The pressure is on to re-train our brains

“There must be different ways of doing this….” opined my taxi driver as we discussed the recent return to the use of strike action as a way of expressing frustration at changed employment conditions.  He meant that direct action like this, however well-intentioned, causes all sorts of disruption and unforeseen consequences which can lead to further losses. 

He might have been describing any number of recent local and global events which are raising fundamental issues about the way we do things and the way we respond to change in an increasingly fast-moving and apparently dislocated world. 

Events like Brexit and the rise to prominence of personalities like Donald Trump provoke strong feelings. Strong feelings are also significant contributors to their occurrence in the first place. These feelings are often borne of unconscious biases and fears which are harnessed, wittingly and unwittingly, in the quest for votes or other support. In a complex environment, it seems really important that those tasked with advising and commenting on current political, legal and economic affairs are aware of the psychological and neurological drivers at play.

“90% of errors in thinking are due to errors in our perception” said the great lateral thinker, Edward de Bono. It is perhaps hard to accept the current science which tells us that 90-95% of our thoughts and the actions they stimulate are unconscious. They just happen. Free will is not in bountiful supply. We have “no choice”. We are literally “mindless” much of the time. Without this intuitive, instinctual mode, we could not function. Our brains could not otherwise cope with the millions of “bits” of information we are faced with in each moment. Conscious thought is energy-consuming and tiring. It consumes glucose and oxygen. We are wired not to expend energy unnecessarily. 

When facing a dangerous predator, our prehistoric predecessors did not need detailed analysis (or a flip chart) to decide whether to fight, freeze or flee. Instinctively, they "knew" what to do. The brain was geared to help them escape a harmful situation as efficiently as possible. Indeed, any time taken for rational thought - even a milli-second or two - could be fatal. 

For most of us, however, effective decision-making under pressure can be influenced adversely by sub-conscious factors. Apparently, the same symptoms of physical fear our forebears experienced when faced by danger are provoked in us when we face adverse social circumstances. Bullying, confrontation, humiliation, exclusion, challenges to our status, can all lead to a similar physical response, an instinctive fear, a “knee-jerk” reaction. That's how the sheep tracks of our neuro-circuitry work. And we do not discriminate between imagination and reality. In other words, threat signals can be imagined, even if not real. Think about this in the context of recent events or, indeed, your own work….

These stimuli (perhaps stewing away in the background, unconsciously) can be exploited by the less scrupulous, inadvertently or as part of a campaign which plays on identity, group cohesion, conformity, stereotyping, “us and them”, the classic “othering” of sociology. Not only that, but we might even sense that what we are about to do or say is not mature or constructive - but we do or say it anyway. It is so hard to “just say no”. Our brain is not resourced to do that without expending much effort, especially when we are stressed. That’s why recently I chased that car whose driver abused me, verbally, on my bicycle. I nearly collided with oncoming traffic. Totally stupid but…just this once…..

The same could apply to a culture of blame and fault, whether it arises via public inquiries to identify wrongdoing, processes designed to assert discipline, or decision-making based on findings of right and wrong. These will tend to cause a reaction of protection, defensiveness, non-disclosure, fear-based avoidance, counter-claims and attempts to rebut, justify, vindicate and even vilify the other. 

Apparently, we can re-wire our circuitry by repeated exposure to better patterns of behaviour. By practice and rehearsal of the right thoughts and body responses which will help create new “neural pathways”. This takes really hard work in the micro (0.2) second when we feel discomfort and we might realise we are being aroused, provoked or threatened. What triggers you? How can you alter your response in that moment? And not make that angry call, send that email, cease work on site, terminate the relationship … or eat that biscuit. Just asking the question of yourself might be all it needs. Or having someone ask the question for you. 

Unless we become aware of what drives us and others, we can’t address the real challenges posed by contemporary events. An important book in this field, “Leadership Embodiment” by Wendy Palmer and Janet Crawford, emphasises that we humans are the only animals with the ability to change how we think in this way. The authors focus on the need to eschew a negative culture of accusation, blame and avoidance (“away from”) and to work collaboratively and constructively “towards” more resource-full outcomes. Sound advice for the times.

Published in the Scotsman on 1 August 2016.