In the early 90’s, I plowed through a graduate degree in psychology at a time when the field was on the brink of a dramatic transformation. Like so many other disciplines, research psychologists were employing new, powerful technologies to move from theoretical ideas about the human mind (think Freud etc.) to more rigorously scientific precepts based in biology, chemistry, and physiology. In addition to making my graduate degree obsolete before the ink even dried on the sheepskin, all of this work led to an exponential increase in the development of psychoactive medications for diagnoses that were once treated by clinical therapy alone. For many people suffering from acute forms of mental illness, these drugs have been a godsend. They are readily available, widely used and constantly evolving. Today, scan a list of the top 100 most prescribed medications and it will include many that emerged from very recent discoveries that were parts of this important shift.
Better medications have not been the only contribution of this revolution in understanding the mind. New technologies have also allowed researchers to watch the human brain react to and process reality in real time. The resulting insights out of the growing field of neuroscience have been nothing short of amazing. While medical applications have provided relief for many forms of emotional distress and mental illness, discoveries in how the human brain works in everyday circumstances have proven useful to laypeople in almost every field or endeavor.
The most interesting pattern in these discoveries is that they often point toward behavior that is contrary to our instincts – or at least our habits. I ran into yet another example of this pattern recently while attending a daylong seminar with Dr. David Rock, Founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute. The Institute is a “global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science of leadership development.” This interdisciplinary approach is being replicated across countless fields where neuroscience is cross-pollinated with disciplines ranging from public policy, education, consumer behavior and even sports performance. In one session of the seminar, Dr. Rock discussed research as it applied to performance management in a professional setting. As I listened, it occurred to me that his observations were applicable in virtually any relationship and especially relevant for families.
Dr. Rock started out by asserting that, “Facebook is the default network of the brain.” That is a catchy way of saying that our basic neurocircuitry is calibrated to our multi-layered and complex social networks. Absent the activation of another circuit, we will understand experiences in the world according to their social and relational consequences. This reflex is an advantage that human beings developed over many millennia and is part of the recipe for our current domination of the planet. Our big brains give us the cognitive horsepower to create and process complicated social dynamics and, in doing so, we cooperate to thrive like no other species.
Dr. Rock further explained that there are five important, connected social domains or circuits in the brain:
- Status – always understood in relative terms and connected to our survival instinct.
- Certainty – craving predictability in all things is one of our strongest impulses.
- Autonomy – our anxiety goes down as our sense of control goes up.
- Relatedness – we function more effectively when we work on shared goals.
- Fairness – the value we place on being treated fairly is so strong it is actually correlated to health outcomes.
When we are challenged in one or more of these social domains, our brains take automatic action to counter the threat. One common way that we experience such a challenge is when we are labelled or even face the possibility of being labelled. So, imagine any time we receive a score, a ranking, or a categorization – or even the prospect of one of these – we fire up a circuit of neurons that functions in a predictable, intense and nearly unstoppable pattern. The circuit causes us to hyper-focus but on a very thin stream of information from our environment. Our capacity for physical activity goes up BUT our thought process becomes more shallow. We become less analytical or creative and more defensive and impulsive. All of this makes great sense if you are fending off a saber toothed tiger or a marauding army. It is far less helpful in navigating the relatively peaceful but sometimes complex and confounding dynamics of modern work, parenting, and real or virtual relationship building.
As Dr. Rock spoke, I thought of countless instances where understanding and applying this framework could be immensely helpful. Imagine for a moment the way that the college admission game alone labels kids and triggers status, certainty and fairness circuits. It is no wonder that high school seniors can be monosyllabic in the face of the relentless questions they are asked about their options and choices at this time in their lives. This research also goes a long way in explaining the inexplicable and often narrow reasons kids give for rejecting an otherwise attractive college option (“I didn’t like the school colors,” “Our student tour guide was boring,” etc.) They may not be doing their best and deepest thinking.
My kids are finished with the college search process but are now considering and testing out career options. At a time when they need to be at their creative best and think deeply about their passions and purposes in life, they hear a steady stream of news about their generation’s failure to launch in our post-recession economy. They are both very aware of how they have been labelled in the media as a coddled and fragile cohort, clearly don’t like it, but also understand the broader reality they face. Understanding even a little about how our brains are wired points away from adding to the threat they already have internalized and toward the potential rewards of exploring possibilities and finding the right fit in a world that still offers lots of opportunity. This is easier said than done when the stakes are high (and moving off the payroll is on the horizon…) but even an imperfect effort in this realm of parenting is better than giving in to the counterproductive impulse to nag, harangue or sermonize about critical consequences.
We are not going to escape or avoid all of the threat triggers out there. SAT scores will be issued, performance evaluations rendered, first strings chosen and promotions with fancy titles granted. It is interesting to consider, however, where our behavior or habits work against the very effect we hope to have on people we are responsible for or care about – whether these are family members, students or colleagues. Even more compelling is the fact that Dr. Rock’s work is but a tiny sliver of what is already known about the human brain – and everyone agrees that what is already established in neuroscience is but a tiny sliver of what we will know someday.