Your Brain is Amazing

So is mine, actually, if I can say so without seeming arrogant.  And this is partly because it can do two things almost at once.

I’m reading the best book ever (well, my latest ‘best book ever’ I suppose): it’s called ‘The Master and His Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist.  Subtitle: ‘The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ – so, an ambitious tome.  But ambition is great if you can back it up – and boy, can McGilchrist back it up!  This is a book which connects neuroscience with philosophy with physics with literature with music with emotional intelligence with evolution with… you get the picture.

For those of us who are right-handed, the basic brain stuff goes like this (lefties: you probably – but not definitely – need to reverse left and right in the paragraphs below).

The right hemisphere of your brain is open to the world: it attends to everything that’s going on.  In a way it’s like a vast satellite dish, receiving signals all the time.  And it picks things up whole, connected, in context with one another.  (You can see this if you get wired up to a monitor which picks up the electrical and chemical activity in your brain.)

What does it do with all that overwhelming data?  It sends it to be ‘processed’ in the left brain: there it gets broken down and focussed and manipulated to make it useful to us.  the left brain will narrow down on what it thinks we need to know, and package it up in a more or less logical way for us – in words for example (for most of us the left brain is most involved in language).

All that happens in a nanosecond; and then the packaged information is whizzed back to the right brain to feed in alongside all the new data it’s picking up.  Stuff ‘reverberates’ from one side of our brain to the other all the time.

I find all this stuff mind-blowing – ironically.  But one of the many great things about it is – it totally fits with Jung’s notion of paired, complementary mental functions (as picked up in MBTI and other Jungian Type instruments).  Right brain – intuition (big picture, context, vision, connection).  Left brain – sensing (data, focus, analysis).  And it fits with Daniel Kahnemann’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ (fast – right brain; slow – left brain).

The question is – how do we get ourselves to attend to both sides of the brain appropriately?  If you’re a leader, this is especially important, of course – but we all need to do it.

You could start by reading the book…


Leading in schools and business

Actually, this entry is mainly just a link to an article on the Guardian website where I get a mention as a leadership coach.  Read all about it here.

Matt’s right, in that leaders in all sectors are isolated: it comes with the territory.  And one way of dealing with that is to have someone with some skills ‘offline’ to reflect with.  One reason coaching works is because of the professional boundary: when I’m meeting with a client, my only agenda is his or her development: it’s not what s/he thinks of me, or if s/he’s happy.

10 Top Tips about Extraverts

1 – sometimes we prefer to be introverts.  When you see us organizing facts, savouring experiences, developing ourselves, thinking stuff through, dreaming dreams – we are working in the inside world, and that’s introversion

2 – the most important thing about us is usually something we show you quite quickly.  Because we prefer the outer world, you can often see what makes us tick.  That can be confusing if you think that the inner world is more important

3 – conversely, there are things you don’t see which are also important to us.  Just because we prefer the outer world doesn’t mean we don’t have a rich inner life

4 – you won’t get the best out of us if you don’t engage with us in the moment.  We love to know what you think and/or feel – don’t hold back!  We can take it…

5 – when we’re noisy, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re hassling you.  We may just be trying to discover what we think by talking.  And we expect you to come right back at us – we won’t (usually!) be offended

6 – we like introverts.  We appreciate your depth, and want to find out what’s in it; although sometimes we may need you to be a bit quicker to tell us

7 – we sometimes feel worried about being extraverts.  Are we too noisy?  Did we say that out loud?  They’re not saying anything – did I upset them?

8 – we don’t think we’re better than introverts.  But we do know that sometimes you need what we have, and we want you to appreciate our contribution

9 – too much time on our own depletes our energy.  We need time to think (well, most of us do) but we gain hugely from being with others and getting their input

10 – once you get really close to us, you may be surprised at how hidden our deep places are.  But we need you to listen carefully to all that we say and understand that some of it is really personal and important to us

10 Top Tips about Introverts

1 – sometimes we prefer to be extraverts.  When you see us gathering facts, having experiences, making relationships, making plans, talking about possibilities – we are working in the outside world, and that’s extraversion

2 – the most important thing about us is usually hidden from you to start with.  Because we prefer the inner world, you may not be able to see what makes us tick.  That can be confusing if you think the outer world is more important

3 – conversely, the thing you see first might not be that important to us.  Because we prefer the inner world, what we do in the outer one usually matters less to us in the end

4 – you won’t get the best out of us if you don’t give us time to think and process information.  It doesn’t need to be long – just a few seconds silence might be enough.  Tell us clearly when you need the response by and you’ll get it

5 – when we’re quiet, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re holding out on you.  We may just be trying to find the space to understand what we think.  Or we may be a bit worried about how you’ll react to what we want to say

6 – we like extraverts.  We appreciate your energy, and feed off it; although sometimes we may need it in smaller doses

7 – we sometimes feel guilty about being introverts.  In a world in which the media presents human beings as essentially extravert (partying, paragliding and falling in love), it sometimes seems wrong to be ‘us’ (reading, looking at the view, being on our own)

8 – we don’t think we’re better than extraverts.  But we do know that sometimes you need what we have, and we want you to ask for our contribution

9 – too much people stuff tires us out.  We like people (well, most of us do) but to regain a sense of balance and to really be able to contribute well we need to retreat afterwards

10 – once we’ve let you into our world, you may be surprised at how open (and extravert) we can be with you.  But it takes time and trust to let you in

Recognising yourself

‘Oh, that’s what I’m like!’

I was sitting in a dark railway carriage a few months ago, and I looked across the aisle.  I saw a reasonably smartly dressed man, with receding hair and glasses.  It was the end of the day – he looked tired. Oddly, he was staring at me as if he knew me.

That unexpected reflection has stuck with me: I can still see the image in my mind’s eye.  Because it’s hard to see ourselves with any sort of objectivity.  It’s both scary (I was older and tireder than I thought) and affirming (I was slightly better-looking than I thought – though that’s not making huge claim!).  Anything that helps us get a better view of who we are and how we appear is exciting.

That’s one reason I love using the Myers Briggs psychometric in my work.  This isn’t an advert – it’s just the truth!  Well used and understood, it’s a fantastic way of seeing ourselves without negative judgement or false pride; a way of recognising ourselves for who we are and beginning to understand how to work better with that.  Any week when I have a few feedback meetings using this tool is a good one for me – because I love to hear people say, with excitement, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m like.’


I’ve been reading ‘Quiet’, Susan Cain’s provoking book about introversion and (to a lesser extent) extraversion.  As someone with a definite preference for introversion myself, I think she’s done a great thing in opening up the discussion about the differences.


Broadly speaking, an extravert is someone who prefers to spend his or her time and energy in the outer world of new people, experiences, plans, actions and possibilities; an introvert prefers to spend his or her time and energy in the inner world of people they’re close to, familiar experiences, deep interests and inner vision.


There’s lots of interesting stuff in the book about the neurological and behavioural differences between people, and at points I felt that lovely surge of confidence that it’s OK to be the way I am, even though most of our popular culture seems to imply that extraversion is in some way ‘better’ or expected of us.  So that was great.  My concern is that I’m sure all of us really prefer to work with a mixture of the outer and inner world – there’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ introvert or extravert.  So it’s not either/or, for any of us – it’s both/and.


So the question becomes not the static one of ‘Which are you, extravert or introvert?’; but the much more dynamic ‘How do you use your extraversion and introversion?’  How do you live in the outer world and the inner world?  How do you learn to move comfortably between the two worlds?  Whichever one you prefer, how do you live in the other one effectively when you have to?


These are the questions I work with all the time using the Myers Briggs model, so in a way they’re familiar.  But for all of us – me included – they provide new challenges every day.  How do I balance the routine needs of the business (introverted activity like writing a blog and doing the accounts) with new developments and external demands (extraverted activities like networking and delivering)?


The great thing is, we have both outer and inner energy; the secret is finding out how to work comfortably with both kinds…