15. august 2014

THE DANGER TO TEAMS: ’THEM’ AND ‘US’ THINKING

It has been long known that we humans are a social bunch.  We have this innate drive to cluster into groups. The main thrust for this drive is that throughout history we have enhanced our chances of survival by collectively sharing things such as resources, knowledge and workload. Alternatively, behaving in ways that were not acceptable to the group meant banishment through isolation or rejection from the group.  In the wild this would have significantly decreased the chances of survival.
As a result, our brains are highly attuned to our ongoing social status and possible rewards or threats to it.  In modern times the workplace is one of the biggest social environments our brain experiences.  It is constantly providing us with feedback from the social interactions with others.  We need to know when things are working in our favour or when our social situation may be under threat.

SOCIAL REWARD & SOCIAL PAIN
Our brain interprets our social interactions through the use of neural pathways and chemical messengers commonly used for pleasure and pain.  When we speak of pleasure and pain in relation to the social brain we are respectively talking about social reward and social pain.  
For instance, when our brain recognises the potential rewards from a social interaction it releases chemicals along same neural pathways associated with pleasure making us feel physically good.  This is a social reward and it can take the form of emotions such as being valued, feeling connected or appreciated. On the other hand when we feel threatened, rejected or unappreciated the same neural pathways that tell us we're in physical pain are activated. This is known as social pain.  So our brains are wired in a way that we experience reward during mutual social interactions, and feel sensations similar to physical pain when we are socially rejected or disapproved.  
Evolution has equipped us with a highly sophisticated social processing machine that allows us to engage in social interactions while maintaining relationships on an individual as well as a group basis.  Because of this our brains don't always operate in isolation to one another. Our brains often trigger a threat or reward response to the people around us and we may not even realize that we are doing this.  When you interact with someone at work, it helps to consider what social messages you may be sending and the impact you may be having on their brain.
There is emerging evidence that our social behaviours have evolved along side the neural architecture to support them.  The neocortex (the outer layer of the brain) is markedly larger than other primates or mammals of similar size.  It comprises the parts of the brain that are involved in higher social cognition, such as conscious thought, emotional regulation, empathy and language.  It seems evolution has biologically hard-wired each of us for interacting with others.

SOCIAL IDENTITY & GROUPS
Since we are such socially oriented creatures a significant part of our identity comes from the groups we belong to.  One of the major reasons we seek out group membership is to foster our self-esteem.  That is, we feel better when we believe we belong to the ‘right’ group and that there are clear and positive distinctions from other groups.

3 STEPS TO SOCIAL IDENTITY
Our social identity happens in three steps.  The first step is categorisation, whereby we assign people (as well as ourselves) to a category in order to understand the social environment.  These categorisations tell us things about people - Canadian, Norwegian, Buddhist, Atheist, conservative, liberal, doctor, teacher and so on.
In the second step we adopt the identity of the groups we have categorised ourselves as belonging to.  If for example you categorised yourself as a Buddhist, most likely you will take on the appropriate behaviours and values of the group.  In order to stay as a member you would conform to it’s norms and act and cooperate in ways that are acceptable to the group. 
The third step is comparison where we compare our group with other groups.  If we are to maintain our self-esteem our group needs to compare favourably to other groups.  It is here where cognitive biases can creep into our thinking and cloud our decisions and judgement.  (Cognitive biases are inherent thinking errors that lead to faulty decisions and judgments). 
One such cognitive bias is known as in-group-out-group bias, which refers to a pattern of favouring members of the in-group over those of the out-group.  This means we tend to selectively look for information that reflects positively on the group we belong to (the in-group).  At the same time, we will selectively seek information that reflects negatively on groups that we don’t belong to (the out-group).  This tends to lead us to automatically think along the lines of ‘them’ and ‘us’.  This in turn leads to irrational group favouritism where we are more willing to see our group win, rather than have outcomes where all people end up better overall.
It is very sobering to think just how susceptible we are to these automated biases.  If we don’t become aware of our mental evolutionary programming these cognitive biases will naturally sneak into out thinking and trigger the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality.  Where once there was no animosity there is now a sense of rivalry and the lines are distinctly drawn between groups.  This intergroup competition creates a fight for resources and cooperation and communication crash and burn.

TOWARD A UNIFIED CULTURE & FUNCTIONAL GROUPS
In most cases as a business grows so does the number of people needed to help maintain and sustain it.  As a result roles and functions become more distinct and sub-cultures will be a natural outcome of that growth.  If care is not taken irrational cognitive biases will kick-in as our innate programming starts to protect our self-esteem by creating unnecessary distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’.  This doesn’t have to be an inevitable outcome.   
I have worked with many different types of groups and departments to create a unified culture.  Below are the four main-points (each of them could be a blog onto themselves) that I have found help to dispel ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking and to create a healthy and sustainable social group identity. 

THE SOLUTION
  • to simply be aware of the psychological phenomenon of social identity and ‘them’ and ‘us’ thinking 
  • is to make employees feel as if they are part of a clear company mission or goal - that there is a shared identity
  • is for people to see themselves as part of a group even if the group is subdivided by function or responsibility and to accept that sub-cultures are a natural outcome of large groups
  • to make the conscious effort to cooperate and communicate in order to overcome natural group dysfunctions and biases

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.  Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
________ 
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?


Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no 

1. august 2014

MAKING DECISIONS WITH YOUR GUT


There is an incredibly large gap between what your brain knows and what your mind is capable of accessing. You are not aware of most of the inner workings of your brain and simply have no way to consciously access it.  To be quite frank you would not want to be able to consciously access the deeper processing of unconscious mind.  Why is that?

If you play the game of golf the last thing you want to do is to over think the shot.  The best course of action is to simply trust in your ability and swing the club.  Leave any analysis of your shot until after you have hit the ball. 


IMPLICIT MEMORIES

Skills such as swinging a golf club, singing the ABC’s, driving to work, signing your name, brushing your teeth or any number of other things you do throughout the day are called implicit memories. Simply put, an implicit memory is a type of memory for the performance of a particular sequence of action that doesn’t require you to consciously recall how to perform the skill. Although you can’t consciously recall implicit memories, they still have an influence on your decision-making and how you behave.

For example, if someone asked you to explain exactly how you made that perfect golf swing so they could repeat it, you would find it almost impossible to explain specifics of how you did it.  The reason is there is a chasm between what your brain can do and what you are able to consciously connect to.  That is to say your implicit memory of how you made the golf swing is not open to conscious introspection. They are completely separated from your explicit memories where you can intentionally remember something like a phone number or what happened to you last Saturday.


 

THE EXPERIMENT

Antoine Bechara and his fellow researchers conducted a fascinating experiment in 1997.  Participants were presented with four decks of cards.  They were also given 2000 ‘lab’ dollars  and were asked to choose a card from any of the decks.  Some of the cards gave an immediate reward increasing the amount of their lab dollars and other cards that carried a penalty decreasing the amount of lab dollars.  Unbeknownst to the participants two of the decks were set up to be advantageous (i.e. contained more reward cards) and the two other decks that were disadvantageous (i.e. contained more penalty cards).
The researchers asked participants at fixed points for their opinion about each of the decks.  That is, which of the decks did they feel were reward decks and which ones were the penalty decks.  The researchers discovered it took about 25 draws of the cards for participants to consciously figure it out.
The astonishing part of the experiment came from the findings they collected when they measured skin conductance response (SCR) each time the participants drew a card.    (Basically, a SCR measures a change in the electrical properties of the skin in response to stress or anxiety.  The SCR indicates the activity of the autonomic nervous system - a part of the unconscious brain).

It took the unconscious brain on average 13 cards compared to the 25 cards of the conscious mind to figure out which decks were the penalty decks and which were the reward decks.  So just before a participant drew a card from the penalty deck there was a SCR spike indicating a stress reaction. In other words, the unconscious brain figured out which decks were the penalty decks well before the conscious mind did.


THE UNCONSCIOUS VS. THE CONSCIOUS

The researchers’ findings suggested the feelings produced by physical states of the body come to guide behavior and decision making.  For example, when some something happens to you your entire body reacts to the situation.  There may be an increase in your heart rate, a tensing in your muscles, an increase in blood pressure, a contraction in your gut and so on.  All of these bodily reactions become linked to the event - they get burned into your neural circuits and become an implicit memory.  This means the next time you relive a similar event or something triggers the implicit memory, your brain will will fire-up the identical bodily reactions of the original event. 

Just like the participant’s SCR response prior to picking up a card from the penalty deck, your implicit memories will know well before your conscious mind what is going on.  The implicit memory triggers a feeling and unconsciously influences your decision-making and behavior
.  So if it’s a positive feeling that is triggered by your implicit memory it will motivate you to step forward.  On the other hand, if the feeling is negative it will trigger caution and encourage you take a step back.  This is your gut-feeling in action.


FLIP THE COIN

So how can you employ this knowledge to help you with your decision-making?  The next time you find yourself at the crossroads of indecision pull a coin out of your pocket. Then assign each of your choices to either heads or tails.  Flip the coin.  The key here is to immediately assess your gut instinct after the flip.  If there is a sense of relief from the coins result, then it will be the correct choice for you.  If you feel uncomfortable with the result of the flip, most likely the other choice is better for you.

We encourage you to share your questions, opinions and comments.  Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog.
________ 
Interested in applying brain-science in your professional life?


Please visit us at www.MINDtalk.no 

26. juli 2014

How to Quiet the Mind




Neuroscience tells us that, to be more productive and creative, we need to give our brains a break. It's the quiet mind that produces the best insights. But it's a challenge to take that sort of time off in the midst of a busy day. Here are three specific, quick, and easy ways to build purposeful break time into your day.

Quick Meditation

New research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging suggests that people who meditate show more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, show stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy. In other words, meditation might make your brain bigger, faster, and "younger". As lead researcher Eileen Luders explains, "it appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain."

Tip: If you commute via public transportation (or even if you're a passenger in a car pool) use the time to close your eyes for 10 minutes. If you drive, leave a little early, park, and spend 10 minutes in the car before you walk into work. Choose a very specific image, such as a waterfall, beach, or tree, and try to focus on it alone. If other thoughts get in the way, gently push them aside. Do this once or twice per day. The goal is to let your mind achieve a sense of relaxed awareness.

Pulsing

Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, renown for his research and theories on expertise, points out that top performers in fields ranging from music to science to sports tend to work in approximately 90-minute cycles and then take a break. We are designed to pulse, to move between spending and renewing energy. Pulsing is the simplest, easiest, most immediate way to build breaks into your day.

Tip: Download a "break-reminder" utility, such as Scirocco or Healthy Hints, and set it to ping you every 90 minutes. Focus hard on a particular task until that cue. And then take a walk, talk to a colleague, doodle, or listen to music. Do anything that renews you and gives you a "second wind," even if you think you don't need it. You do. Five minutes later, get back to work.

Daydream Walks

Most people have heard the story about how 3M's Arthur Fry came up with the idea for the Post-it note: he was daydreaming in church. Jonathan Schooler, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara, has repeatedly shown that people like Fry who daydream and let their minds wander score higher on creativity tests. What separates this from meditation is that, instead of emptying your mind, you're letting it fill up with random thoughts. The trick is to remain aware enough to recognize a sudden insight when it comes.

Tip: Start by taking 20 minutes, two days a week during your lunch break to take a stroll and daydream. Think about anything you want besides work—a beach vacation, building your dream house, playing shortstop for the Yankees, whatever. Ramp it up to three or four days a week. The next time someone catches you daydreaming on the job and asks you why you're not working, tell them that in fact you're tapping into your creative brain.

12. juni 2014

THE NEUROSCIENCE BEHIND HOW SLEEP CLEANS YOUR BRAIN

We know that getting even a measly extra hour of sleep a night can havemajor benefits for us--like more memories, less anxiety, and happier genes. But scientists have tested another hypothesis for why we need to spend so much time horizontal: Sleep cleans our brains.

Ian Sample, the appropriately named science writer for the Guardian,summarizes the phenomenon this way:

Through a series of experiments on mice, the researchers showed that during sleep, cerebral spinal fluid is pumped around the brain, and flushes out waste products like a biological dishwasher.

The process helps to remove the molecular detritus that brain cells churn out as part of their natural activity, along with toxic proteins that can lead to dementia when they build up in the brain, the researchers say.

We might want to take these conclusions with a grain of cerebral salt, given that human brains are more mightily complex than those of mice. Still, the results are super fascinating. As published in the journal Science, University of Rochester professor Maiken Nedergaard led a team that found out that the brain cells of mice shrink while they sleep--creating a space between them that's 60% bigger, which allows for the cerebral spinal fluid in their brains to flow 10 times faster while sleeping than while waking.

Then they wanted to see how the mice brains did with toxins, so they injected them with proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease--and found the proteins were cleaned up faster in the brains of sleeping mice.

This is super fascinating because we've known about the effects of better sleep, like the memory consolidation that we need to remember our lives, but Nedergaard's research sheds light on the actual mechanics of what's happening while we're not waking. If the same holds true for humans, then sleep may be a key to fighting dementia and other degenerative diseases, since it's the time that your brain sweeps clean the toxins that are laying about.

"You can think of it like having a house party," Nedergaard said in a statement. "You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can't really do both at the same time."

The takeaway for us knowledge workers? If we want to keep our knowledge working--and staycreative into our 80s, we need to figure out how to get amazing sleep.

Hat tip: the Guardian.com

17. mai 2014

The Science behind why we get bored

You might think it’s your fault you’re dozing off in a classroom or office, but that’s not always the case. There are clear categories of boredom triggered by one’s environment, says pioneering researcher Dr. Thomas Goetz from the University of Konstanz in Germany.

What is the most common misconception about boredom?

It’s important to recognize the different types, and clearly define the differences.

You say apathetic boredom is the worst — how bad can it get?

The problem is that it makes every experience negative and the potential for arousal is low. You can’t do anything against this state and it can become a big problem related to depression.

What puts us at risk?

Some people tend to a specific state but only to a small degree; each experience is based on situations. It’s important that people recognize the forms. Often the problem is a lack of freedom, such as at school. Teachers should be aware and try to find individualized methods that give students choice.

Is there a risk that teaching boredom could cause more boredom?

There is an argument from anxiety research that awareness increases the problem, but in this case it is about knowing and realizing, and this goes hand in hand with resolving it.

What follow-up research is needed?

We didn’t measure the effects. We need diagnostic instruments to show the experiences of boredom.

Types of boredom

  • Indifferent boredom. A relaxing, possibly positive type – “a general indifference to, and withdrawal from, the external world.”



  • Calibrating boredom. Wandering thoughts — “general openness to behaviours aimed at changing the situation.”



  • Searching boredom. “Actively seeking out specific ways of minimizing feelings of boredom.”



  • Reactant boredom. Causes sufferers “to leave the boredom-inducing situation and avoid those responsible for this situation (e.g., teachers).”



  • Apathetic boredom. Impossible to break from this mode – “dangerous, similar to depression.”

15. mai 2014

How your brain works during meditation

How your brain works during meditation

Your brain processes more thoughts and feelings during meditation than when you are simply relaxing.

Mindfulness. Zen. Acem.  Meditation drumming. Chakra. Buddhist and transcendental meditation. There are countless ways of meditating, but the purpose behind them all remains basically the same: more peace, less stress, better concentration, greater self-awareness and better processing of thoughts and feelings.

But which of these techniques should a poor stressed-out wretch choose? What does the research say? Very little – at least until now.

See alsoLanguage is in our biology

Ingen vet helt hvordan hjernen fungerer når man mediterer. Foto: Thinkstock

No one knows exactly how the brain functions when a person meditates. Photo: Thinkstock

Nondirective or concentrative meditation?

A team of researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the University of Oslo and the University of Sydney is now working to determine how the brain works during different kinds of meditation.

Different meditation techniques can actually be divided into two main groups. One type is concentrative meditation, where the meditating person focuses attention on his or her breathing or on specific thoughts, and in doing so, suppresses other thoughts. The other type may be called nondirective meditation, where the person who is meditating effortlessly focuses on his or her breathing or on a meditation sound, but beyond that the mind is allowed to wander as it pleases. Some modern meditation methods are of this nondirective kind.

“No one knows how the brain works when you meditate. That is why I’d like to study it,” says Jian Xu, who is a physician at St. Olavs Hospital and a researcher at the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging at NTNU.

Two different ways to meditate

Fourteen people who had extensive experience with the Norwegian technique Acem meditation were tested in an MRI machine. In addition to simple resting, they undertook two different mental meditation activities, nondirective meditation and a more concentrative meditation task. The research team wanted to test people who were used to meditation because it meant fewer misunderstandings about what the subjects should actually be doing while they lay in the MRI machine.

The results were recently published in the journal “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience”.

Nondirective meditation led to higher activity than during rest in the part of the brain dedicated to processing self-related thoughts and feelings. When test subjects performed concentrative meditation, the activity in this part of the brain was almost the same as when they were just resting.

A place for the mind to rest

“I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person’s thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused,” said Xu. “When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network.  And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation.”

Provides greater freedom for the brain

“The study indicates that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated meditation,” says Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo, and co-author of the study.

“This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest,” says Davanger.

Meditating researchers

Most of the research team behind the study do not practice meditation, although three do: Professors Are Holen and Øyvind Ellingsen from NTNU and Professor Svend Davanger from the University of Oslo.

Aktiviteten i hjernen var størst når tankene fikk vandre som de ville. Foto: Thinkstock

Brain activity was the greatest when the meditators’ thoughts wandered wherever they wanted. Photo: Thinkstock

Acem meditation is a technique that falls under the category of nondirective meditation. Davanger believes that good research depends on having a team that can combine personal experience with meditation with a critical attitude towards results.

“Meditation is an activity that is practiced by millions of people. It is important that we find out how this really works. In recent years there has been a sharp increase in international research on meditation. Several prestigious universities in the US  spend a great deal of money to research in the field. So I think it is important that we are also active,” says Davanger.

9. april 2014

Blocking Off Time

Do you ever wish you could just put the world on pause so you could get stuff done? Imagine what you could accomplish if all those little interruptions and minute tasks just went away (if only for a few hours so you could focus)! 

It’s true that the hardest part of getting stuff done finding time to just sit down and focus on one task until it’s complete. As chronic multi-taskers, we often jump between multiple tasks only to become frustrated with our lack of progress on any of them.

That’s why it’s important to schedule those power work blocks into your calendar. While it’s unlikely you could dedicate an entire day to grinding through priority tasks, it’s easy to set aside an hour or two, maybe even three, every day to focus on what you need to get done.

Ways to block off time

Block Off Your Calendar — Set aside the same time every week so you get in the habit of using that time for work (and others know not to expect to be able to reach you during those time slots). Once a time slot is designated as a power work block, never allow anything else to be scheduled during that time (or even worse, allow non-priority tasks to sneak in there).

Designate a Project — Decide in advance what project you are going to tackle in each of your power work blocks. Try to match the type of activity to the work block. So for example, schedule product development work when you are the most energized and creative, and save monotonous tasks for later in the week  when you’ll be ready for a brain break.

Prepare in Advance — Get everything you need to handle the project quickly and efficiently ready to go beforehand. That may mean assembling research materials, gathering files or asking people to submit their input the day before. Do whatever you need to do to allow yourself to sit down and get it done! Your power work block is about powering through stuff, not getting ready to do the work.

Turn Off the Distractions — Make a no interruptions rule during your power work blocks (and that includes self-interruptions, like checking email, responding to alerts and popping onto social media to inform that world that you are getting a lot done today). This is why it’s useful to have regular power work blocks so others get used to the idea of you not being available during those time slots.

Front Load Your Week — Whenever possible, try to fit more power work blocks into the first half of your week because a) that’s typically when you have more energy to power through projects and b) if something is going to derail your productivity, it has less chance of doing so early in the week.