Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Rewiring the Brain: A Moving Experience

First let me state that I'm no brain scientist. Yep, that's clear. Yet I'm fascinated with the recent focus in brain theory on the neuroplasticity of the brain. Apparently what scientists have discovered is that even into our old age, we can rewire the brain. We can keep learning. The challenge (of course there is a challenge) is that it's not easy. Recently I've discovered a way to keep my brain fresh, to learn new things and to challenge myself. I'm moving.

After 15 years living of in our first home we are moving to a new home. Aside from the emotional attachment to this house and all of the memories it holds, I realized that now I have to think. Because when you've lived in a space for 15 years or more everything becomes a habit and you don't have to think about it. Up until a few days ago I could walk through this house blindfolded and not hit a thing. I knew every nook and cranny, where things were on dresser tops, or where things hung in closets. But now that we've moved some of the furniture out, boxed up some of the items and brought at least half my wardrobe to the new house, I can't run on habit any more.

So what does this have to do with brain science? The enemy of neuroplasticity as I see it are habits. Habits are ingrained ways of thinking and acting that create a neurological pathway in the brain and eventually become "neuro-cement" making other neuro-pathways more difficult. For example, once the neuro-pathways for language are embedded in our brain it is much easier for the brain to default to our "first" language than to struggle with a second or third (that's why my Spanish is so bad). The other challenge is that habits also have the positive effect of making everything simpler and more efficient. When I don't have to think about where my tie is, or where the best Chinese food is then I can use my brain for other things. But we can allow our habits to become so ingrained that it becomes more and more difficult for our brain to be flexible.

Moving forces the brain to think and rewire. As we move things into the new house I'm rethinking my habits. How will I get coffee in the morning? Where will I write? How will our routines change as a result of living in a three-story house? All of these questions and more challenge my brain to rewrite scripts that I've ignored over the past 15 years. Even the neighborhood and surrounding city is different so I have to think about where to get food and what areas might not be as safe as others.

Rewiring the brain is not easy. The brain likes to default to the most well-used neuro-pathway. However when you want to change a habit or learn something new I'm finding that there is no better way than to give the brain no choice. I can't live in the new house the way I've lived here, so my brain has to change. So, perhaps you don't have to move, but if you want to develop or learn something new try giving yourself no choice. The brain will adapt faster than you think.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Not-So Secret Tips of Accomplishing Tasks

There are things that need to get done in life and we admire those who accomplish them. The strategies they use are not secret, but there is good research as to why they work. Here are a few tips I've learned from the best.

1. Clarify your goal. The best "doers" I've met set crystal clear goals for the time they have so they know exactly what they want to get done. The clearer you are with your goals, the more you will accomplish.

2. Set a meeting with yourself. If you really need to accomplish a task, set aside some time to do that. And then, just as if you would in a meeting, turn off your handheld device and your emails. Research indicates that when you are working intently on something, a call or an email can distract your level of intensity for up to 15 minutes.

3. Work in 90 minute increments. The brain can only focus intently for about 90 minutes at a time. After that, with all the discipline in the world, you will find yourself distracted. Try working intently on something for 90 minutes, do something else for about 5 minutes and then go back to the more serious work. You will accomplish much more.

4. Focus on one thing at a time. In this hyper-paced society we believe we have to do three things at once. If you are honest with yourself, when you do three tasks simultaneously you do all three badly. Our brain is not capable of performing more than one complex task at a time. If you really want to get something done, just do that one thing.

The amusing part of these four steps is that most of us know them. We've heard them from various sources and can talk about them all day. Then why do most of us complain about getting nothing done and a small few get a lot accomplished? Because they actually do these steps and don't just talk about them. They "manage" their family, friends, associates, business colleagues and the rest of the world not to expect immediate responses but to know that everything will get done. And they practice the discipline of focusing for short bursts of time and then giving themselves a break.

That's how to get things done.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Want to Change the World? You Just Might Have

As I readied to begin, standing in front of a group of leaders in Tokyo, I realized I had a small window of time in which to connect positively or negatively. I greeted them in Japanese, wishing them a “good morning.”  After a moment’s pause I apologized, in English, and said “that’s  all the Japanese I know.” Smiles spread throughout the group and a few said, in English, “that’s okay.” The rest of the session was very positively received because of the contagion of smiles and vulnerability.

I bring this up after hearing Nicolas Christakis speak at the recent Positive Psychology Summit in Philadelphia. He said something profound that all of us need to consider as we interact with family, friends and our wider network. And if we really want to change the world for good this is essential. He said “networks magnify whatever they are seeded with.”

Whether it’s the first time in front of audience (like I was) or an intact family, or your network of friends the information, choices and even more important, the emotion we foist on our network impacts the entire group. A person’s attitudes, decisions and actions are based on the attitudes, decisions and actions of the people around them to the third degree of separation. If you think about it, with this information a random act of kindness isn’t so random once it affects your network.

What is so fascinating about Christakis’ research is that kindness and happiness spread to the third degree of separation in a network but meanness didn’t spread. You might be as surprised by that as I was. We hear so much about meanness, bullying, conflict, and war that it seems we are worse than ever. Yet the latest global research indicates that there is less conflict than ever in history. We just hear about it more.

So what does this mean? If we begin seeding our networks with kindness and goodness it will spread. But what about personal greatness? What about striving for our personal best every day? Will that also spread to the third degree of separation in our networks? I don't know since the research has not yet been done. yet I suspect that if kindness and happiness can spread so can striving for our best. If networks magnify that with which they are seeded perhaps we can unleash a movement toward a world where everyone can unleash their personal greatness. And the easy part is that it all starts by the way we treat the person next to us.