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Monday, August 8, 2011

Coaching Your Brain: Inspiration from the Book "Incognito"

Do you ever lie to yourself, or argue with yourself?

I read the book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” by David Eagleman over the weekend, and he unpacks a concept that I think directly addresses this seemingly strange internal drama in a compelling and broad-reaching way.

I'm coming at this from the perspective of a life coach. What is a life coach, you ask? Simply put, a life coach supports you in taking action, and moving forward in your life. But not any kind of action will do. Oh no, we’re not interested in the usual kind of habitually-driven or half-hearted actions that fizzle your energy. We’re talking about focusing your precious time, money, vitality and creativity toward actions that best serve what you really want in life. As a coach, I’m well trained to listen. Are you speaking from fear, doubt, worry, limitations, anger, and so on, or are you speaking your truth?
Life coaching is heavily informed by neuroscience. Consider how much fear affects our behavior. Neuroscience says we evolved to pay great attention to what scares us, and we have brain circuitry dedicated to highlighting fearful thoughts with Vegas-style neon lights. The thing is, much of what scares us isn’t particularly life threatening anymore.

In "Incognito", David offers a view of the brain that captures the experience of every-day decision making in neural terms. He describes the brain as a “Team of Rivals”, existing of competing factions. The factions presumably share the greater good of your being as its goal, but differ in the short term solutions to a problem (dual political parties make a perfect analogy). A simple way of understanding this follows from the choice of eating a piece of chocolate cake. Certain factions want the short term rewards that come from a jolt of sugar. While others see the longer-term consequences of weight gain or an insulin spike. Which faction gets its way? You either eat the cake or you don’t, and so it goes with all decisions.

I find this view liberating, since I readily attest to the constant cajoling and negotiating with myself to which David refers. Yet my reaction to the factions is often one of criticizing and becoming frustrated, as if there shouldn’t be any competing “voices” at all.  It’s like electing different political parties to the House and Senate, and immediately becoming frustrated by their deliberations. Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?  Of course, they’re also supposed to come to a viable resolution in due time.

And so it goes with the brain. Consider that we’re *supposed* to experience an internal battle over our behaviors, for decisions big and small. It’s how our brains work.  What I once interpreted as confusion, or frankly annoying inner chatter, I can instead welcome as my brain doing its job. Now that takes a load off. I've noticed that the less I fight the fighting, the more quickly a decision is made anyway.

Where does life coaching come into play? Life coaching can help you more readily tune into the faction that carries the best decision for you at any moment, thereby reducing frustration, and leading to behaviors that empower you.Take the example of the chocolate cake. If you’re clear on the intention of remaining healthy, and you see avoiding fatty foods as part of your strategy for health, then it’s much easier to know which decision carries the best outcome. But if you’re fuzzy on how important it is to you to be healthy, and even less so on how you plan to get healthy, then you’ll likely be licking chocolate-laced grease off your lips much more frequently.The focus isn’t on the battle of the factions, or the minutia of their arguments. Instead, the focus is on your intentions, which don’t change for the most part, regardless of how emotionally charged you’re feeling at the time. With clarity about your intentions and what you want your future to look like, then consciousness can more readily tune into the viewpoint that takes you where you ultimately want to go.  That’s much of what life coaching is about - focusing on what’s important to you in a manner that’s greater than our thoughts and feelings which change like the waves on the surface of the ocean.

So what is the neural basis of intention-holding, Dr. Eagleman?

1 comment:

  1. First off, I just want to say that I'm thrilled to have discovered your blog - I hadn't found a single other neuroscience writer on Wordpress until today!

    I'm also glad to see that "Incognito" grabbed your attention - it's been one of my favorite popular science books of the past few years. Have you read "The Brain That Changes Itself?" If not, I highly recommend it.

    You make an excellent point that internal debate is a reflection of the way the brain is -supposed- to work. When we treat our minds less like a dictatorship and more like a democracy (albeit with a clearly defined set of goals), a lot more gets done. It's a little counter-intuitive sometimes, but it works so well.