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When to Use Neuroscience – and when not to!

Imagine attending an excellent talk which is highly informative about how to interact well with others. The presenter has a great deal of expertise and relevant experience. During the day, she provides some very practical advice and is highly engaging. You enjoy the day and find it very useful.

What you are less impressed with, however, is that the presentation is laced with neuroscience which you know to be (i) out of date and (ii) interpreted in a way that is wrong! When you ask about this, the presenter says yes, she knows it’s out of date and wrong. When you ask, so why has she included it, she says that, nowadays, people like to see some neuroscience and so she put some in. (This is a true story – though details have been changed).

What is it about models of the brain that make them so alluring? Neuroscience is one of the hot topics of the moment and has become part of the zeitgeist. Some people seem to believe that adding a bit of neuroscience increases the credibility of just about any presentation.

When we first started working together in 2011 Ian asked Tricia to estimate the potential time lag between lay understanding vs. current professional understanding of the brain. He asked this because, over a lifetime of collaboration with people from different disciplines, he has learnt that there is always such a knowledge gap - and it helps him to know how much catch-up he needs to do as a layman. In this case though the disparity was breath taking. After some thought Tricia replied “30-40 years”! As we discussed this we came to the conclusion that this must represent some kind of record. (Can you think of another discipline where lay understanding is so out of date?)

This was the start of an exciting collaboration. For us the challenge was to ensure that any use of neuroscience would be both relevant and up to date. So began many hours of discussion, conversation and workshop experimentation. The collaboration we have developed between Ian, as an expert in NLP, coaching and consulting and Tricia as a neuroscientist has involved building bridges of understanding. We are able to benefit from our individual areas of expertise which are brought together in act of practical collaboration – which is itself an innovation.

This has been a highly rewarding experience for both of us as we have learnt to speak a common language by listening carefully for similarities and differences in our understanding. We have then put this into practice in two certification programmes. First we created NLP Practitioner with Neuroscience. Our success here encouraged us to go all out and select from the tsunami of current neuroscience research what we thought would have immediate wider relevance. So was born our 10-day Certificate in Applied Neuroscience programme. The more we have worked together the easier it has become. Part of this comes from knowing what we know; but also from knowing what is not known. People always have so many questions and it’s important to us that, when the research has not advanced sufficiently for us to provide a substantive answer, we can just say “we don’t know - yet.”

Applied neuroscience is in its infancy. Our concern is that it will lose credibility and become just another fad if it’s not used correctly. For instance, sometimes when people start talking about which bits of the brain do what it all starts to sound like advanced phrenology. Brains work as systems. Often it’s not individual areas but the complex interaction between different parts of the brain that constrains what we can and cannot do.

With lay understanding 30-40 years out of date there are many myths about the brain currently circulating. These myths are not harmless since they can lead to models of the brain and behaviour that are not just inaccurate but self-limiting. So, for instance, do you know which of the following statements are true and which are myths?

  1. We make no new neurones in our brain after we are born

  2. We only use 10% of our brains

  3. There are left brain and right brain people

  4. Listening to Mozart does not make you smarter

  5. Your memory can hold 7 + 2 things at a time

  6. It’s all downhill after 60

  7. We know what will make us happy

  8. Our memories of past events in our lives are inaccurate

  9. The reptilian brain controls our emotional responses

  10. The adult brain is able to be changed.

How many of these questions are you certain that you can answer correctly?

Why is it important that we know the difference between current findings and discredited myths? Research has demonstrated that when people believe something about themselves, it can change their level of performance. The same holds true when we hold beliefs about what others are capable of.

With this in mind we thought a good place to start would be to focus on neuroplasticity. This addresses several of the questions we set above especially questions 1, 2 and 10. The ability of our brain to change as a result of experience is the primary reason that we are able to think, remember, decide, relate and notice things. In fact your brain is continually changing.

Neuroscience research is completely changing our ideas about what is possible in terms of changing the brain throughout the lifespan. While it is easy to accept that children learn quickly – just consider how many words a child learns between their second year of life and teenage years. Indeed, during the early period of language learning, toddlers learn about 9 new words per day! What, perhaps, is more difficult to accept is that learning is something that is available for us throughout our lifespan. Just as we can gain muscle bulk at any age (Fauja Singh returned to running at age 74 and continues to run marathons as a centenarian), we can make new connections in our brains at any age.

The question, then, becomes what continues to change in the brain that allows us to learn? The component in the brain that allows learning and continues to be available for change is the synapse – or the connections that are made between neurones in the brain. This allows new information to be added to distributed networks of information that we hold in the brain. Thus, for instance, when we learn a new word, changing the synapses in the part of the brain that stores words (Wernicke’s area) allows us to remember the word when we see it again, or to use the word in an appropriate sentence.

While it is great to know that we can create new synapses and that these are available as we need them, what we found more surprising – and more illuminating – is that this process never stops! We do not create new synapses and then the remain in the same place for ever (so long as we keep using them). Instead, we constantly lose and replace individual synapses while maintaining a constant number of synapses between any two neurones. Think of this like your skin or your liver – we slough off the outer layer of skin completely about once every 7 weeks and we completely replace our liver every 6 weeks. By comparison, research has demonstrated that about 25% of synapses in the brain can be replaced within a 24 hour period – so we replace our synapses about once per week!

Why would we do this? The fundamental task of the brain is to learn, and this requires reformatting synapses in different neural networks to incorporate new information. This is so important that it is not left to chance – instead of only creating synapses when we need them, we are constantly creating them. In addition to constantly creating (and losing) synapses, the brain is also capable of creating new neurones – but only in the parts of the brain that are important in memory (e.g. the hippocampus and dentate nucleus). In this way, learning piggy backs on processes which are always available. The brain burns significantly large amounts of energy so that your learning process is always available. So what are you doing with this capacity?

Given these findings it’s not surprising that, in the past few years, the old view of the brain as a fixed asset with regions which could be knocked out has changed dramatically. Neuroplasticity happens not just during the early years of life but throughout the whole of your life. However, most people are unaware of this. Indeed, some of the most common myths – like you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – assume the opposite.

The implications for how we understand our own potential and that of others are extraordinary. You might ask yourself:

  • What do I believe about my own abilities that might therefore not be true?

  • If my brain is not stopping me from learning, what is?

  • What do I believe about the abilities of others that might not be true?

  • How can I become more curious about my own and others’ potential?

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