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?


The Lazy Gal’s Way to a Consistent Meditation Practice

The Insight Timer app is available in both a free and deluxe version

The Insight Timer app is available in both a free and deluxe version

Many of us are aware of the myriad of benefits associated with a regular meditation practice, among them improved stress management, clearer thinking, and increased capacity to focus.  I am well-aware of these benefits myself having attended an 8-week course at the University of Minnesota in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction  and lectures by the mindfulness guru, Daniel Siegel.  I have extolled its virtues in presentations and recommended it to clients.  Nothing could be better for the brain.

Have practiced meditation consistently myself?  No.  Absolutely not.  My practice has been scattered at best usually because I think I am going to get around to it during the day but I seldom do.  What’s more is I am exactly the kind of person who would benefit from a regular meditation practice- high energy, often overextended, somewhat distractible.

Recently I rediscovered an app I’ve had on my phone for quite some time- the Insight Timer. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, I have had the answer to my inconsistent meditation practice all along.   Here are the advantages:

1. I can meditate anywhere.  At least in the winter, it means another 15-20 minutes in my warm bed.  I meditate right when I wake up.

2. The app automatically logs my time so I can see how long I have meditated and on what days.

3.  There is a an opportunity to journal a few thoughts afterward.  This is a delightful bonus because journaling was also something I intended to do but never did.  I can write down a few thoughts usually when I am at the peak of mental clarity.

4.  My iPhone is always with me so I have all I need to to meditate at any time- a chiming bell and a way to record my thoughts.

Any meditation is good.  Consistent meditation is better.  For the first time in my life, I actually know the difference.

4 Questions to Ask Yourself in the New Year

quilt squaresNew Year’s Day is not only one of my favorite holidays but one of my favorite days of the whole calendar. It recalibrates  my mindset for the coming year.  By the time December rolls around, I usually have things flying everywhere, and  my year’s efforts are leading to a culmination and a time for review. This day beckons me to focus, trim back what isn’t working, and begin anew. ‘

While having coffee with a young client recently, I asked him why he thought he was put on this earth.   The standard answer is often “to help others” and this is exactly what he said.  I explained that  I was looking for the thread that weaved together the experiences of his life, some sort of common theme that no matter what role he played, he could find joy in what he did.

My young client was silent, and then remarked, “I have never given this much thought.  What is my purpose?’  He liked the idea of trying to determine, as specifically as possible, what that might be.  Are your  experiences random or intentional?

Many of us don’t think about our purpose and so life is experienced but not lived.  New Years is a good time to ask ourselves some important questions:

1. When I look back on my life so far, what experiences were energizing and what experiences were just ok.

2. When I look at this past year, which projects and commitments were carried through to completion and which ones were difficult to complete or not completed at all?

3. When I look at what I want to do this year, what excites me?

4.  Are there any common themes in my answers to questions 1,2,and 3?

Briefly, when I answer these questions for myself, I am certain my life purpose lies in helping others uncover personal potential.  Whether I was helping a brain injured client return to a meaningful life, or raising my family, or coaching- the common theme is helping others see the possibilities that life has to offer. I imagine when I am a grandma someday, I won’t be known for my cooking or crafting- instead I will be toggling perspectives around until the world of possibility opened up to them.

I have tried side careers in sales but they never really gain traction because they don’t fit the above theme.  I might get excited at first because it is a new adventure but in the end, it doesn’t have the same zap of energy I get when someone I care about sees themselves in a whole new,exciting light.

I went to a meeting once and several people were talking at lunch.  One man told me about how he had changed his career because even though he was good at what he did, that was all he did and it wasn’t very satisfying.   Another lady leaned in and said she had been the “go to” data person at her job for the past 10 years because she was competent.  Nevertheless, she didn’t like it very much but felt stuck because that was expected of her.  Pretty soon, two more people joined the conversation with similar sentiments. It seems that sometimes you go round and round on the same track but never get a chance to get off, all because someone else has put you there.

The new year is a good time to take stock of what you’ve been doing and to ask if it fits with your reason to be on this earth.   You may find that you are right in sync with who you are or you might find that you are badly out of harmony.  It doesn’t mean you have to throw everything to the wind and start over necessarily but it may be that you may need to make adjustments in how you are doing what you do, perhaps changing your approach.   Who knows?  But I urge you to take the energy of the new year as a time to dial into what makes you want to get up in the morning.

And so…. my uncover your potential wish for  you in 2014 is that you find the satisfaction that comes from knowing your life’s purpose.   No matter what you do, may it reflect your gifts, your values, and your intentions.

Isn’t It a Diagnosis?

medical-chart-iconHave you ever taken an assessment tool, such as an emotional intelligence “test”  and were completely shocked, depressed, or mildly annoyed at the results? Or have you taken an assessment tool and had the opposite reaction? “Hey,  I’m pretty well- adjusted, intelligent or savvy!”  Or maybe you’ve taken a survey and the results don’t seem to quite fit.

When using such tools, a question that comes up frequently t is, “Isn’t this a diagnosis?”  In fact, sometimes this assumption forms the rationale to dismiss the value of assessment tools altogether which is a very big mistake.

Recently I was part a workshop team, certifying individuals in the use of a new assessment tool called the Intentional Leadership Audit that identifies leadership priorities, strengths and blind spots.   Along with the new assessment, there were connections made between leadership priorities, an individual’s psychological type (as identified by the MBTI ™ or other Jungian tool), and the EQi 2.0, emotional intelligence instrument.

In one of the case studies, it was revealed that the subject had a low score on the impulse control subscale of the EQi 2.0.   As a group, we then discussed the possible implications of low impulse control for a leader.  During the discussion,  one of the participants asked, “Isn’t this a diagnosis?  Isn’t this just what you are?”

It is common for people to assume  assessment tools have diagnostic implications, much the way medical tests point toward a condition that has to be treated.  Such is not he case.  Assessment tools, particularly self-reporting assessment tools, mainly serve the purpose of outlining what appears to be an individual’s mindset.  This can be affected by both inherent or default temperament as well as a myriad of other factors coming from personal experiences.  Hence, while much of our approach to living is fairly consistent, much of it is also malleable because our brain is adaptable and responds to the demands placed upon it.  We can all change and broadly,  this is how we do it:

1. Some sort of dampening down of the usual mind map has to take place, one of the most effective ways being through immersion .  So for example, if you were going to learn a new language, ideally you would have to eliminate as much use of the  native language as possible so the new language could build resilient neuro-connections in the brain.   The brain doesn’t like competing stimuli. That is why language immersion programs seem to work. Similarly, if you were relying on your sense of touch to get around in a dark room, you would immediately switch to your preferred mode of sight to get around if the light switch was turned on.  In other words,  the preferences that were present  first take precedence but if they are greatly attenuated, then new pathways can develop.  .

2. A deliberate or mindful monitoring of behavior can create a self-awareness and over time, a resilient change in the brain can take place. Choosing to consistently respond or act in a new way  can bring about these changes. Either through self-driven intent or the coaching  guidance, the brain can adapt to the demands placed upon it.

Assessment tools are a starting point to identify what appears to be the lay of the land.  After clarifying the results with a client, they can be immensely helpful in finding a starting point to structure goals and objectives.   Anything is possible as the brain is most definitely capable of significant change.  It is vitally important to know the fluid nature of assessment tools and the valuable information they can provide.


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!



Adding Cognitive Steps to Master Distraction

facebook_buy_nowA couple of weeks ago, I deleted the Facebook app from my cell phone. It’s not that I opposed Facebook.  I definitely use it. I am a social gal.  However, most of us agree that it can be a major distraction. What’s more, a distraction is even more powerful if succumbing to it is an easy thing to do.   For instance, online buying can be a real problem because purchasing is only a click or two away.  Website designers know that you stand a greater chance of following through on a purchase if the path to do so is clear and simple.

This can potentially paint a picture of us being slaves to distraction.  After all, temptation is everywhere.  However, we can use that knowledge and turn the tables on those distractions. How?  By making it more difficult to follow through on something.  I like to call it, “adding cognitive steps.”

For instance, when you use Facebook on your phone, it’s way too easy.  First, the phone is always with you.  Certainly you can make this more difficult by putting your phone in another room or in your purse.  However, once you get it in your hand, you can touch the app and you are signed right in. That’s only 2 cognitive steps to complete the task.  Now if you delete the app and  now have to sign into Google, that’s step 1. After that, you have to pick  the Facebook login, then put in your username, then your password, and then answer whether you want to “save this device” or not.  After that, you get a text that confirms you have signed in with another device that you will ultimately delete.   Getting onto Facebook now becomes a hassle involving at least 5 cognitive steps!  A delightful bonus is that you get at least 5 opportunities to say, “Quit wasting your time” and move onto something more productive.

In some ways, we know this intuitively already.  If you have to go to the store to buy potato chips rather than having them on hand, you are more likely to not eat the potato chips.   However, the world of point and click has made it deceptively simple to succumb to distraction.  Or temptation! What creates endless engagement, or worse, addiction,  is often masquerading as a convenience.   Plus it makes the prefrontal cortex of the brain work extra hard to ward off the temptation.  How exhausting!

Of course, Facebook is only an example. You can use this strategy for any temptation you want to master.  I used to tape myself into my chair to finish papers in college.  Do you know how difficult it is to move around with a chair taped to your backside?  Or to free yourself from the tape then retape yourself back to the chair?   You want to get something done?  Resist an impulse? Make it more difficult to do the opposite, especially if it’s enticing you with convenience.




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?


Emotion: Who Needs to Know About it Anyway?

What is your current state of mind?

What is your current state of mind?

Emotions are a tricky subject for me.  For much of my life, I have believed what many people have thought about the nature of emotion: that emotions require too much time, they lead to loss of control, and only a restricted set of emotions are acceptable.  In addition, who among us was taught how to to accurately define our own emotional state?  Note the emphasis.  Very often someone else is telling us how we currently feel, should feel, or not feel.  Think about it for a moment.

I had a couple of interesting experiences recently that brought home the degree to which I need to develop this area of my psyche.  First, I became certified in the EQi 2.0. As part  of the certification process, I had to take an emotional intelligence test. It consists of 15  subscales that measure areas such as optimism, flexibility and stress tolerance which were very high scores for me.  Definitely on the lower side were my scores for emotional awareness and emotional expression.  In fact, they were as low as 37 points below my top scores.  That’s quite a gap in EQi-speak!

Meanwhile, I attended a presentation on emotional awareness at a recent ICF conference.  A list of 224 adjectives, describing various emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant was given out.   For the next week, I experimented with trying to accurately describe what I was feeling when I felt a stirring in my body or my gut (often the first sign that an emotion is happening).   I could barely do it!  Certainly many of us can describe vague or broadly felt emotions like happy, angry or sad.  But it’s this nuanced description of how one is feeling that isn’t so easy. Try it sometime.  I can send you the list!

Yet it is been shown that suppressing emotion, the physical feeling actually leads to more of the emotion we are trying to quell.  Moreover on FMRi studies, the limbic system, the place in the brain where much of our emotional is wired,  seems to be further aroused the more we try to wrestle it down.  So why do we do it?  My first guess is that it was conditioned out of us early on in our lives.

Nevertheless, there is much benefit to becoming better at accurately describing our emotional state.   Name it to tame it is one way we can do this and it has indeed been shown on fMRI that the limbic system will calm down when we name how we are feeling.  However, I would like to offer up this reason:  When we accurately define an emotion, we open a door for a solution or a remedy.

For instance, if we are confused or uncertain, we can seek clarity.  If we are feeling vulnerable, we can seek safety. If we feel overwhelmed, we can ask for help or lighten our schedule.  However, if we experience all of these as the same state- let’s say “upset”, then our doorway out is not very clear.

You can do a similar exercise with positive emotions.  Happy is good but grateful connects an experience with gratitude.  Do you need to thank someone? If you feel adventurous, seek an adventure.

On a final note, for those of us who prefer a different word rather than “emotion”, I like to use “state of mind.” Yes…that makes me feel comfortably in tune with myself indeed.


-Coaches can ask questions that leverage the state of emotional awareness to set goals and problem solve.
-emotional awareness can also be seen as “knowing one’s current mindset.”

When Virtues Are Overdone

Are there any pure assets when it comes to personality?  Or, can certain characteristics that are generally considered to be desirable become a liability?   For instance, can the quest for excellence become paralyzing perfectionism?  Or can there be a cost to being infinitely helpful and agreeable?  Can the capacity to create group consensus  dilute clarity?

Overusing a strength or ignoring a blind spot can derail optimal performace.

Overusing a strength or ignoring a blind spot can derail optimal performance.

The October 2013 issue of Psychology Today headline feature is an article titled When Virtue Becomes Vice.  Although it isn’t out on newsstands yet, I got my copy yesterday and was glad to see this topic discussed because in some ways, it provides a counterbalance to focusing only on an individual’s strengths.  Identifying strengths is essential to be sure, and is perhaps the cornerstone to personal effectiveness.  However, some times we can ignore the opposite of our strengths, commonly known as a blind spot, or, we can rely so heavily on a strength that it is overdone. It can become a liability.

Do you think of yourself as open to possibilities? Adaptable?  I certainly do.  For instance, I like to live my life as if it were an endless solution set  of possibilities.  I am adaptable and I can see the good in just about any outcome.  This capacity to flex served me well when I was an on-call speech pathologist.  I could arrive at any worksite and be very effective with very little direction. Likewise when I started coaching, I was energized by any possible direction that my new coaching business would take me.  Why did I have to decide anything?  Make a clear choice?

Having one clear answer feels confining and  if I have choose one thing, I close off infinitely more possibilities. So I push back against anything that will lock me in.   However, therein lies the dark side to being open to everything.   If you stay open to everything then fewer things ever take root.  Projects and ideas can go unfinished, having been displaced by the new.  You may always be looking to the next horizon.

Developing awareness around the downside of a virtue is certainly the first step toward managing it well.  However, what if it has been weaved into your very identity?  It may take more than an intellectual understanding to know when your virtue is being overdone. What if you are always known as the flexible one,  or the perfect one?  Can you give yourself permission to not be that person when the situation calls for something else?

Strengths based coaching has many advantages for it is true that many of us don’t know what we do well. Most of us would rather have identified competencies to rely on rather than not.  But it is often the overuse of strengths and lack of awareness around their corresponding blind spots that can derail an individual from optimal effectiveness.

As in most things, pendulums swing. Defining what is the best approach to optimizing personal effectiveness is no exception. There has much attention given to showcasing strengths in recent times. However,  I like the idea that knowing how much of a good thing is too much is now being discussed.  It is an essential conversation if we are to become all that we can be.