I will Decide . . . at some Point in Time

The debate around free will ebbs and flows with each new study.  We certainly like to think that we have the ability to freely make and follow the decisions that we make.  Most of the time anyway.  We also seem to like blaming anything or anybody other than oursleves when situations start “heading south” as the old saying goes.

When do we make decisions?  At what point do we become aware that we’ve made a decision?  And at the point at which we realize that we’ve made a decision, have we perhaps made it earlier than we realize.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, have demonstrated that portions of the brain iinvolved in our decision-making processes are activated up to seven seconds before we are consciously aware that we have made a decision.

As they are quick to point out – “Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought.   But we do not know yet where the final decision is made.  We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed.”

So the jury remains out for the moment, at least in terms of this study.  When do I decide? At some point in time.

Link:  Decision-making may be Surprisingly Unconscious Activity

Where is a History of Feeling?

An interesting book review highlights the relationship between experience and brain chemistry among its other items.  On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail suggests that one common theme through history is our desire as human beings to alter our moods and feelings.  And what I find interesting is that the emphasis is on mood and feelings rather than a more cerebral cognition.

This binary disconnect between cognitive thinking and emotion can sometimes be summed up like this, I suspect.  I think, therefore I am.  I feel, there fore I am ALIVE.  Emotion trumps cognitive thinking over and over again in terms of strength in our overall sense of awareness.  We exist to feel in profound ways and the great religions of the world have gone into sometimes exquisite detail on the “heart” and its management.

There have been many intellectual histories written that trace the development of ideas.  Ideas grow, change, and evolve as mental models frame and reframe around core concepts.  Emotions, moods and feelings remain much more constant over time.  Anger, love, hatred, and so forth remain from generation to generation, culture to culture.  What changes is how we allow ourselves to express them.  As Star says:

“Our very synapses are shaped by experience and education from before birth to the time of death. The brain of a monk does not resemble the brain of a soldier or a taxicab driver. An impulse to swoon in distress or erupt in anger may be innate, but Victorian women were quicker to faint at the sight of blood and Southern men are faster to react to slights than women or men in many other places. These predispositions can be passed on from generation to generation without any alteration in anyone’s genes, and yet they are readily seen as aspects of our nature. In a way, they are. “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.”

It would be interesting, I think, to see a written emotional history comparable in scope to the great intellectual histories.  They may exist (and if anyone knows of a good recommendation please post).  Smail’s book would to a subset of that category as he focuses upon the more narrow subject of our pursuit of mood altering technologies.  But he brings up important questions relative to our continuing efforts to come to grips with both our thinking and feeling selves. 

Link: I Feel Good

Dreams and other Stuff

Jonah Lehrer, Seed Magazine, posts a cogent reminder on the limits of reductionism in answering many fundamental questions about who we are and how we live.  And it is worth reiterating here that understanding the physical workings of the brain only gives us certain types of information. 

To quote him – “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff. What we need is a science that can encompass both sides of our being.”  Indeed.  And somehow through the messiness of sociology, philosophy, religion and other softer sciences we do indeed try to grapple with this messiness of subjective experience.  And there, of course, is the rub.  We are the ghost in the machine.  Understanding the machine is becoming easier.  Understanding ourselves remains, so far, as complex as it ever was.  But we increasingly have tools that make it at least a little easier.  What we do with them has been an evolving process.  Where we go with them remains yet to be seen.

Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty

Three distinct responses to new information. Do I accept it or throw it out? Or am I unsure? Our cumulative responses together build our mental models – our worldviews of everything around us.

A study conducted by Mark Cohen, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Sam Harris, a graduate student in his lab, and Sameer Sheth of the Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that physiological differences in processing belief and disbelief are independent of content or emotional associations. It appears that different physiological portions of the brain process belief and disbelief as well as uncertainty.

Taken together, these data offer insight into the way in which our brains work to form beliefs about the world. “What I find most interesting about our results,” said Harris, “is the suggestion that our view of the world must pass through a bottle-neck in regions of the brain generally understood to govern emotion, reward, and primal feelings like pain and disgust. While evaluating mathematical, ethical, or factual statements requires very different kinds of processing, accepting or rejecting these statements seems to rely upon a more primitive process that may be content-neutral. I think that it has long been assumed that believing that “two plus two equals four” and believing that “George Bush is President of the United States” have almost nothing in common as cognitive operations. But what they clearly have in common is that both representations of the world satisfy some process of truth-testing that we continually perform. I think this is yet another result, in a long line of results, that calls the popular opposition between reason and emotion into question.”

Of many items of interest in this study is the association of emotion with our truth-discerning processes and our personal convictions.

Link: Study Shows Brain Responds Differently to Belief and Disbelief

Tagore, Delight, my Brain – and Memory

On a personal note, Tagore’s early letters have been a delight of late. Something moves me in his early, reflective writing – the discovery by youth of something of the mystery of self, perception and the world around it. On an extended, lazy river trip he writes –

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man. Shelidah, 10th August 1894.

Many other things move me as well of course. And of many things that they have in common, a piquant poignancy is one important thread among many – a poignancy that not only occurs “in the moment” of the actual event, but is brought forth again and heightened by the simple act of remembering.

Memory is a tricky thing – that which we remember is but one approximation of the actuality – colored by who we are and what we’ve experienced. Events often becomes more pleasant in memory than the actual event itself. Our brains are pretty good storage instruments in many regards – not so much of data perhaps, but of information (data interpreted) and experience (data acted upon). But they act more effectively as interpreters than storage instruments. (Check here and here for the drier explanation if you like.)

And that is significant. For us as individuals data alone is fairly irrelevant. But data that is interpreted, experienced and colored by the complex emotional components that spring from our brains is the stuff of which our memories are made.

I think that’s why experiments such as Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits, while important, and even useful as tools, ultimately remain only that – tools of recall for our brains and minds. The data is just data. Its significance lies in the act of recollection.

And so Tagore’s words move me in my memory some 100 years after they were written. It isn’t merely the data that he left behind – but what those words cause to resonate within me. And it is that resonance that causes me delight – even as it reminds me of the limitations of my mind.

Brain Activity Differs For Creative And Noncreative Thinkers

This just in from ScienceDaily –

A new study by John Kounios, professor of Psychology at Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University indicates that basic differences in brain activity between creative and methodical problem solvers exist and are evident even when these individuals are not working on a problem. The study shows that greater right-hemisphere activity occurs even during a “resting” state in those with a tendency to solve problems by creative insight. This finding suggests that even the spontaneous thought of creative individuals, such as in their daydreams, contains more remote associations.

The study compared a methodical versus a more diffuse “aha” type of thinking.

Link: ScienceDaily

The Brain, Myth and Coaching

Our ability to accept and promote inaccurate information and mis-perception can often seem astonishing. This is, in part, fueled by how our brains process and remember information. Here are a few factors in our brain’s assessment of information that help propagate these misunderstandings, along with relevant coaching principles.

  • Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Therefore, when coaching – repetition, repetition, repetition is a key to change.

  • Long-term memory is more apt than short-term memory to retain the bias that well-remembered false information is true.

Get the coaching information into long-term memory for change to stick. Repeat, repeat, repeat as above.

  • Once an idea has been implanted in people’s minds, it can be difficult to dislodge.

Planting the coaching idea is the first step and its mere planting is useful.

  • The brain is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something.

The coachee may not remember that you gave him or her the idea, but they may well remember the idea itself, and our egos aside, that of course is what’s most important.

  • When accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true.

You must respond to a coachee’s assertions with something in order to affect change.

What we are referring to here is the difficulty that we, as coaches, find in changing people’s mental models. Often a coachee seems willful or even malicious in his or her obstinacy to retain incorrect beliefs and affect change. What is suggested here is that at least a portion of this behavior involves brain hard-wiring and that if we will work with that hard-wiring we can obtain better results.

Link: Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach