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Archive for June, 2010

Neuroscience and “belief”, “faith”

Posted by Simon on June 8, 2010

The way the brain works is mindbogglingly fascinating and complex, in the same way that genetics is. The interrelationships between the various parts, hormones, neurons and then how they all relate to how humans actually live … well it’s just amazing.

I briefly discussed ‘mirror neurons’ in my 30-day blogfest on relationships. Mirror neurons fire when we see ‘intentional action’ in someone else (as opposed to random action like flitting about aimlessly). Interestingly these neurons appear to be the same those that fire when we actually take the action ourselves; so that’s how we know how to interpret the intention. But we seem to know it’s someone else taking the action so our brains basic threat/reward response kicks in based on the intention. Scary looking, wide-eyed, grimacing stranger approaching = threat = run away!

David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work was speaking tonight at a local event put on by the Int’l Coach Federation of New England (as in leadership, not sports). I’d read his book so for me it was a recap. One major theme he helped me remember regarding the social brain was the power of this threat response – it’s quicker, stronger, more lasting than the reward response. We have about one second after detecting the threat to squish it before it just addles our pre-frontal cortex to the extent that can’t think straight.

He put forward three techniques to handle it:
1. Focus on ‘direct experience‘ such as breathing, a cold beer, warm sun, ingrown toenail. Your brain has two neural maps to process experience but it can’t do both at once. So it can’t process ‘narrative experience’, such as matching scary-wide-eyed-man to past memories of scariness and pain, while it processes ‘direct experience’. This is why focusing on taking deep breaths calms you down when you’re nervous.

2. For low to medium threats, simply ‘label’ the feeling, rather than suppress it. This actually reduces the feeling (but dwelling on it increases the feeling, so don’t turn the label into dialog!). Nervous about meeting someone? Try saying to yourself, “I’m nervous, yes I am!” Procrastinating? “This phone call I have to make scares me”.

3. For bigger threats, you need to “reappraise” (reframe) the threat. Reinterpret: Scary man was actually annoyed and running for train, maybe?; Normalize: all people look like that; Re-evaluate: I’m twice his size and I have a gun; Re-assess perspective/values: I’m willing to die to protect this child, I don’t care what this scary man does to me.

So to the point of this post, “reappraisal”: it’s extraordinary, this ability to think different thoughts and so change your neurobiological reaction to something, your emotions, and then actually change your thinking again so you change your actions. “Thoughts” in this context are ideas, beliefs, interpretations and sense-making about the world and people and life … and God.

That is, “God”, on a simple level, is just part of the entire realm of things and people and people’s characteristics that shape how we neurobiologically feel and think and act. The only thing that varies among us is WHAT and WHO we believe and why. “Belief” itself is not a preserve of religious people, it’s a fact of all human existence. What and who and why we believe isn’t necessarily proved or denied just because we’re neuro-biologically wired for it. But the fact is those ‘beliefs’ do change how we think, feel and act, for the religious and non-religious person alike.


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Relational Architecture?

Posted by Simon on June 6, 2010

What do you think this is?

It’s an apartment building. Those are steps to people’s front doors.

The architect’s vision for it was “industrial chic”. He wanted this place “to have the elegance of intelligence. And the beauty of the happiness of the people who will live in this place.” He wants to help residence become a piece of art. And as apartment complexes go, it is very, very cool. I loved this converted shipyard building, with a white, bright open atria and big everyday objects placed around the public place (that orb-looking thing on the left is a lightbulb). And actually I loved clean minimalism.

I’m an architectural ignoramus, so I refrain from judgment on the architect (Philippe Starck) or the character or wellbeing of people who choose to live in such a place. And if you are an architect, or know about living spaces, I genuinely invite you to educate me.

My first reaction was, “Wow!, this is cool!”. My second was, “this is an apartment building?”. Then I started wondering how architecture and the design of living space helps or hinders relationships? A swimming pool, business center, and community room all provide common space for people to meet. But overall it seemed built for individuals, or individual families, not communities. … Now having read that last sentence I think of suburban areas where there is no common space you could walk to, or even drive to. And even many urban areas don’t seem designed for people to meet. So this place, Parris Landing, seems to have many advantages.

I’d love to know how architecture influences relationships. Or whether it’s simply a matter of who the people are who live there; maybe no matter what the design is, if the right people are there, community and social life can blossom?

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Oil. Law. Hammer.

Posted by Simon on June 2, 2010

I’m not saying President Barack Obama is wrong. And, frankly, no-one knows exactly the details of the cause yet, which is why a full investigation is warranted. But here is from an email from the White House that I received today.

If the laws on our books are insufficient to prevent such a spill, the laws must change. If oversight was inadequate to enforce these laws, oversight has to be reformed. If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region.

I’m just concerned that the only response to preventing this happening again, the only measure of ‘accountability’, seems to be THE LAW. It’s a problem because the more globally interconnected but relationally distant we are, and the bigger the corporations or any organizations are, the greater the chance that any benign act (i.e. the person isn’t being malicious, they may be just tired, or forgot to check the box; and who hasn’t done that?) could cause catastrophe. “Oh, did I hit the wrong red button? I thought I was ordering pizza?”. And what, we’re just going to create one law after another after to prevent every human error?

Like I say, the law maybe exactly what’s required here given the catastrophic nature of the mistake. But it shouldn’t be the only and first response. There are other tools in our human self-organizational toolbox than the hammer of the Law.

I wrestled with this in a previous post in with respect to relational distance in the context of the Wall St derivatives market that caused the mortgage crisis. Then yesterday I proposed that authority/structure (law?) enables freedom. So really I don’t know what to think!

Posted in Freedom/Authority, Law | 7 Comments »

Authority and Freedom: OpenSource

Posted by Simon on June 1, 2010

The relationship between authority (or structure) and freedom is a theme I’m sure to return to frequently.

Today I received an email from a colleague about The WebM Project . The launch of this project was supported by Mozilla, Opera, Adobe, Google and many other publishers, software and hardware vendors. No Apple? Quelle surprise.

“WebM is an open, royalty-free, media file format designed for the web.”
“WebM defines the file container structure, video and audio formats.”

And there is

“The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.
“One of our most important activities is as a standards body, maintaining the Open Source Definition for the good of the community.”

Overall I think these are great initiatives. The point I want to make here is simply that the very freedom and openness being sought by these communities are enabled by maintaining authority and control.

Tis a paradoxical fish, to be sure.

Posted in Freedom/Authority | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

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