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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Driven to Distraction

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley
and Larry Rosen (MIT Press, 2016,) reviewed by Steve Gladis, Dec. 2016.
1.     Overview. A basic premise of this book: We have an evolutionary and survivalist need to access information. We literally forage for important information, much like food foraging. In fact, novelty and information trigger our brain’s reward-dopamine system. However, modern access to huge volumes of information creates an overload and the frustration associated with it. This book outlines why and how we’re distracted, especially in an e-world full of competing images and sounds. The big problem: Our ability to set goals is far more evolved than our goal-enactment abilities. And given the amount of e-interference today, goal interference looms over us constantly. The authors describe the conflict between goal setting and cognitive control; attention setting and managing goals resulting from distractions; and, interruptions and multitasking. The 3 HUGE disrupters in our current world are the internet, cell phones, and email. Finally, the authors offer strategies to combat such distraction and make us more resilient by employing education, cognitive training, certain video games, physical exercise, pharmaceuticals, and nature exposure. In addition, here’s a TED talk that will orient you to their work.
2.     Cognition and Control. In Section I, the authors discuss how our limited cognitive control wrestles with interference, distraction (both internal and external) and poor performance.  Interference appears as ‘noise,” like task switching (erroneously labeled “multitasking”), which distracts us from our goals. For example, you go to the pantry but forget why you went there!  Our brains have evolved over time to develop complex goals and focus on them using cognitive control by using attention, working memory and goal management—all of which have limitations and are affected by age and daily circumstances. Unfortunately, multitasking is associated with novelty, pushes the brain’s rewards button (dopamine system), and is more fun than focusing! Example: I just exported a quote from this book to OneNote, then tried to sync it, couldn’t find the sync button, and spent 4 minutes trying to locate it. Now I’m trying to get back to my goal—writing this review!
3.     Modern Behavior. Today’s technologies offer us a “foraging” feast and an unlimited ability to trigger the pleasure of a dopamine (rewards) hit. This external technology is ubiquitous, addictive, and harmful—all at the same time. Thus, the constant presence of technology affects our safety (texting and driving); education (website visits and texts during class); sleep (screen time and sleep interference); and health (spending too much time sitting and not moving).  Further, this technical interference especially impacts people with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and autism. The danger: “attentional blindness” is paying too much attention to our top-down brain functions and not enough time to our bottom-up sensory functions—we lose track of what’s happening in the moment. People get hit by cars and bump into walls because they’re too distracted by their phones. In fact, 23% of all car crashes involve distraction by using a cell phone! At work, interruptions are constant, especially in open offices, and it can take up to 30 minutes to get back on task. To make up for interruptions, people work faster, demand more of their brains, and experience more stress and higher frustration. Socially we are often “alone together,” paying way more attention to our cellphones and less to people around us. In fact, the mere presence of a cell phone (iPhone effect) had negative consequences in social interaction, such as a lack of empathy. The overuse of technology has been associated with psychological problems. Sleep is critically affected by screen time, especially an hour before bedtime—it inhibits melatonin release. Technology—especially the internet, smartphones and social media—has had a serious effect on the key domains of Attention (selectivity, distribution, sustainability, processing speed); Working Memory (capacity); and, Goal Management (multitasking and task switching).

4.     What to Do. With important tasks, turn off any distracting devices. However, unimportant, boring tasks might benefit from paced disruptions. Augmenting  our knowledge of technology’s effects on the brain, decreasing our access to it, diminishing boredom and reducing anxiety are the keys to getting this technology danger under control. Here are just a few cautions and tips to diminish distractions. Driving: texting while driving increases the risk of a crash 23 times! And, just using a cell phone while driving is like being legally drunk. Boredom: Conversation in a car is OK unless it requires deep cognitive thought. Audio books seem to be safe and don’t measurably conflict with attention in a major way. Anxiety: To avoid compulsive message checking, inform your friends when you’re unavailable and set up auto-responses. Critical Assignments: Avoid multitasking to increase productivity and reduce stress. Take regular breaks. Limit yourself to one screen at a time. Reduce open programs on the computer. Limit daily contact with email and set time limits. Listen to your favorite music (I prefer instrumentals)—symphony or smooth jazz.  Rest your eyes; try the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes take a 20 second break and focus on things 20 feet away. Take short 10-minute naps. Take nature walks. Keep phones out of sight. Have weekly 15-min. family meetings. Have family meals—for best child psychological and family relationships. Remove technology from the bedroom. While drugs like Ritalin and Adderall may help people with ADHD (a burgeoning class in a distracted world), the side effects, including addiction, for healthy people taking them can be negative. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Great Leaders Put Others First

Overview: What makes Marines so great? Marine officers take care of their
troops always. For example, they “eat last”—after the troops. Soldiers act better than most of us because they are willing to sacrifice themselves in service of the safety of others. However, often in business, leaders eat first—get paid more and stand first in line for benefits. Real leaders put others first—protect others first. An excellent organization has a culture of empathy that protects and serves its people first, who in turn look out for the organization. When people feel unsafe and unprotected by leaders, they feel stress and anxiety. They seek safety and protection in silos and engage in internal politics that hurt the company. When we compete between those silos, we give off selfish chemicals; but when we collaborate, we give off selfless ones—allowing us to be our best selves.

--Employees First: CEO Bob Chapman (of Barry-Wehmiller) bought a number of manufacturing companies and was willing to listen to his employees. Factory workers noted how differently they were treated than office workers. Chapman decided to inject more empathy into the company—allowing everyone the same freedoms and discretion. Through a culture of caring, Chapman grew loyalty and nearly doubled revenues. Advice for leaders: “To earn trust, he [she] must extend trust.”  Our minds register threat or no threat, especially from leaders, and Chapman works to be no threat.

--From Me to We: Sinek offers this simple but powerful concept: The “circle of safety.” In short, strong cultures provide internal protection from external threats. Weak cultures do the opposite and create toxic work environments. Intimidation, isolation, and politics inside organizations with weak cultures can be a serious threat to success. Real leaders protect the tribe from both internal and external threats. Sinek references Steve Pressfield who wrote about how the Spartans (Greek warriors) protected each other: “A warrior carries helmet and breastplate for his own protection, but his shield for the safety of the whole line [comrades].” Without protection, factions (corporate gangs) and silos form for self-protection and ultimately hurt the entire organization. Gallup studies show that 40% of employees will quit if ignored by bosses, and 22% leave if actively criticized. Having little sense of control at work creates stress. And, about a third of workers want to leave their job.

--The Group:  When people feel safe at work, they band together to fight the outside competition. When they don’t feel safe, they expend much energy on self-protection. Size also matters: The optimal size of a company or a working location (office/plant) should be about 150 people. We’re all inclined to cooperate, especially if we know people we work with. In excess of 150, we lose that capacity to know people.

--Selfish Chemicals:  Self-focused chemicals like dopamine, adrenalin, and cortisol drive us to “hunt,” achieve, and compete to win. Dopamine gets released when we reach a goal, cross it off our to-do list—achieve something. Feeling a sense of progress and reward is created by dopamine. Unfortunately, emailing, texting, overwork, and gambling, alcohol and drugs can also cause the release of  dopamine—and thus become addictive, destructive habits. In an overly performance-driven environment, dopamine can become destructive to the circle of safety, creating stress, breaking down loyalty, and hurting the organization.  Cortisol prepares our bodies and muscles for fight or flight. This hormone protects the body under stress. It’s only intended to surge to protect in the moment. Lingering levels of cortisol—caused by difficult bosses, layoffs, and internal politics—break down the immune system, increase aggression, impair cognitive ability, and lower our capacity for empathy.

--Selfless Chemicals:  Such chemicals as serotonin and oxytocin are the social glue that holds the culture together—they are “the backbone of the circle of safety.”  Family, friends, and coworkers all get us through the good and bad times by causing us to produce serotonin, a mood enhancer given off from this support that makes us feel grateful towards those people. Generosity and physical contact (shaking hands, hugs) stimulate oxytocin. Oxytocin also boosts our immune system and makes us less addictive. In safe environments, oxytocin is given off and creates the feeling of love, friendship, belonging and trust. A good tribe should stimulate serotonin and oxytocin (making us feel safe), not dopamine, adrenalin and cortisol (making us feel threatened and competitive). Leaders who sacrifice for the group are revered as alphas and are allowed to lead by their followers.  Safety yields trust, and trust is the lubricant of good, responsive business.

--Examples of What Real Leaders Do: 1. Rather than laying off people, they have everyone, including all execs, take furlough days. 2. They protect (keep people safe), connect (socially bond the group), and direct (project a vision of the future). 3. They break the rules only to do the right thing, not for personal gain. 4. They provide cover from above. 5. They avoid “destructive abstraction” by putting a human face on statistics, not mindlessly employing draconian policies for the sake of numbers—selfless vs. selfish pursuits.  6. They sacrifice for the greater good of others.

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (Penguin, 2014) by Simon Sinek, reviewed by Steve Gladis, July 2016.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Mindsight--Mind, Brain, and Relationships

Overview: I believe that the heart of this book is embodied in a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. from the Letter from Birmingham Jail: "We are caught in the inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly."  Professor and psychiatrist Dan Siegel illustrates King’s words in action.  He explains how Mindsight helps us integrate and regulate the flow of energy and information both within ourselves and among others, while at the same time honoring differences and reshaping our own brains. The brain is a social organ and mindsight is about regulating and integrating emotional and social intelligence.  Indeed, knowing ourselves and sensing the inner world of others is uniquely human. Through mindful breathing and reflection, we can learn to “name and tame” our emotions rather than being consumed by and “becoming” those emotions. He proposes a triangle: Well-being = Mind + Brain + Relationships.
2.     About Mindsight: Mindsight focuses on both internal reflection and external relationships, which result in an integrated, social, and resilient mind—one capable of weathering the ups and downs of life. For example, when we reflect and can name an emotion, we get a chance to tame that emotion.  Thus, saying “I’m mad” (identifying with the emotion) is far different than saying “I feel mad” (a transient condition). Well-being results from Siegel’s mindsight triangle of the mind, brain, and relationships. Well-being emerges when we integrate information and energy within self and between others while honoring differences. Such connections with self and others keep us from becoming too rigid (stuck and depressed) or chaotic (angry and explosive). Navigating the mindsight process between self and others ultimately sculpts and changes the shape of the brain.
3.     About the Brain: Neuroplasticity describes how our brain changes and grows throughout our lives, creating new neuronal connections based on our experiences with self and others. Siegel uses complex systems’ interdependence and dynamics to explain how various biological, psychological and physical functions interact and influence the mind. He describes a metaphor for a healthy mind as the flow of a river, naturally integrating energy and information in a complex system between two banks—one of chaos reflected by anxiety and anger and one of rigidity—being depressed or stuck in place. The healthy flow of this “river” can be marked by an integrated system that is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable (FACES). Thus, the river flows smoothly, neither crashing up against chaos nor against rigidity.
4.     The Mind and Body: We have both a physical and mental state. Often doctors separate the two, treating only the physical, ignoring the mental. Our thoughts shape our brain and that shapes how we feel, relate and act. We can turn off mindsight and view people different than ourselves—without empathy—as truly “other.” For example, the Nazis did that to the Jews; in fact, every act of genocide emerges from this inhumane premise. However, as humans, we are part of an interconnected whole. Moreover, the brain is the social organ of the body, but too much focus on the body itself can warp our insight. Relationship is the lifeblood that makes us human and resilient. When we share information with each other, energy flows and relationships grow. Our neurons transmit our information and energy to others, and our mind regulates the process. We develop our ability to self-regulate through practices like mindful breathing and meditation. This reflection and regulation takes place in the prefrontal cortex (PFC).  
5.     Your PFC: The very front of your brain is called the prefrontal cortex. It connects and integrates everything—especially the upper (rational) and lower (emotional) brain. The nerves in the middle of the PFC can be strengthened and accelerated by reflection, such as mindful meditation. And the more we reflect, the stronger the nerves become that communicate with and control the limbic system. So, reflection leads to self- and other-relationship regulation.  The PFC is where reflection takes place and what helps us develop mindsight that promotes the following 9 domains of mental integration: 1. Bodily regulation (regulates heart, digestion, etc.); 2. Attuned communication with self and others; 3. Emotional internal balance and meaning—not chaos or rigidity; 4. The extinction of fear (self-calming); 5. Flexibility and pause before responding/reacting; 6. Capacity for insight into self; 7. Empathy for others; 8. Morality—awareness of the greater good; 9. Intuition—integrating bodily “felt sense” (the wisdom of the body) with the more logical mind.

6.     Reflection, Relationships, and Resilience: When you reflect and understand your own feelings, you can better navigate relationships with others and become more resilient to the ups and downs of life. The “tripod of reflection” consists of: 1. Openness—being receptive and aware, not judgmental or stuck; 2. Observation—seeing the context while experiencing an event; and, 3. Objectivity—having a thought or feeling but not being swept away by it. Reflection through meditative breathing is the best place to start. Focusing on our breath calms the mind and integrates the body and the mind.  Developing a regular, reflective mindfulness practice strengthens the PFC’s connection to the body and limbic system and puts us in a more integrated state capable of relationships and resilience in our lives. All the research on well-being says that for resilience, social relationships are the #1 determiner of our success. And reflection helps us develop and maintain strong, positive, reinforced relationships.  

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel, M.D. (Bantam Books, Copyright 2010), reviewed by Steve Gladis, June 2016. 

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