me if I did. I would have an interesting life.  And you know what?  He was right.  You can read that letter here .

Life is full of challenges- one of the speakers grew up in a 1 bedroom apartment in New York with several siblings. However it is clear that if we hope to meet these challenges, someone has to be in our corner, someone who will make us feel valued,connected and encouraged. Not someone who will blow sunshine at us but someone who will acknowledge our lives as they are and encourage us.  It is in this framework and this mindset that the best learning can occur.  Who in your life played this role for you?


What a Scissors Attack Taught Me About Brain Energy

Death by scissors... almost.

Death by scissors… almost.

Imagine a man with arms like an albatross swinging a pair of scissors at you, then cornering you in a room with his wheelchair. That happened to me once when I was working with “Edward”, a brain injured man. And this was definitely my fault. For openers, I had not prepared the room properly before he arrived.  Too many scattered papers and folders on the table.  Also, too much task switching.  Do this, no do that!  And there were too many steps.   I had taxed his brain to the limit and he exploded in a rage.  Carefully I reached for the phone to dial hospital security…

Alright, this man had a significant brain injury and what I was asking him to do probably wouldn’t have set off that kind of reaction in most people. Yet, it has been said that one of the best ways to understand what the brain really does is to study a damaged brain. Prior to fMRI, PET scans and other imaging technology, that was all we had.   Even with today’s technology, there are still significant limitations about what we can conclude based on a neuroimaging. Edward had a damaged prefrontal cortex  after haven taken a bullet to the head and survived it.

In the years that I worked with brain injured clients, one of the most interesting and challenging parts of the job was management of the environment in order to maximize their brain power and reduce frustration.  Physically removing distractions, manipulating the number of steps it took to complete a task, task redirection, and providing external feedback about attention span had an almost magical effect on what they were able to accomplish as well as improving their mood.  All of these techniques tend to take the pressure off the brain because they are largely external manipulations in the environment.  The prefrontal cortex can take a mini-break.

Now  in my role as  coach, I can offer that you don’t have to be brain damaged to benefit from these techniques.  They work for everyone- it’s all about managing brain energy.

Here are 4 powerful adjustments you can make to maximize brain power:

1. Avoid Task Switching :  Task switching is not giving yourself enough time to “get on a roll” on any given task. Every time you do a task, your prefrontal cortex, the most energy-expending part of your brain, has to recruit the correct brain cells to do the task.  Each time you switch tasks, you deplete energy.  What’s more, too much task switching creates irritability.

2. Adjust the Number of Cognitive Steps:   In a previous blog,  Adding Cognitive Steps to Manage Distraction , I discussed the notion that you can use cognitive steps to either make something easier or more difficult to do.  If accessing something on the computer is one simple click away, you are more likely to give in to that distraction.  If it requires several more steps, you might not bother.

3. Manage Distractions:  Distractions can be managed either internally or externally.  Internal management requires additional brain energy, sometimes a considerable amount of energy.  Don’t you dare do that!  Is it easier to ignore the TV or turn it off?   Would you rather work to avert your attention from your phone or put it in another room?   I usually have a lot of fun with this particular challenge as I think of ridiculous or ingenious ways to remove distractions from my life.

4. Actively Build Attention Span:   You can do this through meditation.  Or you can do this by setting a timer that will help you gauge progress. Start with 10 minutes then work your way up.

As in all things you want to change, you have practice these enough so that they become part of your mindset and your approach to productivity.Merely reading about it isn’t sufficient. Or doing it occasionally.  The brain responds most of all to the dynamic tension of actually doing something.



Keeping Your Brain Razor Sharp

The brain and gut are intrinsically related.  A happy mind is a happy gut and a happy gut is a happy mind.

The brain and gut are intrinsically related. A happy mind is a happy gut and a happy gut is a happy mind.

My great aunt grew up on a diet of fatty meat, dumplings and potatoes. Vegetables were usually cucumbers doused in bacon grease. She smoked for 80 years and loved her scotch. When she was in her mid-90’s, she collapsed at a casino and was admitted to the hospital. After a few tests, she insisted that she be taken home or else she would call a cab. She had a dinner party on Friday night. She was released. On Friday, she went to the party, enjoyed herself as always, and died Saturday morning in her bed in the house she had lived in for decades.

Except for the exercise she got enjoying herself, she defied all the laws of what we now know as the standard guidelines of health:  Exercise, no smoking, moderate alcohol, and a diet of fruits, veggies, and lean meats. This aunt of mine was lucky and she probably had resilient genes. Maybe she also had less overall stress than the typical person has today.

Current research shows that small but measurable declines in brain function begin in our 20’s.  In the age 85+ population, 40% show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.   Anxiety is common in developed in countries and the lifetime risk for significant depression is 20%, whereas 100 years ago, it was 1%. It’s been suggested that stress, lack of sleep, obesity, lack of exercise contribute to declining brain health.

How do we keep our brain razor sharp?

Here are 5 tips:

1.  Exercise.  Regular exercise improves circulation, increases pulmonary capacity and lessens anxiety and depression.  What’s more, exercise produces BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) which creates new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, which is  critical to memory functions and spatial navigation.

2. Keep inflammation in check.  Inflammation can come from infections, injuries and poor dental health.  What has emerged lately is the role of excess weight, poor lifestyle, and lack of sleep in the onset of the inflammatory process.

3.  Reduce or eliminate sugar.  There is an emerging evidence that sugar is a significant cause of chronic inflammation. Seventy percent of our immune cells are in the digestive system.  Anything that irritates these cells, irritates the immune cells including those in the brain.

4.  Watch for food sensitivities such as gluten intolerance. They also disrupt the intestinal immune system, ultimately affecting inflammation in the brain.  If your digestive tract feels unwell after eating something, your brain probably isn’t happy about it either.

5. Supplement with omega 3 capsules or eat food rich in omega 3 such as salmon and flax.  Not only will they insulate the nerve cells with high quality fat, they also reduce inflammation.

The brain and belly are intrinsically connected.  Not only are they connected by immune cells, the vagus nerve directly connects the two organs.  Therefore, an additional benefit for eating well is that your “gut feelings” are likely to be more clearly interpreted by brain.  A happy brain is a happy belly and a happy belly is a happy brain. More on that next time!



Don’t Wait Forever

Plaster casts of famous tombs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

Plaster casts of famous tombs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

There is nothing like a brush with mortality to strike a chord of urgency in a person. What do I mean by urgency?  I mean the indisputable truth that no one lives forever so time should not be wasted.   If possible.

Last April, I was in London after attending Meddle One.  I had been enjoying some shopping at Harrods then I wandered over to the Victoria and Albert Museum.   I wanted to see the David Bowie exhibit.  The lines were long so I decided to see the other parts of the museum instead. After walking around for quite awhile, I slipped into a quiet room to check my phone and have a rest.   After making the usual rounds from email to Twitter, to Facebook, I relaxed on a nearby bench and closed my eyes for a couple of minutes.

When I opened my eyes, I realized where I was.  I was in a huge room of plaster casts of famous tombs.  There were dozens of them some dating back to people who had lived over 600 years ago.  That is a long time and the realization took my breath away.  What’s more, these are famous people.  Millions more had died and they don’t have a plaster cast of their tomb in a museum somewhere!  Talk about feeling mortal!

I can recall my first “finite time on the planet” realization.   I remember exactly where I was. I was lying on my daughter’s bed chatting with her. I was 45 years old,  and I was an enthusiastic bike rider at the time. Suddenly, I declared with great bravado that I was going to record 100,000 miles on my bicycle.  At that time, I was only riding around 2,000 miles  per year.   So to get to 100,000 miles, at that moment I figured I had to step it up considerably or ride for another 45 years!  That would make me 90 years old!  Would I even be around then? That hit me like a megawatt jolt.

I think as we get older, we come to realize that we won’t get to do everything that we ever wanted to do.  Maybe the first realization of time passing will be when you graduate from college and you realize that the time flew by. Or that your kids have grown and moved away. At some point,  it will hit you that life goes fast so you better get going!

It’s really important to get started on doing what is really important to you. Don’t get mired up in “shoulds” and miss opportunities to take the first step toward something that really resonates with who you are.  Or what your heart desires. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering it just has to be meaningful.  For you.

The point is, don’t wait forever.   And don’t wait for someone else to do any of this for you.  If you don’t know how to get started, hire a coach or attend a workshop.  Find a friend who is just as eager as you are to push the limits, even if just a little.   Ask yourself, what am I willing to do to give my life an extra squeeze?


There Is Only One Meddle

The Frograbbit: Follow your dreams even if they look really weird- Joseph Brett, 2013

The Frograbbit: Follow your dreams even if they look really weird- Joseph Brett, 2013

Meddle 01 was… indescribable.   Hatched in the mind of a very generous man, Ted Pearlman,  the event was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Officially known as This is Meddle,  its objective is to gather creative, influential people to tackle specific subjects.  The subject for this first Meddle was how to find time for passion projects.

Why do we have dreams but don’t pursue them? Sometimes, we leave our projects on the drawing board because they seem too insane or we are unsure of what they will become, or not become.  There are other reasons that are more mundane, like managing our time well, or not following through because we don’t know why they are relevant in our lives.  All of these were discussed at Meddle but not resolved.

In the meantime, a very magical experience evolved.  Delicious food was shared thanks to Cali Rivera our chef.  Artisans, designers, photographers, writers, shared ideas and connected.  Sheeps stampeded us on the slopes of the idyllic Cotswolds.  Knights came alive when least expected.  All of this became the data points for a conclusion, one that has not yet been identified.

Meddle is one of Ted’s passion projects.   Like all passion projects, it is often a work in progress but you have to get started somewhere. In the days to come, we will coagulate all of this, tie a bow on it, and call it Meddle One.  In the meantime, each one of us is no doubt inspired to believe in our “Frograbbit” and make it real.

Can the MBTI Work With Brain Injured Clients?

brain-injury-high-definition-fiber-tracking-mapImagine contracting encephalitis (brain swelling) from a mosquito bite.  The brain swells resulting in significant  brain damage.  In my former profession as a speech pathologist, I encountered such a client.  She was in her 30’s and her memory was deeply affected by this virulent infection.  She could say hello to her daughter, turn around, then forget her daughter was even in the room.   She also forgot many other things like when to take her medication or complete some other important task.

One day, we decided to address the problem with some sort of a strategy.  I came in with the idea of using many bright post-it notes that she could place all over her house to remind her to do what she needed to do.  I reasoned that the colorful post-it notes would get her attention and she would follow through on the task.   She replied, “No, that will clutter up my house and I hate disorder.  I want a nice leather-bound book to write things down in.”   Secretly, I thought to myself, “HA!  You will lose that in an instant!”  Guess what?  She was right.  The strategy of a neat, organized book was better for her than a bunch of colorful post-it notes.  What’s more, she kept this book in a logical place so she didn’t misplace it.

In my current profession as a personal development coach and MBTI Master Practitioner,  people will inquire whether the MBTI is valid for people with mental illness, developmental syndromes like Aspergers, or brain injury.   For example, in the case above, could I have given the MBTI to this client to see what her type is.   Would that have been valid?  My answer would be probably not, however you would have to consider the big picture, the degree of recovery and other variables.  Still, the MBTI Assessment was designed for normal personalities, normal being defined as individuals who have no significant history of brain injury, developmental syndromes,  or mental illness.  That can’t fact can’t be ignored.

However, could I use the principles of psychological preferences to understand the client better?  Absolutely.

The client I mentioned above looks like she had an “SJ” temperament.   Clearly she liked order and my “brilliant” idea of using colorful post-it notes might have appealed more to someone like an ENFP, like myself.  Observing that difference,  I could then make some plausible guesses about how she might like the rest of her treatment to unfold: routine, predictable, and purposeful rather than colorful and playful which is my preference.

The bottom line here is that just because the full-blown MBTI probably isn’t appropriate for those individuals who don’t fall into the category of “normal”, some of the principles can be successfully applied to connect better and meet the needs of those individuals.  The key is to remain open-minded, always listening for more clues to help you determine what they may need.

Ann C. Holm

(Ann is a former speech pathologist who worked with brain injured clients for 25 years prior to starting a coaching practice in 2009.)

Identifying Type in Fictional Characters and Celebrities


ESTJ King Triton having a discussion with his ENFP mermaid daughter, Ariel.

On more than one occasion, I have been asked to identify the personality type of a fictional character or a celebrity.  It can be fascinating to speculate on what type an individual appears to be.  At the APTi 2011 conference, one of the evening activities was titled Type in the Movies. A panel of type experts, with input from the audience, debated the personality type of certain movie characters. While this was meant to be an entertaining exercise, it illustrated that one could potentially support multiple viewpoints when rendering a verdict on personality type.

Shortly after Steve Jobs died, a psychological type group on LinkedIn started a thread discussing Jobs’ type. The most frequently occurring response seemed to be INTP but there were other possibilities backed up by strong evidence. Some made the case for ENTP, INTJ, INFP as well as ISTJ. Unfortunately, his true type will remain a matter of conjecture in the absence of an assessment and the all-important type verification process.

I was further reminded at how important it is to verify type in one of my recent projects. Each participant in the project completed an MBTI® assessment. Of the 20 who participated, 5 individuals had a verified type that was different than the reported type. The most gratifying part of this exercise was to sense the resonance within the individual when the true type emerged.

Nevertheless, identifying psychological type in fictional characters and celebrities can be a useful exercise, if it helps to provide an archetype to illustrate general characteristics of a given personality type. Already, such archetypes exist in the psychological type literature:  the INTJ Mastermind or the ENFP Champion, for example. While this can create an oversimplification of the nuances present in each personality type, it can help to give an overall picture that can be easily grasped by a type novice.

That isn’t to say I haven’t struggled with a recent project in which a client has asked me to identify the psychological type of certain fictional characters. I can clearly see the value in using a general example to illustrate a certain personality type, be it a theoretical archetype such as The INTJ Mastermind or a fictional character such as Ariel the Mermaid being an ENFP. However, I find myself caught up in circular  thinking when trying to honor both the simple and the complex aspects of identifying psychological type.

Ariel the Mermaid wants to live on land and ignoring the “detail” of not having any legs is vintage ENFP-think. The ENFP tends to be long on both ideas and dreams, and yet a little short on details. Because she is out exploring, Ariel is never on time for singing practice with her mermaid sisters. That’s a pretty simple ENFP call.

However, there is rarely universal agreement on many other examples that are readily available and discussed on websites such as LinkedIn. Returning to the subject of Steve Jobs, there were hundreds of excellent arguments given by writers as to what type Jobs likely was. This is the conflicting perspectives that often bring me to a stalemate when someone asks me to type someone who either hasn’t revealed his/her MBTI verified results, or can’t because she lives under the sea in a mermaid kingdom.

So how do I tend to resolve this for a client?  I try to be clear about the distinction between the complexity of a verified personality type and the general characteristics that are observable and can be useful to illustrate a general archetype. Then I try to select examples that are pretty clear such as Ariel the Mermaid as an ENFP and to avoid characters where multiple perspectives are equally convincing.

I wonder what others think about this topic. Can fictional characters and celebrities serve as valid examples of type or should the practice of using them be avoided altogether?

Featured in The Bulletin for APTi , March 15, 2012 

Photos From Haiti

I was stunned by the photos and the stories that Mark brought back from Haiti.  I laughed when he told me he slept on a ramshackle reclining chair with mosquito netting over his face (He HATES mosquitoes and bad sleeping arrangements).  I was proud of him when he told me he tried to make each cast a special color and design for his young patients.  I was stunned when I saw the photos of this ruined city.  Instead of uploading photos to, which I learned is not that easy to do, I thought I would provide the direct link to the album on my Facebook page. Click the following link.  The album is titled, “I Wish Haiti Had a Reset Button”

**** Also, thank you to everyone who prayed for him  and who also tried to arrange for  Mark’s safe return when it was looking a little “shakey baba” .  I appreciated the support!

Continuing to Make a Difference in Haiti

The doctors in Haiti continue to perform surgery 15 hours per day.  Many of their patients require amputations and many are children. The patients have been amazing despite all that they have endured. It has been said that Haiti will be a generation of amputees.  Clearly, that appears to be the case and many of them will need prosthetic devices down the line.  Surgeries are being performed both in the hospital and surgical tents.  It has been very hot each day, making the working conditions especially challenging.

These doctors are making a difference!  In Mark’s case, he packed a few extra items to guarantee his best work.   He plays his Ipod during surgery through a small speaker system he squeezed into his luggage because music is like Popeye’s spinach; it energizes and focuses him. He also packed the Club Helm flag, the official banner for a group of  our friends who wish to send their good vibes to Haiti, even though they can’t be there themselves.   The Club Helm “Board Members” elected to send it to Haiti on a humanitarian mission rather than take it to the outdoor hockey game in Madison, Wisconsin, a more typical destination for the flag.

The days are long and there is no air conditioning in the surgical tents.  I cannot imagine what it’s like to concentrate with unrelenting heat and no end in sight to the number of people who require surgery.   The needs of the Haitian people will not be fully met for a very long time and their needs will extend well beyond this initial phase of disaster relief.  It is overwhelming to think so much has been done during this medical mission but it’s like a taking a brick out of the pyramids: what remains is enormous!

The plane that brought them in sustained damage so new plans have to be made to get them back to the United States on Tuesday.  Hopefully, all will go well so Mark can go on his scheduled ski trip to Colorado with our son Andrew on Thursday.  Cool mountain air will probably feel like heaven.

Update On the Medical Mission to Haiti

I received a call from Mark tonightHe had a safe trip to Haiti aboard a jet donated by a private citizen.  It took a collaborative effort and donations of time, money, and supplies from many generous people to make this trip possible.

They were mobbed at the airport by people looking for help of all sorts: food, money, whatever they could get. Meanwhile, the doctors have been performing surgeries 15 hours per day. The hospital is “decent” and there are teams from Mississippi, North Carolina, Seattle, and Italy. Mark commented that the  injured are putting up with lots of pain as they wait for help but they have been patient. They are in hospital rooms, in the hallways, out on the hospital porch, and in the park.  There are few emergency amputations, only revisions of existing procedures.  There are plenty of  other broken bones requiring attention. Also, they are slowly getting organized making sure the surgical patients receive follow-up care.  At first, it was difficult to do surgery and also monitor the recovery of those who had already had a procedure. They are close to the U.S. Embassy at this point.  They expect to see worse conditions when they travel to outlying areas.  One could see fires tonight, about a mile from the hospital, and Mark speculated that they were  burning those who had perished in the earthquake.

I will blog about this tomorrow once I receive photos. All he had for me tonight was the photo of the plane. Mark has always wanted to be a pilot (and I have always protested insisting it was dangerous),  so I am not surprised he sent me this picture first.  He is forever a funny guy.