Technology, Brainwaves and Plasticity

I’ve been accused of being too enthusiastic about EEG-biofeedback technologies, and ultimately about the brain’s ability to heal and self-regulate under the right circumstances. But you can check out the research for yourself; and make up your own mind as to whether the potential of these technologies is simply a sexy idea, or whether they do hold some merit.

(Also check out this Newsweek article.)

There is more high-quality research coming out all the time; and the development of neural technologies underpinned by an ever-evolving scientific understanding of the brain is flourishing.

Personally speaking, working with these technologies every day over the past few years has been eye-opening to say the least.

Will applying a feedback process for the brain reverse structural damage, or halt a degenerative process? Not likely. Can it help the brain remap and reorganize to best take advantage of the resources it has left? Absolutely.

So what is EEG Biofeedback?

EEG Biofeedback is a powerful tool that takes advantage of the brain’s plasticity (its process of changing and reorganizing itself by forming new connections between brain cells). EEG sensors on the scalp read the electrical activity of the brain, in the form of brainwaves, and mirror this information back to the brain in a specific way through audio or visual cues. This real-time reflection and training of brainwave activity appears to support the brain’s natural ability to reorganize its own patterns and come into a better place of flexibility and self-regulation.

Brainwaves reflect the overall patterns of the electrical activity taking place in billions of brain cells as they communicate throughout their networks; making everything happen mentally, emotionally, and physically. Sometimes these networks and their electrical activity can become disrupted through a physical trauma such as a concussion, or through various emotional traumas and stressors. EEG-Biofeedback helps the brain to readjust and regain its edge.

We live in an age where technology is developing at a mind-blowing pace. This can be both scary and exhilarating; but we have a choice on how we wish to engage with it. It’s a great thing to be able to “unplug” when we need to: to re-generate, calm the mind, and get back in touch with our natural selves. Conversely, technology can help us save time and streamline so that we can focus on the more important things in life like family and health.

We can also engage in the realm where technology meets and enhances our health and well-being. This pertains to the tried and true age-old technologies such as the science and art of meditation, yoga and mindfulness, for example; as well as to emerging electronic and frequency-based technologies such as biofeedback.

Take advantage of it. We are lucky to live in a day and age where we have so many choices where we can customize and target specific aspects of our physical and emotional health. Unplugging when we need to, and engaging in both time-honored and cutting-edge technology as appropriate, can do wonders for our physical, mental, and spiritual health and happiness.

More Research on Staying Motivated

I read an article in Scientific American the other day (Nov 2012, Daisy Yuhas) that I thought I’d share. I talk a lot about motivation primarily because I think it’s an interesting concept, but also because I’m always trying to find it and hold onto it myself. The article outlines three elements identified by research that are important for sustaining motivation. I figure they’re worth knowing, so I’ll share them here:

The first one is Autonomy. This one was interesting to me because I had never really thought about it before. I talk a lot about the importance of finding or developing an intrinsic vs. extrinsic payoff for sticking with a task – which I still believe to be true – but I’ve learned that that’s not the whole story. It turns out that regardless of whether you engage in an activity for the internal or external reward, the more important thing is that you feel a sense of control over the task. You need to feel that you’re in charge.

The second element, according to the article, is Value. This one wasn’t a surprise: I think it just makes sense that the more you believe in or value something, the more willing and able you’ll be to see it through.

The final element mentioned is Competence. To me this speaks to the cultivation of an intrinsic reward system: the better you get at something, the more rewarding is to do it. And the more rewarding something is, the easier it is to stick with it. We all like doing things we’re good at; the key is doing something long enough to develop a sense of mastery over it.

Think about the elements outlined above, and how they might apply to you and your own motivation. How can you gain a sense of autonomy in everything you do? What parts of the task can you identify that align with your values and beliefs? When you’re feeling unmotivated, can you remind yourself that the better you get at it the easier it will become to stick with it?

The important thing to remember, though, is that things like Autonomy, Value, and Competence are just words until you really make the effort to discover, create, manipulate, and use them successfully wherever you need a motivation boost. Often times this means creating a shift in perspective and being willing to see things in a new way. It’s about digging, stretching, and seeing the bigger picture. Every action you take, whether a one-time thing or a sustained effort, adds up to something bigger. Also know that this will always be a work in progress and that motivation has to be reinvented every day, with every endeavour.

Judging Others

I recently heard something that stuck with me as a good little adage to remember about judging others: “Logic doesn’t equal fact”.

I think this is an important thing to remember in every aspect of our lives; but particularly in regard to how we might unwittingly treat other people because of the assumptions we make about their intentions and abilities:

When we to try understand someone’s behaviors, we tend to base our explanations on what we think we see. We make a quick assumption given the limited data we have, and if the assumption seems logical we accept it as fact.

In one of my old social psychology textbooks, the authors (Brehm, Kassin, and Fein) explain that when judging another’s behaviors, our explanations come in the form of us making either personal or situational attributions. In other words, we make assumptions about whether the success or failure of another’s actions were do to his own skill and ability, or whether he lucked out or got burned because the environment had set him up for automatic success or failure.

The authors note that where we typically err in our attributions is through the use of cognitive heuristics (rules of thumb that allow us to make quick, but often erroneous assumptions) and the fundamental attribution error, in which we overestimate the role of personal factors on the impact of a situation.

In other words, the assumptions we make based on our own logic is often wrong. So the next time you’re in the position to praise, acknowledge, condemn, or dismiss the results someone’s actions, ask yourself whether you might be making an inaccurate assumption, and why. If things went well did you overestimate his contribution because you like him? If they didn’t go so well did you so for unfair reasons?

The Secret to Success in Life

We know that there’s no true secret to success in life; but we’re all searching for a way to make it happen. Success can be defined in many different ways; and it’s our personal value system that defines it for each one of us. However you define success, though, there are some things we know to be true:

One is that in order to be successful you have to work at it consistently; there is no quick and easy road. Another is the fact that opportunity plays a big role: it doesn’t matter how hard we work if there is nothing for us to capitalize on. (Often times these opportunities are hidden from our direct consciousness; but they are there nonetheless.)

The other big thing we need to be successful is the willingness and ability to focus on our strengths.

I think this is a tricky one because we’re not always taught to do this. As kids in school we were expected to become proficient in many different areas; whether we showed an aptitude for them or not. (Granted, I realize that a child needs to be exposed to a broad array of knowledge in order to function well in society – but why does he have to struggle year after year to learn something he’ll never use? Wouldn’t his time and energy be put to better use through learning and practicing in the areas of his strengths and talents?)

But that’s a philosophical discussion for another time. My point is that fostering success through focusing on our strengths doesn’t always come easily: we’re not always given the opportunity to learn to know our strengths so that we can act upon them.

So to help this process, here are five cues from the research of Donald Clifton and Paula Nelson for identifying your strengths or true talents (as found in their book, “Soar with Your Strengths”):


Yearning: Which types of activities are you naturally drawn toward?

Rapid Mastery/Quick Learning: Which types of activities do you seem to pick up quickly?

Flow: In which activities do the steps come to you naturally and automatically?

Glimpses of Excellence: What were you doing when you did something extremely well and asked yourself “How did I do that?”

Satisfaction: From which activities do you derive the greatest amount of pleasure?


Think about these questions seriously. Are these the things you’re focusing on in your work and/or life? Are you putting in the time needed to gain expertise in these areas? Would an increased focus on these things cause you to feel more contented, balanced, and successful?

Personal Growth and Development

I’ve been reading some Ken Wilber lately; refamiliarizing myself with his theories after some time away. If you’re not familiar with his work I highly suggest checking it out. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Here’s a snapshot of a couple of his ideas that you can think about in the context of your ongoing personal growth: The four quadrants and the lines of development…

One important thing to keep in mind when we’re doing our internal work, according to Wilber, is that the intentional world of the individual (i.e., what’s happening on the inside) needs to be taken in context with the behavioral, cultural, and social worlds.

Each of these four quadrants, as he calls them (intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social), interacts with one another and cannot be separated. In other words, what you feel, think, experience, etc. is directly impacted by what you do; as well as by the expectations and norms of the culture and society in which you’re immersed – and vica versa.

Similarly, no one quadrant can be reduced to the other; as modern science tries to do (according to Wilber) by focusing only on the directly observable world at the expense of the subjective world of the individual.

Another piece of Wilber’s view is the idea that development takes place along numerous, relatively independent lines; and that some lines might be more developed than others. For example, he writes, a sociopath might be highly developed cognitively, but not so much morally. Similarly, we here stories all the time about men of the cloth who are presumably quite developed along the line of spirituality, but not so much in other areas important to ethical behavior and impulse control.

I’m drawn to these models because they offer me a clearer and more comprehensive way of understanding myself and the world. They help me remember that all things are interconnected; a well as identify where I can best focus my efforts at any given time for my own continuing development.

If you decide to check these theories out (or if you already know and love or hate them), I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Honoring Your Personal Evolution

Who I was twenty years ago is certainly not who I am today. Or so I used to like to think…

When I look back at myself at that time I see someone with a pretty different set of ideals, values, beliefs, and ways of being in the world. And quite frankly, I like today’s me much better. But what I’ve learned, through lots of self-reflection, is that trying to deny who I was back then was causing me to be inauthentic. And as a person who values authenticity, I’ve had to reexamine this practice:

How we internalize things dictates the formation of our beliefs and values; and consequently how we show up in the world at different times in our lives. Said another way (to borrow from Claire Graves’ Spiral Dynamics research), our experiences and the way we process them continually shape and reshape our psychological structures, value systems, and modes of adaptation.

So who we are today doesn’t differ from who we were yesterday: we’ve always been the same person wrapped in ever-growing layers of our own evolution. As philosopher Ken Wilber points out, human beings – like any other organism – develop in a holararchical fashion: meaning that each new level of the organism transcends and includes it junior. In other words, we’re not designed to disown parts of ourselves. Like atoms to molecules to cells to tissues, each previous part is not discarded, but reconfigured and integrated into the new more evolved whole. This works the same way on all levels that make us human; not just the physical.

If we try to disown any of these layers, or aspects of our selves, we find ourselves having to recreate the past in order to keep a cohesive story. Because as human beings we’re always trying to piece together the Gestalt of our lives: we need continuity in order for things to make sense.

And of course we do this all the time: when we tell the story of who we are and how we’ve arrived, we naturally embellish some parts, readjust others, and completely exclude the rest. Naturally a bit of this doesn’t hurt, but too much makes us inauthentic: when we tell these stories, even as we come to believe them ourselves, we’re not living as our true selves when we’re drawing from a false base.

Granted, it can be wise to forget about certain pieces of our past – but only if you truly see them as toxic experiences that attempt to derail you from being your happy and authentic self. For example, if someone has treated you badly in the past, one of the most helpful things you can strive to do is forgive, forget, and move on (however you can make that happen). This might be the best strategy if you find yourself ruminating about it to the point where your anger or fear does not allow you to find happiness or move forward with your life in a healthy, satisfying way.

On the other hand, if you can acknowledge the hurt and anger but identify that the experience has moved you in a stronger direction, you might not want to try to dismiss it. It might be healthier to see the experience as a piece of your past that’s helped shaped the person you are today. Maybe it’s allowed you to be stronger and wiser in some way. In this way, and if appropriate, you could remember and honor the you in the past who carried and managed this discomfort; so that the you of today can continue to carry out the work you do, live the life you live, and share the things you give back to the world.

This really has to do with honoring all parts of yourself at a “higher level”: a more adaptive, integrated, healthy, and purposeful acknowledgement of who you are. It’s about acknowledging your own evolution, and about integrating and building upon all aspects of your previous beliefs and experiences. It’s about learning to accept who you are; and making the conscious decision to build upon your positive aspects while adapting, adjusting, and integrating in a healthy way the other aspects that are no longer serving you well.

So I’ve learned that I really am the same person I was twenty years ago: just a better, updated version. I’ve also learned that I wouldn’t be the version I am today if I didn’t think what I thought, did what I did, and learned what I had learned along the way!

Communication In The Workplace

Communication in the workplace has to do with how we interact with our colleagues on many different levels simultaneously. It has to do with how we plan and convey the messages we want to give, both verbally and nonverbally; and with how we listen to, interpret, and respond to others’ messages.

And one way to characterize the successful execution of this is to say that we’ve engaged in effective dialogue.

We can call these interactions many things, of course: discussions, conversations, arguments, etc. – but I quite like the term ‘dialogue’ as it’s defined in Clutterbuck’s (2007) book, Coaching the Team at Work. Here he defines it as “approaching an issue with as open a mind as possible, with a view to understanding other people’s perspectives and perhaps creating a new perspective”.

This is a pretty powerful definition, I think. It highlights the fact that we all have our different viewpoints, values, and beliefs that have been shaped by everything we’ve ever experienced – and that we carry these with us everywhere we go, into every interaction we have.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it can be a dangerous thing if we don’t recognize it and deal with it appropriately. It’s important to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the fact that we are coming from a very different place in many ways from the person sitting across the table from us – and vica-versa. With an open mind we can embrace our differences as well as our similarities; and we can identify and capitalize on the unique experiences that everybody brings to the table.

And, as Clutterbuck points out, we have the opportunity to shape these diverse perspectives into a new perspective.

I believe that these “new perspectives” should be the primary goal of dialogue. They can serve as the underlying philosophy that creates and guides a more effective culture for the partnership or team. (Because culture happens everywhere, all the time; with or without our conscious input. So we really should be proactive about it.)

Culture is a word we use to explain how we see and do things together. It speaks to our collective understandings about the explicit and implicit rules, roles, expectations, and protocols that govern how we approach problems together and how we interact with one another. If not handled actively, honestly, and purposefully, we leave the culture that develops to chance. And as we all know, that can be an ugly thing.

So the bottom line is that we can, and should, take charge of shaping our culture – and that we can do so by learning to engage in effective dialogue. It starts with cultivating our own sense of self-awareness; and it continues by keeping an open mind in trying to understand and integrate the healthiest and most helpful viewpoints, values, and beliefs of all involved.

Crystallized and Fluid Intelligence

I recently presented a workshop on intergenerational communication in the workplace; where I talked about various communication styles and how the generations could work better together by understanding their similarities and differences.

In retrospect, one thing I could have included was a discussion of the role of crystallized versus fluid intelligence (as originally proposed by psychologist Raymond Cattell). I didn’t, however, and so here’s as good a place as any to mention it…

If the terms crystallized and fluid intelligence aren’t familiar to you, here’s the idea: the former refers to accumulated knowledge gained from previous learning and experiences. The latter involves abstract reasoning and the ability to problem-solve novel situations. As we age, our crystallized intelligence increases as we experience and learn more things; but our fluid intelligence decreases.

In an environment where different generations are working together we can use this knowledge to our advantage. For example, the older members of the team could provide information about the historical context of a problem (i.e., how it came to be; what has and hasn’t worked in the past) etc.; while the younger members could use this knowledge to brainstorm new and creative solutions (while not having to reinvent the wheel.) In other words, both groups can bring the best of their brain-power to the table; working together to develop creative and progressive solutions based on sound principles and time-honored wisdom.

There is lots of information to be found about generational differences; but not as much about how these differences can be acknowledged, celebrated, and used in a productive way. It’s definitely an area worth paying attention to as people continue to work longer while the younger generations are entering the workforce.

Making Changes

We all think of making changes in our lives; but making the decision to move forward and shake things up isn’t always easy.

I wrote an article some time ago about motivation and goals; the premise being that you don’t necessarily have to be motivated to act. I still believe this to be true, of course; but we also know that motivation isn’t the only reason we fail to move forward with things.

Self-imposed fear and doubt are also big reasons we fail to act; and we really have to work on overcoming these in order to be successful and happy in our lives. But there is also another, often unnoticed reason we should pay more attention to: the habit of telling ourselves that “it’s not the right time.”

I’m sure we all know on some level that there never really is an ideal time for anything; but we continue to use this excuse anyway because it’s so believable: “I can’t change jobs until I find one that offers the same security”. Or “I can’t buy the house (start the family, build the business plan…) because I don’t have the time or money right now”.

It’s easy to fool ourselves with this line of thinking because it sounds so logical. It can also be very helpful at times when fear and doubt is the underlying driving factor: we don’t have to take the chance and risk failing.

It’s true that our current circumstances often do present legitimate-looking barriers to our desired future. But what we have to remember is that taking action actually changes our circumstances. Once we actually do something, the situation we thought was holding us back is no longer our situation. We suddenly and automatically find ourselves in a new place with a new set of opportunities and challenges.

Of course it’s always an option to wait it out and hope that the stars align just right; but chances are we’ll be waiting a long time. As Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing happens until something moves.”

“It’s not the right time” is neither a logical nor self-empowering argument for staying still. The time to act on our goals and dreams will never be perfect; and we really can change our circumstances by changing our actions. To truly live our lives means having dreams, setting goals, and taking risks. It means learning to understand what’s really within our control, and not being afraid to make choices and take charge our own destinies.

How to Make Good Decisions

If you’re thinking about how to make good decisions in your life, you might want to explore some strategic planning models.

Truth be told, I don’t know a lot about strategic planning – but the one thing that’s always stuck with me is this: “The cardinal rule is to take the path that allows you to change course if your initial decision proves wrong”.

This is a very powerful statement I think, as it speaks to being proactive and thoughtful about our choices. Many of us (including myself for many years) are too passive about the decisions we make that determine where we end up. Granted, there’s something to be said for “going with the flow”, or trusting the idea that things will work out the way they should. But the problem is that when we take the time to reflect on our lives, we see that things don’t always turn out the way we had hoped they would.

They say that hindsight is 20-20, and unfortunately the choices we could have made are much clearer than the decisions we’re faced with at present. But if you believe that every little choice can alter the events of our lives in some way, you’ll agree that as hard as it is sometimes it would probably pay to be more deliberate with our decisions.

Whenever we’re faced with a set of circumstances that demands a decision between two or more courses of action, the first thing we need to do is get out of our own way. In other words, we need to truthfully examine our own anxieties, assumptions, and self-imposed limitations, and toss them aside. Decisions are easy to make if they’re based on fear: we simply choose the easy way out to avoid any discomfort. But this most often isn’t the best decision in the long run.

The second thing we need to do is examine the realities of the situation: “What’s really possible?” “What’s really the potential impact of this decision over the other?”

Then when we see a situation as clearly as we can, reasonably free from the clouds of subjectivity, we can return to the cardinal rule of strategic planning: “If I make this decision and it doesn’t go so well, how difficult would it be to course-correct and choose a different path?” Of course following this logic doesn’t automatically guarantee success – but if we do need to shift gears, we end up saving a lot of precious time and effort by having thought it through the first time around.