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Human beings evolved as much prey as predators. To survive, our ancestors had to be hyper-vigilant for threat – you only have to miss the sabre-toothed tiger in the grass once for your genes to leave the gene pool.* So, we have evolved to be constantly on the lookout for threats – that’s handy when you’re crossing the road, but most of the time we’re not really in that much danger. Unfortunately the unconscious processes of your mind don’t know that, so they react to minor criticisms, disagreements and mistakes as though they are threats to your very existence.
This is known as the Negativity Bias – neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes our minds as having evolved to be ‘teflon for positivity, but velcro for negativity’. I’m sure you’re familiar with the experience of receiving feedback, and managing to pretty much ignore all of the appreciations, while focusing your attention sharply on the one thing that isn’t enthusiastically appreciative. All of which makes life pretty unpleasant at times – that’s because evolution doesn’t care whether you are happy or not, all it’s worried about is that you pass on your genes.**
Fortunately neuroplasticity allows us to reprogram our brains so that instead of constantly looking out for failure, rejection and threat we learn to look out for success, acceptance and possibility. This is the principle of Solution Focus approaches.
In a simple machine, knowing what the problem is can be a real help – you just replace the broken part and everything is sorted. In a complex system like the human psyche, a business or a community, learning all you can about a problem may make you an expert on problems, but usually won’t tell you very much that’s useful about the solution.
Solution Focused inquiries, like ‘when doesn’t the problem occur?’ or ‘where do things work best?’ bring a different perspective to situations, and start to open up possibilities. They also help the brain to work in a way that stimulates creativity, rather than triggering defensive fight/flight responses.
Learning to rewire the way you approach life isn’t an overnight job – after all you’re working against millions of years of evolution – but you can experience positive effects very quickly. Here’s a little exercise I almost always give to my coaching clients, and regularly do myself.
Give yourself 10 minutes and write a list of What’s working?/What’s better? make the list as long as you possibly can and include as wide a range of things as possible – from the cup of tea that you just enjoyed, to a major work achievement, to someone opening the door for you, anything and everything you can think of – keep asking yourself ‘and what else?’.
You can do this on your phone, tablet or computer, and it works even better if you use pen and paper. Once you’ve finished your Working/Better list you can write your To Do list – make sure all the items on that list are small and specific first steps ‘send an email to Bob to arrange a meeting’ rather than ‘renegotiate the Bob Co. contract’.
What this does is gets your brain firing on all the networks associated with success, connection, and positivity, so you feel well resourced to tackle the jobs ahead – and breaking those jobs down into bite-size chunks helps to avoid the tendency to get overwhelmed. And it sometimes helps you to notice opportunities that you might otherwise overlook.
Give it a try, all you’ve got to lose is your negativity bias.
* Disclaimer – I have no idea whether sabre toothed tigers did actually hunt hominids, but you get the point
** Disclaimer 2 – Evolution is a process, to describe it as caring or not caring about something is ludicrous – but you get the point.
Since the development of scanners that can measure blood flow in the brain without seriously harming people, we have been learning a lot about how our brains work. Some journalists have called this the Golden Age of Neuroscience, although it’s more likely to turn out to be the Dawn of Neuroscience. We’re learning that the human brain is far more extraordinary than we ever thought – as far as we know, it is the most complex thing in the universe.
One of the things we have learnt is that the brain is in a constant process of change: everything we do, think and say subtly alters the network of neurones in the brain, a process described as neuroplasticity. Any given behaviour – let’s say being frightened by a dog – strengthens the connections of a particular sequence of neurones, creating what is called a neural-network. If we repeat the behaviour, then that particular neural network is reinforced – as neuroscientist Donald Hebb put it (back in 1949!) “what fires together, wires together“.
What this means is that every time you repeat a behaviour, you gradually wire up your brain in a way that makes that way of responding to events more likely, and ultimately so habitual that it takes great effort for you to choose another way of responding. So an incident of being frightened by a dog can be reinforced again and again, so that being frightened of dogs in general becomes a deeply ingrained habit.
Of course the early practitioners of Buddhism had no idea what was happening in the brain, but through seeing people’s behaviour and watching their own minds in very subtle detail in meditation, they were able to observe the way in which we gradually build, embed and reinforce our habits of relating to the world. They called this process karma.
Over time, of course, the meaning and interpretation of words drifts. Nowadays people tend to talk of karma as some kind of cosmic retribution system – it is even embedded in the Hindu caste system: if you are born in a lowly caste, then this is your karma for having been bad in your previous life – and some people have even applied this absurd reasoning to disabled people.
Sadly, some cruel and exploitative people are never punished; some kind and generous people live lives of great difficulty and distress. Your karma is your mind – your particular set of reactive habits to the world and your experiences: feeling threatened by people in authority, or the psychologically damaged person on public transport; getting angry (or collapsing) when people disagree with your opinions; whether you like or are frightened of dogs.
Karma was not, and is not, a description of a great cosmic process, but an incredibly sophisticated way for a pre-scientific society to make sense of the development of neural-networks in the brain. And the fantastic thing is, it’s never too late for you to create new neural-networks that are more helpful, more kind, more creative, and happier. John Lennon was wrong, Instant Karma isn’t necessarily gonna get you.