You Can't Be Mad at Your Mind - Part 2

The second step in becoming an objective leader

Posted Feb 25, 2015

In my last blog, my goal was to try to convince you that you can’t be mad at your mind. In this blog, I want to make sure you are absoluely convinced! In this blog I will help you see that it is natural for us to be subjective, but it is within the capacity of the brain to increase our objectivity. We will start with a brief overview of the brain, in simple layman’s terms.

Our brains are pattern-making organs, made up of 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. “These neurons have spidery branches that reach out and connect to other neurons to form neural networks. A typical neuron has about 10,000 connections, or associations, with neighboring neurons, making a total of some 100 trillion connections.”3 To put this in context, NASA’s latest estimates for the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy is somewhere between 200 and 400 billion.

From the time we are children, our minds are rapidly forming mental models, making associations drawing conclusions about everything we experience through sensory input, and creating connections in our neural networks. Scientists believe the synapses, or places where neurons connect, play an instrumental role in memory. As these neural connections strengthen and fire together, memory is reinforced. Ideas, thoughts, and feelings are all constructed and interconnected in the neural net, and all have a potential relationship with one another. Our mental models about the way things are and ought to be and our expectations and experiences of happiness, love, and success, for example, become hardwired in the neural net as a result of our histories, experiences, and emotional responses to those experiences.

Our brains are continually gathering information and steering behavior based on these associations and connections, steadily building a neural structure. This structure is constantly changing as we experience and adapt to the world around us. Our brains do all of this automatically, constantly pruning connections while making new ones, without our conscious awareness.

Scientists have delineated the activities of the brain into two types: conscious and unconscious, or activities of which we are aware and ones beneath our conscious awareness. In The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam suggests that we have both a hidden brain and a conscious brain because we regularly encounter two kinds of experiences, those that are new and those that are familiar. The hidden brain (the unconscious activities of the brain) deals with the familiar, and the conscious brain (the conscious activities of the brain) deals with the new and the novel. The conscious brain is rational, careful, and analytical.4 It is slow and deliberate. The conscious brain engages our working memory, “the brain’s holding area, where perceptions and ideas are compared to other information,” when we encounter something new. For example, when you see an advertisement or the latest smart phone and rationally compare its benefits to your existing phone, it is your working memory, part of your conscious mind that takes in the new information and matches it against the old.5

This category of memory activates the prefrontal cortex, an energy intensive part of the brain. Daniel G. Amen, a psychiatrist and brain imaging specialist, describes the prefrontal cortex in his book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life as follows: “[It is] the most evolved part of the brain. Overall, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that watches, supervises, guides, directs and focuses our behavior. It supervises ‘executive functions,’ governing abilities such as time management, judgment, impulse control, planning, organization, and critical thinking. Our ability as a species to think, plan ahead, use time wisely, and communicate with others is heavily influenced by this part of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for behaviors that are necessary for us to be goal-directed, socially responsible and effective.”6

The process when we encounter something new involves the conscious brain. But once a problem is understood and the rule to solve it discovered, it makes no sense to think through the problem afresh every time you encounter it. You apply the rules you learned and move on. This is where the hidden brain comes in. Shankar Vedantam describes it as “a master of heuristic, the mental shortcuts we use to carry out the boring stuff.”7 The hidden brain contains the basal ganglia, a set of large structures near the center of the brain. One structure called the caudate is responsible for accuracy and speed of voluntary movements. It works with the other structure called the putamen to coordinate automatic actions. “The integration of feelings, thoughts, and movement occurs in the basal ganglia.

This is why you jump when you’re excited, tremble when you’re nervous, freeze when you are scared, or get tongue-tied when the boss is chewing you out.”8 The hidden brain is invoked by routine, familiar activity like putting an often-purchased product into a supermarket cart. It’s your basal ganglia that enable you, after 20 years, to still ride a bike. This is because of the principle in neuroscience called Hebb’s law: Basically, “nerve cells that are wired together, fire together.”9 This means that every time we practice something, groups of nerve cells are repeatedly activated together, creating long-term relationships among them that form a neural circuit

This is how it works when you learn something new. When you first ride a bicycle, you pay conscious attention to your balance, your speed, and how hard you are peddling so that you don’t fall off. But once you master how the rules of gravity, balance, and momentum interact, your conscious brain relegates bike riding to the hidden brain, specifically to the basal ganglia. You no longer have to think about what you are doing, and it becomes automatic. This frees up processing power for your working memory and the prefrontal cortex.

So, just as riding a bike or driving a car have become routine, so too have many of our responses to the things we encounter each day. How we respond to e-mails, how we behave in team meetings, how we approach new projects—it all becomes automatic over time. Here’s how it works when you encounter these familiar situations: “Your brain conserves the energy of working memory by shifting into a kind of automatic pilot. You then rely on long established neural connections in the basal ganglia that have, in effect, become hardwired for this situation and your response to it. This makes it easy for you to do the same thing you have always done, and frees you to do two things at once... multitask.”10 How much of what you do each day have you shifted to automatic pilot? How often are you multitasking?  To increase our objectivity, we must bring more of our automatic reactions—those that are hardwired and relegated to the basal ganglia—up to conscious scrutiny and analysis by the prefrontal cortex before we respond. 

ElizabethThorntonpurchasedfromShutterstock
Source: ElizabethThorntonpurchasedfromShutterstock

If you are over-reacting to situations, taking things personally, this may mean that you have underlying mental models that are hardwired in your neural net that are driving your reactions. You simply cannot be mad at your mind for forming associations and drawing conclusions in response to difficult situations in the past that became part of your neural structure without your awareness.  To become an objective leader requires that you bring your underlying assumptions and mental models up to conscious awareness, evaluate their usefulness and then choose to transform those that are not serving you.  In my next blog we will talk about how to do that.

Excerpt from my new book:  The Objective Leader: How To Leverage the Power of Seeing Things As They Are.