The brain explained


An entertaining look by Iain McGilchrist at the left-brain, right-brain story.





Two ideas collided in my brain this morning. One is an idea from the wonderfully named Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit which I am enjoying hugely. Tharp is a choreographer. She creates dances. But what she has learnt about creativity transfers to all fields, from business to baking cakes. She writes about the importance of being generous to others:

Be generous. I don’t use that word lightly. Generosity is luck going in the opposite direction, away from you. If you’re generous to someone, if you do something to help him out, you are in effect making him lucky. This is important. It’s like inviting yourself into a community of good fortune.

When I read these words, I thought of a generous, random act of kindness which had been brought to my attention by The Daughter. It’s an elaborate piece of improvisation that is hell-bent on making one small boy particularly lucky that day.

Change management (small scale)


Now while you have all been travelling to distant shores, sunning yourself by the pool and wrestling with decisions on which cocktail to order next, I have been witnessing the transformation of my kitchen. (I knew you would be jealous.) What wouldn’t you give to be here in the grey cloud that is our British summer, watching the centre of your home disappear into a skip?

The good news is that after the highly destructive first phase, the new stuff has gone in, exciting white goods have been installed (as exciting as white goods can be) and the achingly slow painting process is nearing the end. Suddenly it’s looking like we imagined on paper all those months ago when we planned it.

Change (however much it is wished for) is uncomfortable. I am now a world authority on microwave meals. I didn’t realise how much I enjoy cooking until I wasn’t able to cook. I can’t find anything easily as everything is temporarily stashed away in boxes in another room. To wash up or make a cup of tea, I’ve been keeping fit by dashing up and down two flights of stairs to the sink in my tiny art room in the loft. All very minor inconveniences in the big scheme of things.

However, it is such tiny aggravations that invariably cause the most upset when change happens within organisations. As part of my MSc a couple of years ago, I did some research into why the vast majority (an estimated 70-80%) of change programmes fail. I interviewed managers who had either led change programmes, or been affected by them. Having been through several major change initiatives in my own corporate career, it was a subject close to my heart.

One of the common themes that emerged was how people hated having their daily routine disrupted. Going to a different location, fitting in with a different culture in a merger or acquisition, different hours, different team, different boss. Change demands effort. We have to consciously think about doing things differently, rather than running on autopilot. And that’s why it is so exhausting. In the current climate, people in organisations are expected to change, then change again, then – just as they’ve settled into a new routine – change again. For many, a kind of change ‘saturation point’ has been reached; like a sponge that simply cannot absorb any more water (Conner, 1993). A certain cynicism about ‘yet another’ programme sets in (from managers and their teams).

A reason to believe in the overall purpose of the change programme can help individuals to adjust, as can having some degree of ownership, control and choice. As Langer (1989) put it, “The opportunity to make choices increases our motivation.”

In having a huge degree of control and choice in our tiny project, we have put up with all the minor irritations that go with the exercise. Those who simply feel herded like sheep into someone else’s grand plan may be less compliant.

Catch it, check it, change it


Following on from the last post, I found an excellent programme from BBC Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’ series here. You can listen to it via BBC iPlayer, or download it as an MP3 file.

There’s also a link there to a stress questionnaire. If you’d like to contribute to research on the nation’s mental health, you can complete it and get personalised feedback and tips on managing stress.

One of the most useful things from the programme was the phrase ‘Catch it, check it, change it’. That snappy little sentence helps us remember to catch our stressful thoughts as they pop into our minds, question their validity and change our thinking. It’s mindfulness in a nutshell.


All stressed out?


It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog for a while. That’s mainly because I have had my head buried in textbooks. I’ve been doing a course on the science of mental health ie what actually goes on in your brain cells and body when you’re experiencing stress, depression, addiction, dementia and so on. Stress seems to be something that affects most of us, so I thought I’d pass on some useful bits of learning.


Firstly, what do we mean by stress? I think I experienced stress this morning when the guy who started work on the bathroom last week failed to turn up to finish the job for the fourth time. What’s interesting is that we think of stress as A Bad Thing. Actually, the same physiological mechanism whirrs into action whether we experience positive or negative stress. Positive stress might be ‘engaging in a passionate kiss’ (Selye, 1956) or doing a crossword puzzle or playing a challenging game of golf. Emotions are at the heart of stress. You might feel joy (passionate kissing), anger (unprofessional tiler) or fear (forthcoming exams). The body responds in the same biological way.

What distinguishes the positive stress from the negative is how we interpret the event. The golf match would be perceived by many as pleasurable. (I beg to differ: I agree with Mark Twain who felt it was ‘a good walk spoilt.’) A divorce might be a tragic loss or a welcome new start. Hans Selye argued it’s ‘how you take it’ that determines your appraisal.

When you decide that an event is threatening, your brain and body go into overdrive. A sequence of events triggers the release of a group of hormones including cortisol. Cortisol is great for getting you through a presentation that might clinch the deal with a top customer. That surge of cortisol will subside when you sit back down to sign the contract. However, if stress is on-going over a period of time, too much cortisol can be damaging to brain tissue.

Immunise yourself

So what can we actually do to combat the daily stresses and strains of life?

  • Take some exercise. There is evidence that exercise can lower stress and ease pain, anxiety and depression (Otto et al. 2007).
  • Challenge your negative thinking. A cognitive behavioural approach in therapy or in coaching can help you to do this. Becoming aware of putting a negative spin on events is the first step towards changing your thinking style.
  • The practice of mindfulness (living in the present moment, rather than ruminating on the past or predicting the future) has been shown to reduce stress. Find out more here.
  • Build a supportive social network. Having a partner, belonging to a family, group of friends or a community can act as a buffer against stressful events. The neurochemical oxytocin is closely linked to feelings of trust, either trusting another or being trusted. Oxytocin plays a major role in inhibiting the stress response and calms the body’s physiological response (lowering the heart rate and blood pressure). “Social relationships appear to be the greatest single cause of well-being” (Argyle, 2001). Work-life balance is not just a ‘nice to have’. It’s essential.
  • Finding meaningful work is important. Money is not a key predictor of job satisfaction. Good relationships at work and the actual content of the work are (Warr, 1999).
  • Doing what you love to do is a major influence on how happy we feel. So making time for a favourite hobby or activity, whether it’s sailing, art, running or stamp collecting, is not an indulgence, but a key factor in sustaining happiness and reducing negative stress.