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…


Learned Optimism

Have you ever given up?

What makes a person resilient?  Why does one person buckle under a challenge, and another find the resources within to push through to a successful conclusion?

In his book, Learned Optimism’, Martin Seligman gives us at least part of the answer: it’s down to the way we explain success and failure.  There are two explanatory styles.  The pessimistic style looks at the event – let’s say the failure to hit a particular sales target – and says one of three things –

  • I’ll never be able to do this
  • I’m not good at this sort of thing
  • It’s my fault

In other words, the pessimist assumptions are that a failure is permanent; that it affects a whole larger area of life, and that she (and she alone) is responsible for this failure.  Likewise, when a pessimist succeeds against the odds, he’ll probably end up saying something like:

  • I’ll never be able to do that again
  • That was a fluke
  • I got lucky

These kinds of reaction are common enough – we’ve probably all said at least two or three of these six statements.  But contrast them with the reactions of an optimist to failure:

  • I failed this time – I wonder what this teaches me?
  • I can do lots of similar things- I wonder why not this?
  • There are loads of reasons why: it wasn’t all my fault

And to success:

  • How can I find an opportunity to do this again?
  • I worked for that
  • I know what I did to make this happen

The key thing is the effect that explanatory style has on us.  It doesn’t take a huge leap to realise that the pessimistic style can stop us even trying, and the optimistic one encourages confidence.

Optimism isn’t like extraversion – it’s not inborn, it’s learned.  And we can learn it, no matter how pessimistic our explanatory style.