Reality versus Perception: Our Brain at Work

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Lately I came across a very nice quote referring to the differences that exist between beliefs and reality:

“The map is not the territory” from Alfred Korzybski

This quote illustrates very nicely that your reality (what you believe is true and objective, thus your ‘world’), is nothing else than an inner representation of the external realities and the world that you are observing and living in. Your perceptions create the “map of the world”. This map helps you navigate in the “real world”, through daily experiences and impressions. Like a road map it gives you landmarks for moving forward towards your destination and various codes and rules let you interpret and understand what is happening, what you can do and what you cannot.

Thus, there is “your” reality (the map) and the outside world (the territory) and there will always be differences between the two. Our human brain notices what is happening around us (in the territory) through our senses and then proceeds to filtering the received information in order to be able to use them and not to create an ‘overflow’ of stimuli.

Let me give you an example: Imagine your manager comes in and sees you sitting at your desk which is overflowing with paper and other things. He or she simply says: “You have a full desk”. Depending on your background, education, culture, previous experiences etc. you might be thinking: “Oh, he/she said that I am not organized”; or you might think something like “Oh, he/she notices that I have a lot on my plate” or anything in between. There are many different ways of interpreting what has been said and whatever you might have understood will trigger your reactions and your thoughts after that. Somebody observing the scene on the other hand, might interpret something completely different as he/she would have a very different view on the world. So, what is “real” and what not?

As you can see, there is only one situation happened: one territory. The possible representation hereof (the maps) however, i.e. how people perceive this situation can have many different facets and aspects.

Next time you find yourself in a difficult situation, you might want to think about what “really” happened (the facts) and what your interpretation, your judgment and your subjective view of the event was. You might even want to seek clarification from the person involved in the action clearly asking what was meant (if at all possible). The important thing to remember here is that you choose how you react and if at all… opening up to what really happened and what you saw, heard, felt, might help you change your behavior over time, which will in turn change the way others react upon you.

Thanks for reading! Jenny

How to stay focused in a mindful way

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Every one of us has already experienced sitting in a meeting or being on the phone and suddenly thinking of something completely different, drifting away. This usually results in losing the thread of the conversation, feeling bored or uninterested and thus in a disengagement of what is happening.

In order to stay focused on one thing, the working memory in your cortical brain regions is moderately stimulated through a steady stream of dopamine, keeping the gate, which allows information to come in, closed. On the other hand, as soon as the stimulation decreases significantly or if there is a new opportunity or threat (thus a spike), the gate opens, resulting in you being distracted by something else. In short, as long as the amount of stimulation remains above a certain threshold, there is no need for your brain to seek for more stimulation. But when stimulation drops, you are triggered to get more now. (You can read more on this in “Buddha’s Brain” from R. Hanson, 2009; the insights presented here are taken from the book).

5 things you can do to stay alert and concentrated:

1. Ensure you get enough sleep, i.e. take care of yourself. ‘Enough’ depends on your personal factors and environment. It is interesting to note here, that if you are practicing meditation as a method of relaxation for example, 20 minutes of focused meditation can equal 2-4 hours or even more of deep sleep.
2. If you are sitting, sit up in in an erect posture, if you are standing, stand up straight. Your internal network of nerves will tell the brain that you need to remain vigilant and alert.
3. Take a couple of deep breaths; by doing so, the oxygen saturation in your blood will be increased and your brain revived. If you can, you could also take a walk before getting back to work.
4. Stretching your body will also help, even rolling your shoulders, stretching your legs and arms. Tensions will be released, oxygen will circulate and your focus will be established again.
5. ‘Brighten your mind’, infusing your awareness with energy and clarity. Steadily high dopamine levels like from positive feelings prevent drops in stimulation. The more enjoyable and intense your feelings are, the greater the dopamine release and the more concentrated your attention. Just imagine a situation where you were extremely happy and feel what you were feeling. Or imagine giving a big hug to yourself. It sounds funny, but it truly helps, you will see!

No matter where you start, you can become better at concentration, believe me. This will not only help you at work but also when at home and with whatever you will be undertaking.

Looking forward to your thoughts and comments, and thanks for reading! Jenny

About moods, leadership and the social brain

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Tying onto one of my last posts on emotional intelligence and leadership, it struck me how much moods and our emotional states have an impact not only on our own working results but also on those of others and maybe even of a whole organization. As scientists have discovered, our emotional centers in the brain are so-called “open-loop” systems who depend largely on external sources to manage themselves.
As Daniel Goleman writes in his book Leadership, the power of emotional intelligence, “(…)one person transmits signals that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function etc. in the body of another” person (page 70). This mechanism was an important one in human evolution as it allows a mother to bond emotionally with her child for example. Even though we don’t really notice that this process is going on, scientists were able to prove that when two people meet and pay full attention to each other, putting aside all distractions as well as being in synch non-verbally, a phenomenon called “mirroring” will happen. This means that the physiological profiles of the two interacting people will look very similar at a certain point.
The same happens, when people work together in an office, a shop floor etc. People will somehow “catch” the feelings of their co-workers, sharing moods, good or bad.

Why does this matter so much? Well, first of all it shows the impact moods have on the overall climate in an office, at home or wherever we are. What is also important from an organizational perspective is that people usually take their emotional cues from the top (Goleman, Leadership, page 72). The attitude and the mood of the leader,the manager etc. will have an enormous impact on his or her direct reports.
Luckily, cheerful moods and laughter spread much easier than negative ones or even depression. But if constantly confronted with these negative attitudes and moods the whole climate of an organization will finaly be affected.

Increases in anxiety, stress or worry will make people less “emotionally intelligent” (Goleman, Leadership, page 77). Our cognitive efficiency erodes and the brain cannot operate at full performance anymore. Motivation goes down, challenges suddenly become overwhelming
and we are simply not able anymore to solve problems creatively. With high levels of anxiety and stress the brain secretes high levels of cortisol and norepinephrine, two substances which will interfere with the smooth operation of learning and memory. (Goleman, Leadership, page 90). At a certain point the person won’t be able to take more levels of stress and become sick and or break down (which can be observed quite often in our Western societies nowadays).

Interesting, don’t you think, how just by being an “emotional intelligent” leader, knowing when to apply which leadership style and how important moods are you can:

  • motivate
  • inspire
  • retain your staff and
  • reach your performance goals more easily (as there are of course many other factors of impact here) outerperforming all other leaders.

    I wish it would be so simple!

    I hope you enjoyed reading this article! Have an excellent weekend,
    Jenny

  • On the path of self-transformation

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    Currently reading an excellent book in order to prepare for a ‘mindfulness in the workplace’ training I am going to attend, it struck me how easy it can be to bring calm and quietness into our daily lives. If you ever had anything to do with psychology, yoga, coaching, stress-reduction techniques or mediation you will certainly know this but bringing it all together to the point is what really makes a difference.

    Did you for example know that:

    • What happens in your mind changes your brain and vice versa? You can actually train your mind to change your brain in lasting ways.
    • Small positive actions every day will add up to large changes over time? You will gradually build up new neural structures.
    • Human beings evolved to pay great attention to unpleasant experiences? This negativity bias highlights bad news and creates anxiety and pessimism. It takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one.
    • Psychological pain draws on many of the same networks as physical pain and can thus trigger the same negative experience and suffering?

    Little steps you can do on your path to change:

    • Turn positive facts into positive experiences. Bring your mindful attention to these facts, be open and allow them in. Let them affect you!
    • Hold these moments/experiences in awareness, being fully with them, savoring every moment. Focusing on your body sensations and emotions, let the experience fill your body and be as intense as possible so that both your body and mind can absorb it. Every time you do this, you build a little bit of neural structure. This will gradually and over time change how you feel and act.
    • Relax your body whenever you can by taking a deep breath for example or by focusing systematically on different parts of your body. There are many ways to train this from simple methods to yoga, meditation etc. Practicing ‘offline’ will allow you to foster and build strategies for your body which will then also be available to you when a stressful situation arises.

    Let me finish for today with a quote:

    “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” – Buddha Quotes (Sources of Insight)

    Have an excellent day/evening/morning! Jenny

    Think about this and put it into practice! What are you going to do about yourself this year? How are you going to find the resources you need inside yourself?

    Make Time for Personal Renewal—4 Strategies for the New Year.