Your Brain is Plastic!

Did you know that your brain is plastic? Perhaps given how plastic is currently plaguing our planet it may be better to say ‘Your Brain is Plasticine’. However, it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. 

So, what does this mean if you don’t like who you’ve become as a result of your experiences? You can’t go back and alter the past and you certainly can’t change the genes you’ve inherited. Nevertheless, although your early years have a significant impact on who you are, it doesn’t mean that you can’t change. 

Until quite recently, it was believed that who we are, whether genetic or environmentally influenced, became “hardwired” once we passed a certain age. However, scientists have now discovered that our brain is far more plastic than we previously believed, plastic meaning malleable. As eminent psychiatrist Norman Doidge explains in The Brain That Changes Itself, neuroplasticity challenges a host of long-held beliefs about how much we are able to change and adapt. For example, he explains that children who don’t do so well at school are not necessarily “stuck” with the mental abilities they are born with. He also outlines how someone can rewire their brain to overcome seemingly incurable obsessions and traumas, and that it’s even possible for a person in their 80s to sharpen their memory to function as they did when they were in their 50s. 

It’s still fundamentally true that you can’t change your core personality, but you can change the habits of a lifetime, alter your outlook, change your behaviour and attitudes, even, to an extent, modify your intellectual capability, because you can rewire your brain. Given the estimate that 33–65% of your personality is genetically determined, that leaves a lot open to influence by your environment, and consequently to the decisions you make about your development. 

This is particularly important to know if you’ve ever been told you’re “not good enough.” Being told you’re not clever or bad at something as a child will damage your self-esteem, and you will most likely carry it as an underlying belief for the rest of your life, influencing a range of behaviors. Yet as an adult it’s up to you whether you incorporate the less positive aspects of your past into your personal narrative. Your brain really is plastic. 

You Can Change the Course of Your Life 

A number of years ago I was asked to assess someone for a director role in a global company. The candidate, we’ll call her Ava, emailed before the session asking to talk over the phone. I’m open to people contacting me with questions, but it’s unusual when the profile understand why she didn’t want to do the tests. She had had a difficult and complicated upbringing, growing up with a single parent in an immigrant family, and attending a big state school. Because of dyslexia which hadn’t been diagnosed at the time, her teachers told her she was “stupid.” She left school and home at 16 and life went from bad to worse, but one thing she retained was her spirited determination. She took herself off to London, got a job in retail, and was quickly identified as having capability and promoted to manage a small team. From that point on her opportunities began to open up. She found a mentor who took the time to understand and guide her, enabling her to go from strength to strength, completing a college diploma and accomplishing a whole string of other significant achievements. I recommended her for the role and can happily report that she not only excelled in the job, but has continued to flourish, succeeding in her subsequent career. 

Although when I met Ava she still had the ghost of being told she was “stupid,” she had managed to overcome that as well as all of the other obstacles in her life. What she demonstrates is that you can change the course of your life, it is within your control, you just need to adopt the right attitude, find the right people and tools to support you, and work hard. It’s not easy and elements of those ghosts will probably always remain. But it’s also not impossible. 

This is a slightly adapted extract from my book ‘Defining You’ which is out in paperback on 19thof September in the UK and 24thSeptember in USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. 

Available on Amazon UK, USA and Australia at the links below:

http://bit.ly/DefiningYouPaperback

http://bit.ly/DefiningYouPaperbackUSA

http://bit.ly/DefiningYouAu

Screenshot 2019-09-08 09.04.42

Image: Pixabay 

Groundhog Day

When flicking through Linkedin and twitter do you ever get the feeling that you are being bombarded with the same message over and over again? I do. It struck me first when I was doing my business masters many years ago. I felt like the theories were repeating themselves while being vaguely morphed and renamed to suit the current context. The fact that philosophers such as Lao Tzu uttered words regarding leadership thousands of years ago (e.g. 600BC) that have stood the test of time is case in point:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

A few years later when I did my MSc in psychology I got the same feeling. While the theories we were learning were adapted and updated the words that resonated centuries before still make sense. Take for example:

 “Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.” Plato

 “Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Pericles

 And the one perhaps most relevant to today:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

It makes sense that these still make sense. After all people are people and the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries, so the fundamentals of good leadership, behaviour, citizenship remain largely unchanged. What threatened people centuries ago will threaten today, what motivated then will motivate today. The difference in 2019 is the environment we live in. The rate of change itself  and the volume of data we have to deal with is increasing exponentially. As a result those fundamentals of behaviour once central to people’s way of life are getting lost in an onslaught of fads and surface level demands

What the 21st century also brings is the ability to research what works and what doesn’t, an improving capability to look at the brain (which often helpfully confirms what we have thought to be true and dismisses the theories sitting on the peripheries) and centuries of experience on which to draw. And yet we don’t.

Surely we should return to those fundamentals that have been uttered over thousands of years, resisting the need to continually rename and reframe which simply leads to  concepts becoming diluted into a myriad of un-actionable ideas. Shouldn’t we instead refine and build on what has been ‘evidenced’ to be true, adapting only in order to meet the demands of the world we live in. It’s a bit like remodelling a house to keep it up to date, rather than knocking it down and building it from scratch every few years. When it comes to behaviour taking this approach would allow us to advance our understanding both as individuals in order to really leverage our potential, and as a society.

What could you do to help this and to help yourself?

  • Check your sources. Is the information you’re taking on board from a well-meaning idea junky or something that’s properly tried and tested through either the passage of time or scientific research. What do I mean? Well take meditation – a technique that has been passed down through generations with benefits now backed by scientific research. Today we have hundreds of mindfulness apps to choose from. Some are based on proper research and knowledge (e.g. Headspace) which help people to actually learn how to meditate and progress their mental robustness.  Others are just nice to listen to but really don’t do much. It’s really important to find out whether what you are using works otherwise it’s just like throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.

 

  • Understand what’s core to who you are as a human (i.e. here the same philosophical texts and the functioning of the brain is true for all of us). Everyone is trying to come up with something new, a different angle to try and get themselves heard – but if you capture the key principles, you can filter the information coming at you. This will allow you to pull out what is truly useful (using the techniques above), what is actually new and what will really help underpin a positive life.

 

  • Capture what’s core to you as a unique individual. While your preferences, goals, and areas for growth will morph and evolve through your life – your values, personality, natural strengths, narrative and purpose will remain more stable and consistent. So, it’s worth capturing these. You may think that they’re obvious but we forget them and without having them front of mind it’s easy to lose our way and impossible to perform at our best.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Image source: petponder.com

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

On Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at Red Smart Women’s Week. Having done my talk I took the opportunity to go along to a session on ‘feeling good about your use of social media’, hosted by Brigid Moss. Her guests were Katherine Ormerod and Lucy Sheridan who both have first-hand experience as social media influencers.

Lucy’s focus is comparison, an area that fascinates me from a professional standpoint. We all compare ourselves to others, but social media allows this to get out of hand. Lucy candidly spoke about her trials with “Jealousy and envy of other people” which stemmed from social media. From the outside what you see is a funny, humble, engaging and authentic lady, but we all know what goes on inside and what we see from outside are two entirely different things. She went through a period where she really struggled and says she has to keep herself in check with social media even today.

So, what is the psychological root of this envy we all feel – envy which is exacerbated by social media? Evolutionary psychologists explain that feelings such as envy enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety) and therefore better chances of survival. The negative emotions felt when comparing someone similar but who had ‘more’ was a motivation to readdress the balance. For example, if person ‘a’ had more food than person ‘b’, the envy felt by person ‘b’ would motivate them to find more food, meaning an equal chance of survival.

Then and now, this comparison is most significant amongst peers. Research carried out by neuroscientists Ramachandran and Jalal show that if we compare ourselves to someone such as our neighbour who happens to have more money than us and someone like Mark Zuckerberg whose net worth is $62 billion, most of us feel more envious of our neighbour. Why? Because our brain has evolved to think that there’s ‘no point in being envious of’ Zuckerberg. He’s off the scale either in ability or luck so no amount effort will result in us becoming the richest person in the world.But if our neighbour is more wealthy than us, someone who has a similar background, social status, opportunities etc., we feel envy to motivate us to have the same. The problem is that today the envy is not fuelling a life and death situation so becomes a far less helpful emotion.

This unhelpful emotion becomes even worse when we add in social media. Online everyone ‘seems’ closer to us than in reality they are so suddenly everyone becomes a peer. As a result we compare ourselves to and become envious of far more people which starts the negative downward spiral faced by comparison on social media. This is made worse because we’re often trying to close the gap on something unattainable a) because the person we are comparing ourselves to is not from a similar background to us (e.g. Hollywood star who grew up with film star parents in LA) b) because most images on social media do not display reality (i.e. a snapshot of perfection rather than the struggle, pain, failure and every day ugliness that goes on behind the scene). The more primitive areas of our brain don’t know that we’re striving for something that we cannot achieve or something that’s unrealistic, which greatly amplifies the negative emotions felt and in turn produces powerful feelings of inadequacy.

So what can you do when you feel envy:

  • Try to notice the envy – what or who you are envious of, observing the emotion rather than engaging with it (more on this technique in my book and books by Russ Harris). Being self-aware can help you to stop and put it down when it becomes too much rather than getting sucked in.
  • Try to limit your social media usage. Sounds obvious but it’s really important. To quote Arianne Huffington “Technology is amazing, but it needs to be put in its place, and we need to set boundaries so that we have time to connect with ourselves and to build deep connections with others.” Lucy and Katherine have more tips on this (websites below).
  • On that point – connect with others in real life. Make the effort to call a friend or to speak to someone in person and really concentrate on what they say. It will move you away from feelings of envy as well as bringing you back into the real world and evoking far more powerful and helpful emotions relating to the more advanced areas of the brain.

 

Read Lucy and Katherine’s websites for more on having a healthy relationship with social media.

Lucy’s website:

http://www.proofcoaching.com

Katherine’s website:

http://www.workworkwork.co

Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References:

Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Jalal, B. (2017). The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1619. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01619

Ekman P., Friesen W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 17 124–129

Ramachandran V. S. (1998). Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? Med. Hypotheses 48 19–20

Quote: Teddy Roosevelt

Picture: pexels.com