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Lessons from the Neuroskeptic
A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert A Burton is currently capturing my attention. While one of the cornerstones of my coaching business is brain science, 25 years working in the field of brain injury has taught me to be cautious about jumping to conclusions about the current findings in neuroscience and what they can definitely tell us about the mind.
Let me share this perspective. In the years that I worked as a speech pathologist, we often worked as a team with physical therapy and occupational therapy. When setting goals, I was envious that it seemed easier for occupational therapy and physical therapy to set measurable goals for the client. Especially in physical therapy, the goals were concrete, such as “the client will walk 100 yards unassisted.” You could not only observe this phenomenon and check it off, but deciding on the next step was fairly clear. Add distance. Do it with less assistance. Change the terrain. The goals were directly connected to the measurable outcomes.
In my field, speech pathology, it was a little different. These goals could be concrete such as “The client will answer Y-N questions with 70% accuracy” or “The client will name items with 90% accuracy.” However these goals didn’t seem to translate necessarily to functional outcomes. What did communication look like when the client could use multiple strategies like pointing, changing intonation in speech despite a limited vocabulary, or communicating with many modalities at once: gesture, writing, and speech? Or with cognition, having a client remember 5 digits in sequence is one thing but demonstrating adaptability by writing those numbers down to complete the task showed something else about the client’s mind. Trying to define the client’s cognitive-linguistic capability in terms of simple parameters of behavior seemed to fall short most of the time. Trying to reduce complexity to simplicity can be like capturing air.
However, it is true that certain principles of neuroscience can be very useful, especially if applied with flexibility and the notion that these principles might be relevant for an individual. I am truly energized and excited about the explosion of neuroscience and it’s implications for maximizing human potential, Still, I am well-aware of it’s limitations too. That’s why I am eager to read what Dr. Burton has to offer as a counterbalance to the neurohype that is definitely out there. In the next few blogs, I will blend what I read from this book with my “25 years in trenches” to expound on the brain principles that I believe are largely true and that have implications for uncovering your potential.
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Thanks for being willing to give us a reality check where brain science is concerned. It’s easy to get caught up in what seems like THE answer. A balanced perspective is needed to get to better answers.