When I started this Provisions series four months ago on Our Distributed Brains, little did I know what an educational and eventful four months it would be. I invited you then to help me co-construct this Provisions series by referring me to some of your favorite books and articles on learning and the brain. You did not disappoint. I am still making my way through the digital pile! In addition, as most of you know, my 87-year-old mother died rather suddenly and mercifully during this same period of time. Talk about learning from experience! My Limbic system, the seat of emotion, took over with deep feelings of sadness and grief. It’s time now to summarize what we have learned before we move on to other topics. People tell me they love these summaries; I hope this one is no exception.
My wife, Megan, and I will be spending the next two weeks in Asia, connecting with and speaking to coaches and educators in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. It is an exciting life that we are living these days, and that’s not just because of the travel. Even when we stay home, teaching people on the phone through the evocative coaching training program, we are engaging with and learning from people around the country and around the globe. That is the best part of all. To have a sense of being a global citizen, to be introduced to different cultures and perspectives, and to enrich our minds with the experiences and ideas of others: what could be better than that!
Unless, of course, it could be sleeping in one’s own bed, getting up for a run in the morning, and enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of spring. What a time we have been having, here in North America. Whether it has to do with global warming or something more idiosyncratic, we have had virtually no winter and all the trees, bushes, and flowers are weeks ahead of their spring schedule. It is absolutely glorious to go for a run or a walk with all the forsythias, azaleas, redbuds, dogwoods, and cherry trees in bloom. We thought we were going to miss that with our upcoming trip to Asia, since things usually peak here in the first two weeks of April. Not this year! The universe took care of giving us a treat before we left.
Maybe the Great Spirit of the universe knew we needed to be reminded of the life-giving power of life. I have always appreciated the advent of spring for the ways in which it reminds of how things that look bleak and barren can suddenly wake up and spring to life. The solitude of winter does not have the last word. I expressed that sentiment in my 2003 poem, Awake, which I encourage you to read online. You can even listen to how our friends, Erika & Theo Jackson, set that poem to music. They performed that song live this past week with us, in Columbus, Ohio, as we presented a keynote speech titled, “Celebrating the Best to Bring Out the Best” in life and work. What a treat it was to work together with them again.
Especially since my almost 90-year-old father drove down from Cleveland to participate in the event. Originally, both my mother and father had planned to come down for the day. But my mother passed away on Valentine’s Day and it was sad to cross a threshold of something we had once planned to do together, without her. Having my father there was yet another reminder of how things come back to life. Even in death, there is reason to look up, give thanks, and sing.
At the start of this Provisions series on Our Distributed Brains I announced that I would soon be taking some time off from writing new Provisions, reprinting an earlier series on optimal wellness, while I wrote two books on leadership. It is time, now, to follow through on my intention. Starting next week, you will be receiving Provisions that I wrote almost six years ago. It will be fun for me to reread them before sending them out, and I will probably make minor edits along the way (can’t really help myself on that). But that will free up the time as well as the mental energy for other projects that have been sitting on the back burner.
Fortunately, this Provisions series has helped me to learn more about the neuroscience of learning and leadership. That will serve me well as I write my books. There’s no way, in this day and age, to responsibly overlook that literature and research. So what have we learned over the past four months? Here are the highlights, in chronological order:
- The Brain is Not All In Our Heads. A lot of the brain is in our heads, but much of it is distributed throughout our bodies. The nervous system is not just a passive receptor of what the brain-in-the-head tells it do. And the nervous system is not the only part that thinks. There is constant communication, and even decision making, up, down, and around. Thoughts. Feelings. Sensations. They all work together to help us make sense of life.
- Neurons are Only Part of the Story. There was a time when people thought that our folded grey matter, which represents about 20% of our brains, did all the thinking. The other 80%, or white matter, was thought of as little more than glue that held everything together. Au contraire! The greatest brains in the world, like Einstein’s, have had the most amount of white matter. Scientists now know that white matter plays a pivotal role in all brain functions and that synaptic firings between nerves are only a small part of the story. The ability to think deeply, slowly, creatively, and imaginatively, the very attributes that make us human, comes from the deep recesses of our minds.
- Repetition Rewires the Brain. Everyone has probably heard the mantra, “practice makes perfect.” But did you know there is a biological basis for that mantra? Practice makes perfect because it changes our distributed brains. We make new connections, change our physiology, and rework our chemicals with every go round. That is what neuroscientists refer to as neuroplasticity, the adaptive nature of the brain to change itself. So why not take advantage of that capacity. Go do something new, practice it repeatedly, and change your brain today.
- Give your Brain a Break! The overwhelm of life is real. Our brains are not equipped to function well in a wired, digital, 24-7 world. So give your brain a break today. Practice meditation. Sleep in complete darkness. Dampen or neutralize noise. Take breaks from the news. Limit electronic stimulation. Make face-to-face social interactions a priority. Visualize happiness. Be grateful.
- Everyone is Smart at Something. The old notion of intelligence as being just about our cognitive ability to handle abstract thinking has been replaced by a much broader understanding of intelligence. At least nine areas have been identified: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. So take heart: everyone is smart something. Find your smart and take it to heart.
- Our Organizing Minds. That’s what brains do: they organize stuff. But they do not always do so efficiently, fully, and optimally. To help people get a handle on things, my friend and colleague, Margaret Moore, wrote a book together with a Harvard professor of psychiatry, Paul Hammerness. From taming the frenzy to connecting the dots, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life will assist your brain to do what it wants to do naturally.
- Stop Mental Musterbating. People told me they read that Provision just because the title got their attention. I’m glad. Beating ourselves up about all the things we “must” and “must not” do is no way to live. That’s not to say there is no place for ethics. It is rather to say that we would do well to celebrate our victories, grieve our losses, and move on with grace. Blaming and berating ourselves and others for what is not done may be human nature but it takes a toll on our quality of life. Set that impulse aside and live!
- Your Brain on Goals. Guess how many New Year’s Resolutions are still around six months later? More than you think! More than 40% of the people surveyed were aware of and still working on their goals. That’s because goals represent another way to change and rewire the brain. Imagine your goals. Design a plan. Then pursue it with a passion. That’s what I call a formula for success.
- Your Brain on Dialogue. If you don’t know what your goals are, perhaps a conversation would help. Whether we dialogue with ourselves or others, doing so represents a critical faculty for learning, growth, and change. Explore your needs, your environments, your relationships, your behavior, your ideas, and your feelings. Do so with wisdom and grace. Then notice how good you feel. That’s what it’s like to brain on dialogue.
- Your Brain on Exercise and Rest. If our brains are distributed through our bodies, then guess what? Exercise will make you smarter! And so will sleep. They will also make you happier. You probably know that, especially if you have been reading Provisions for any length of time, but that doesn’t mean you always take the time to exercise or sleep right. These are often viewed as expendable when times get busy or stressful. If that sounds like you, then here’s a new frame. You are too busy not to exercise and sleep! The harder we push ourselves the more we need these vital rhythms in life and work.
- Your Brain on Grief and Support. And then my mother died. Just like that, in five days time, she was gone from a pulmonary embolism. My brain was filled with uncertainty, sadness, and grief. My Limbic system, the seat of emotion, was at time hijacked with weeping and tears. It was a tender and sorrowful time. But what made it bearable, far more than I could have ever imagined, were the many expression of support that Megan and I received from family, friends, and people like you: readers of LifeTrek Provisions. If there was ever such a thing as a virtual funeral, with all the emotion and healing of a real funeral, we shared that together. It will never be possible to thank you enough.
- Your Brain on Learning. Life marches on, and following the loss of my mother, Megan and I headed off to Las Vegas to help with some home repair projects on my daughter’s and son-in-law’s new-to-them house. We did a lot of stuff, much of which was learned 30 years earlier. How did that learning stick? It was a form of muscle memory. The body in the brain knew how to do stuff it hadn’t done in years. Remember how repetition rewires the brain? Learning works the same way. Whatever triggers the process, from watching a master to watching a DVD to conducting our own experiments, learning sets things in motion that may stay with use for life.
- Your Brain on Wonder. I couldn’t end this series without connecting the dots between wonder and wisdom, between emotions and enthusiasm. When we feel good we feel God (or whatever you like to call the Great Energy of life). Spirituality is not something separate from the body and the brain. It has a biochemical basis like every other process in the body and brain. When we feel awe we are vibrating in harmony with the music of life, and there’s no way to get too much of that. So look around, breathe deep, and feel good. That’s when, morning by morning, new mysteries we will see.
So now we’re off on another adventure. Our brains will be filled with goals, dialogue, learning, and wonder. Along the way, we’ll find time for exercise and sleep. We’ll no doubt make our share of mistakes, but that’s life! The key is to let our brains do what they do best: think, feel, and function for life.
Coaching Inquiries: What stimulates your brain for life? What would you like more of? What would you like less of? What goals might you be interested in taking up? Who would be a good conversation partner to talk with? What would you like to learn? How could notice more of the good stuff that makes life worth living?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
Thank you for another fascinating Provision: Your Brain on Wonder. Candice Pert is just a great read and her insights into vibrational healing (body, mind and spirit) are profound. My husband and I have been practicing daily meditation and breath work for many years and this practice of centering has helped us to stay energized and grounded. Family, friends, community, laughter, cheers and tears enrich our lives which is guided by a daily gratitude check for all there is to “ex-” and “in-” sperience.
I was out of town, in Asia, and I just read your remarks from your mother’s funeral. I surmise that your mom believed so strongly in you! My mom is gone 27 years and I feel as though she is my most ardent angel. My life, while it does have it’s share of pain, is very fascinating in that I manifest extraordinarily well. I truly believe that the spirit world, which is a whole world unto itself, has much more power to grant us “stuff” that we would not have easily attained with just mere mortals in our realm. I can sometimes see which relative is assisting me. It’s rather uncanny, but no longer, as it’s so consistent. You know those “synchronicities”? They’re clearly not accidental.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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