Provision #763: Your Brain On Learning

Laser Provision

My wife, Megan, and I spent the past week in Las Vegas. It’s not what you think. No gambling and glitzy shows for us. We spent the week laboring on the new home of our daughter and son-in-law. They purchased a foreclosure property which meant two things: they got a great deal and a great opportunity to learn about the joys of home ownership. No more calling the landlord when something doesn’t work! Instead, you learn how to take care of things yourself. Where does learning come from and how does it work? With a nod to mirror neurons, I invite you to learn about learning in today’s Provision.

LifeTrek Provision

One thing is clear about distressed properties: at a certain point, people stop investing in their maintenance and upkeep. That’s true even for responsible homeowners. When your property is under water, meaning the property is worth less than the mortgage, it doesn’t make much sense to do anything other than the bare minimum to make sure it is still inhabitable.

And when it comes to real estate, things go downhill fast if you stop attending to routine maintenance and improvements. The best way to make sure that a property declines is to do nothing. Life will take care of the rest. I sometimes wonder if human beings were to disappear, how long would it take before the forces of nature would bring things back to a natural state? Something tells me it wouldn’t be very long. That’s what makes the pyramids in Egypt so remarkable; after so many millennia they are still intact.

So now, as the housing bubble works its way through the system, new homeowners are purchasing foreclosed properties from banks at significantly reduced prices. That’s a good thing, since inflated prices have to come down before there can be any sense of a new normal. Instead of just focusing on short-term gains, people are now taking the long view with an eye to utility, value, and aesthetics.

I certainly see that in my daughter and son-in-law, who recently purchased a foreclosure property in Las Vegas, Nevada. In the city that made gambling famous, these two are primarily interested in a safe harbor where they can settle down and live, affordably and happily, for a period of time.

For that to work, however, they have to learn how to do a lot of things for themselves that other people used to do for them. As renters, one phone call to the landlord would generate a repair ticket at no extra cost. It doesn’t work that way as a homeowner. When something goes wrong, or when you want to upgrade your property, you can either pay contractors to do it for you or you can learn how to do it yourself.

Usually it’s a combination of both, since contractors have the tools, time, and expertise to get things done more quickly and capably than most of us can do for ourselves. Unless, of course, you have parents who can bridge the gap. And that’s exactly what Megan and I have been doing for the past week. Around the edges of our normal work, made possible thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we have been taking care of business on their home in Las Vegas.

Painting. Electrical. Plumbing. Appliances. Cabinetry. Landscaping. Cleaning. The week afforded us no end of opportunities to be good parents! Best of all, we were able to finish the work and leave the house in a most enjoyable condition. As hard as the work was, it brings tremendous satisfaction to be able to see the fruits of your labors in such tangible and immediate ways. We came away tired and happy.

As the week progressed, as you can imagine, we had many conversations with our daughter and son-in-law as to how we learned all this stuff. It’s not every parent who can show up and do what we did, especially when these trades are not our primary line of work. You don’t just show up and start messing with electrical wires and gas lines. Where did that learning come and how does it work?

In my case, it comes from the desire to be able to do things myself and the opportunity to work alongside capable contractors. If there is no desire to learn something, then the opportunities to learn may pass us by. So where does desire come from? It comes from the felt sense of a need. When we need to learn, we want to learn. At one point during the week my son-in-law said to me, “Perhaps you could show me what you are doing with the electrical. I’ve never really been interested before, but now that we own this house, I can see it would come in pretty handy.”

The felt sense of a need generated the desire to learn something new. Learning, at least for adults, works that way. Until and unless we see the relevance and salience of learning of something new, we will not bother. Learning happens in the moment when desire looms large, which is why the first work of coaching is to understand the needs and desires of the people we are coaching. Until those are clear, there will be no coaching agenda or coaching success.

Once that agenda is clear, however, it’s time to learn. And that’s where mirror neurons come into play. The brain includes structures that are specifically designed to facilitate learning through association, imitation, and rehearsal. Scattered throughout key parts of our distributed brains, these mirror neurons explain not only the mechanism of action for human learning but also for empathy and for certain social and psychological conditions such as autism.

Simply put, mirror neurons stimulate the brain as if we were actually going through an experience ourselves. That’s what makes movies so engaging and, potentially, so dangerous. When we watch the characters in a movie going through a situation, our brains fire as if we were going through that situation ourselves. That’s as true for life-affirming as for life-denying images, so it behooves us to be careful in our selections. Getting lost in that world is not just a metaphor; it actually changes our brains.

Which is why I could do all that stuff at my daughter’s and son-in-law’s house. I learned those trades once, and, like riding a bicycle, I never forgot how.

Long ago and far away, when we were doing community development work in a low-income, Chicago neighborhood, not to mention summer service projects during my college years, I got things done on a limited budget by recruiting contractors and other capable adults to volunteer their time to help us do the work. As they worked, out of the felt need to appreciate and understand my world, I would work alongside them, watching and helping out as best I could.

What I didn’t know at the time was how my brain was changing through all that watching and helping. My mirror neurons were firing, over and over again, until I had learned how to do for myself what these volunteers were doing for me. It was great fun and of real value. At one point, an electrician even presented me with a certificate proclaiming my abilities. No one else would recognize the license, of course, but we knew the skills had been transferred such that I could now take care of that task on my own.

That happened again this week when we purchased a refinishing kit for the bathroom cabinets in Las Vegas. The kit came with a DVD to illustrate the four-step process of doing a cabinet makeover. Megan watched that DVD as the instructor masterfully handled each step. Seeing someone do the work was so much better than reading the manual. It gave her a clear mental picture of what to do and the cabinets, as a result, turned out beautifully.

Watching and imitating others is not the only way to get those mirror neurons firing. They also kick into gear when we visualize ourselves or other people doing something. The more specific the visualization, the more powerful the effect. Athletes know all about this. Before competitions, athletes rehearse every aspect of our events. Such mental training is just as important and may even be more important than the physical training when it comes to mastering our sport.

The effects of such mental training have reached surprisingly remarkable proportions in extreme circumstances such as prison camps and solitary confinement. In an effort to stay sane, people have reportedly taught themselves how to play the piano and guitar, for example, just through vivid, mental rehearsals. Upon release, their bodies were more than ready to catch up with their minds. The mirror neurons had done their work.

One thing that makes mental training more effective is to combine it with meditation and relaxation. Unless we have a sense of calm alert our emotions will get in the way of our visualizations. The “fight, flight, and freeze” responses, although important to survival, are not conducive to learning. Breathing deeply, slowly, and rhythmically prior to a visualization exercise is one way to warm up our mirror neurons for the learning that is sure to follow.

So if you want to learn something new, make sure you have not only the desire but also the time to pay attention. Whether it’s from life experience. a video, or a book, the more deeply we engage our brains in whatever it is we are trying to learn, the more quickly we will be on our way to a new skill set or competency thanks to the magic of those mirror neurons.

Coaching Inquiries: What are some of your learning goals? What has been your approach to those goals? How have you been stimulating your mirror neurons? What successful examples have you been able to watch and what mental rehearsals have you been able to muster? How could you become even more engaged in learning what you want to learn?

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.

Thanks very much for your Provision on sleep. It really is under valued in today’s culture where we sleep with a blackberry next to the bed and an iPad under the pillow!

I wanted to share that I have recently within the last couple of months disciplined myself to include exercise, a steady number of hours for sleep each night, and most recently, the addition of melatonin to my nightly regimen. It is about balance and consistency, both of which are easy to neglect and avoid during daily routines. Thank you for your weekly provisions and reminders of much needed essentials for brain functioning. They do make a difference!! 

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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