Provision #757: Your Brain On Dialogue

Laser Provision

Last week I wrote about the impact of goals on the human brain and by now I hope you know that when I write “brain” I mean the entire body-brain complex. Our brains are connected and distributed throughout every part of our body and goals have a demonstrable, beneficial effect on both their form and function. Simply put, it’s good to put your brain on goals. But goals are not the only brain food. Omnivores that we are, our brains also thrive on dialogue. Indeed, if you want to wake up your brain there’s no more surefire way to do that than to get into an engaging conversation with someone, if not an argument. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this Provision right now. Read on to start the conversation.

LifeTrek Provision

You may have no idea how much your reader replies mean to me. People often ask me, “How do you come up with things to write about?” I can answer that question in one word: dialogue. By hearing from, talking with, and listening to you on a week-to-week basis, things just pop into my mind. Once the first sentence has been struck, the rest of the Provision seems to flow rather naturally. One thought has a way of leading to another.

That’s hardly unique to me, although I may be a bit more disciplined and prolific than others. The human brain is wired for good conversations. That’s why solitary confinement is viewed as such a harsh punishment of last resort in prisons and other detention centers. The isolation is even worse in padded cells that eliminate ambient noise and dampen the sound of one’s own voice. In the absence of dialogue, the brain goes numb and the spirit dies. At that point, the body is soon to follow.

One way to understand the brain’s need for dialogue is to understand the mechanism of action behind our emotions. I want to thank Bettina, the reader who recommended Candice Perth’s book, Molecules of Emotion, for my new-found understanding here. The book is a delightful journey through not only the workings of the brain but also through the workings of the scientific communities that study the brain. Any woman looking to make her mark in a traditionally male profession would do well to read this book. But I digress.

The focus of Perth’s research and writing is to shift our thinking from a linear, neurocentric model of emotion to a quantum, neuropeptide model. That may not mean much to you, but Perth’s writing on the subject is often poetic, always eye opening, and connects the dots for me as to why dialogue has such a powerful influence on our distributed brains.

Perth describes how the brain-in-the-head was once thought of as a controlling supercomputer filled with “neurotransmitters being released from nerve endings, traveling across synapses to ignite another electrical discharge, in a hardwired (neuron-to-neuron), point-to-point hookup of traveling neuronal impulses. All brain functions, even for the most complex levels of mental activity and behavior, were thought to be determined by the synaptic connections between billions of neurons.”

But that model has been displaced by “a new theory of information exchange outside the bounds of the hardwired nervous system, focused on a purely chemical, nonsynaptic communication between cells.” Indeed, it is now estimated that less than 2 percent of neuronal communication actually occurs electrically at the synapse. Things are rather being controlled by a parallel system of continuously-circulating extracellular fluids containing hormones, peptides, transmitters, factors, and protein ligands that mediate emotionally-charged information.

So the age old question of whether emotions originate in the brain and get passed to the body or vice-versa ends up with a simple answer: “Yes!” It’s a simultaneous, two-way street that is controlled less by electrical signals being passed from one neuron to the next than by what happens to the chemicals coursing through our brains and bodies in all those fluids. Those chemicals are not just circulating mindlessly; they are looking for receptors with whom they can meet up and dance.

If it seems odd to think of your emotions in terms of such dynamic choreography, then perhaps the language of emotional resonance will help to make the case. Everyone knows that emotions are contagious, beyond the use of words, not only in human beings but in other animals as well. One bird gets spooked and the whole flock flies away. The charge, positive or negative, and intensity of an emotion determine whether we are drawn towards something or pushed away, a lot or a little. We are in constant dialogue with ourselves, both consciously and unconsciously, deciding what to remember and what to forget, what to act upon and what to ignore.

“Peptides,” Perth writes, “are the sheet music containing the notes, phrases, and rhythms that allow the orchestra–your body–to play as an integrated entity. And the music that results is the tone or feeling that you experience subjectively as your emotions.”

How far can that dynamic dance or emotional resonance go? All the way to a spiritual experience, according to Perth, when peptides reach beyond the body to make us feel connected to the whole. Such extracorporeal reaching, Perth notes, is analogous to the strings of a resting violin responding when another violin’s strings are played. When our molecules of emotion are all vibrating together as one, in concert and in harmony with each other and with others, we can have a very profound sense of connection with ourselves, with others, and with the spirit of life itself.

That feeling is a deep emotion and that deep emotion has a chemical basis brought on through the miracle of dialogue, both spoken and unspoken. “The emotions are the connectors,” Perth concludes, “flowing between individuals, moving among us as empathy, compassion, sorrow, and joy.” They “are at the nexus between matter and mind, going back and forth between the two and influencing both.”

It behooves us, then, to learn how to dialogue with ourselves and with others in ways that respect the wisdom and potential of these critical factors. Our health as well as our success in life and work depend upon our ability to do this. In her excellent book, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, Jane Vella identifies twelve principles and practices to begin, maintain, and nurture dialogue:

  1. Needs assessment: participation of the learners in naming what is to be learned.
  2. Safety in the environment and the process. We create a context for learning. That context can be made safe.
  3. Sound relationships between teacher and learner and among learners
  4. Sequence of content and reinforcement.
  5. Praxis: action with reflection or learning by doing.
  6. Respect for learners as decision makers.
  7. Ideas, feelings, and actions: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor aspects of learning.
  8. Immediacy of the learning.
  9. Clear roles and role development.
  10. Teamwork and use of small groups.
  11. Engagement of the learners in what they are learning.
  12. Accountability: how do they know they know?

Although written in the context of facilitating dialogue in adult education, Vella’s list also represents a set of spiritual principles and practices for becoming more aware of and in tune with our own emotions. Talking with ourselves in these deeply respectful and attentive ways can be even more transformational than putting our brains on goals. By engaging in such dialogue with our conscious and unconscious selves we become more fully alive as the molecules of emotion begin their resonance anew.

Coaching Inquiries: When was the last time that you had a good dialogue with yourself? With someone else? How could you deepen those practices? What kind of effect do you think that would have on your life and work? What’s keeping you from starting that dialogue right now?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. 

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.

Your last Provision on the power of goals was exactly what I needed. Thanks! It gave me the nudge I needed to set some goals for myself. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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