Popping the Neuroscience Bubble.

Yes, that’s what I said. The bubble.

So much more than a brain.

For those of us in the psychology/coaching industry, ‘Neuroscience’ is a great word to use if you want to flag up to the world that you’re ‘up there’ with the best, your particular training is authentic or you just want to sound good. You won’t find a self-respecting learning and development company that hasn’t slotted the word into some paragraph or other in their marketing, indicating that they are ‘neuroscience based’.  And as expected, all the current psychology programmes on the radio and TV here in the UK are climbing onto the band-wagon, with the media chanting the NS mantra day in, day out. If you check out our site, www.powerchange.com, we do it too. For how much longer I’m not sure, and here’s the reason…

Words and phrases become devalued by over-use. Stick ‘neuroscience’ on everything and just like printing money against finite resources, each note becomes worth less. Even the word ‘science’ has lost its meaning today, with so called discoveries being reported in hyped language and headlines that bear little resemblance to the down-to-earth, unspectacular slog of the reality. Science has come to mean something other than pure ‘knowledge’, and whilst I love the energy and intrigue of current explorations in human behaviour and its links with our brains, I’m growing nervous about how it is misused – sometimes with the deliberate intention to deceive.

DH Lawrence has a character who talks of “ready-made words and phrases sucking all the life-blood out of living things”, and here we have a similar thing happening. Outrageous claims for what neuroscience ‘proves’ might grab headlines and find their way onto the news channels, but bear little resemblance to the reality. Often they are simply verbal garbage, unwarranted speculative statements that at the best entertain and at the worst are deliberately misleading. Lawrence was no neuroscientist, but he knew that living things bear no comparison to the words and phrases used to describe them – even when the intention is well-meaning.

‘Scientists’ involved in brain research are men and women just like you and me.  They have their philosophical positions, have secret motivators that drive their behaviour that even they don’t know about. They have their bosses to please, their academic peers to impress and their children to feed. The temptation to over-egg the cake can for some be irresistible, especially when departmental funding worth millions is at stake. And that applies to the media too. Their jobs depend on oversimplification for easy assimilation by their readers and attention-grabbing headlines (which incidentally, are usually written by someone else) so they sell more papers for their advertisers.

So what about Powerchange’s ‘take’ on brain science and the like? Well, I’m currently thinking and reading on how the neural networks in the brain detect integrity; how the connections between all our little brains with their untold myriads of connections – all 100,000 billion billion of them across the world – work as one brain (see my blog on Community Brain Theory); how the molecule-sized proteins that trigger the opening and closing of billions of ion channels can ‘tell’ the difference between miniscule various micro-indicators signalled by someone else’s neural networks on Skype in real time, and in a tiny fraction of a second cause you to change your mind (whatever that is), and as a result, your entire future.

In other words the more I learn about neuroscience through reading papers, books and articles and observing what goes on in the evident transformations of my clients (and I have no illusions about how little that is) the more chillingly humbled I’ve felt. We can only stand in awed silence and with our heads bowed as we examine ‘through a glass darkly’ the tiniest scrap of the undiscovered vast immeasurable universe within each of our skulls.

As I consider the whole body of knowledge contributed by hundreds of thousands of neuroscientists across the world over the last century or so, I am coming to realise it doesn’t even equate to the dust on the scales.  The truth is, when it comes to neuroscience we have barely even started. It’s worth remembering that.

I love real science and discovering new things, but all too often the speculative ready-made words and phrases of the tens of the thousands of research papers are doing no more than sucking the life-blood out of an incomprehendably beautiful and very living thing.  Your brain.

Look after it.

The Neuroscience behind the Poetry.

“Psychiatry is finished.”  It wasn’t said loudly or in a gratuitous or all-knowing way, but with a quiet authority

Many in the Association for Coaches annual conference on Neuroscience will have picked up on the significance of this almost throw away line. It came from a older man who has been in the field of psychology all his life.

Professor Dr Paul Brown is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine; and was for nearly forty years a Member and then Chartered Clinical and Organisational Psychologist of the British Psychological Society where he was also at one time the Registrar of the Clinical Board of Examiners, until he “left in 2001 in despair“. So what on earth was Professor Brown on about, or what planet is he on? Finished? You must be joking, Professor … or know something we don’t.

He does. A lot. The 350 professional coaches listening were spellbound as he quietly debunked the psychological world view of the last two centuries in the light of the real-world neuroscience that is making its way across the world here in 2012. Those listening to him were invited to change their own view as he explained the significance of an endless stream of new research and biology-based studies that provide clear cogent incontrovertible hard evidence that the drivers of human behaviour are not what ‘old psychology’ [my label] thought. The way you and I change as we respond to the world is physically identifiable within the circuitry of the brain and central nervous system. Emotional health and wellbeing are growable, repairable and redeemable. Damage no longer needs to be perceived as permanent.

We are getting rid of the black-box mystery. “In the last 15 years we’ve seen psychology based in science” he said,  and his hearers could sense the relief around them in the room. Something subtle implied there perhaps? Professor Brown proceeded to talk about the authentic science now behind our understandings of love, anger, disappointment, trust, and how human beings make meaning. He set out the evidence for loving human relationships being core – utterly fundamental – to human well being and how this is seen in the brain. He explained how every (every!) human though and action, every interaction between human lives, from months before birth to the moment we die, changes brain structures for better or worse, creates new neurology and is utterly personal to that individual. He explained how every human brain across the world works in the same way, with cultures, family and friendships creating the multi-millions of neural networks that make us the unique individuals we are. He went on and on, fact and insight after fact and insight. Brilliant.

I could have cried. For the last two or three years in our team we’ve been coming to similar and in some cases virtually identical realisations but not as a result of the powerful and carefully controlled research accessible to university scientists – I’m envious of Dr Brown. Our little company doesn’t have that time or the money. Frankly, with my very limited academic background, if I did I wouldn’t know where to start!

We’ve even dared to teach what we have found – in our extended coach training course, carefully presenting it as theory in the absence of carefully established research, then showing by example how well it works.

No, the basis of our discoveries have not been in copious scientific study but in year after year of staying curious, of watching very carefully, listening with our eyes as well as our ears, of experimenting with the questions we use in coaching the hundreds of people we have seen. We’ve not had the doctoral power of research that ‘Dr Paul’ has had. All we’ve had is eyes to see, ears to hear and the confidence to express our ideas using illustrations taken from 21st Century life. As Professor Brown was speaking I could have reached into my bag and pulled out an iPad with presentations therein that are very complementary to his.

Psychiatry’s demise hasn’t hit the headlines yet, but it will. There are those who have been wedded to ‘old psychology’ for years, drunk on the power it has given them as they’ve prescribed away, basing their opinions on packaged diagnoses lifted straight from DSM-IV, the psychiatrists Bible. People have been permanently cursed with highly adhesive diagnostic labels of emotional ‘conditions’ and at the same time had to accept the word ‘incurable’ watermarked into the paper if not actually written on it. We are now discovering that things are not as we thought. The brain is ‘plastic’ and heals itself. The word ‘permanent’ can no longer be etched indelibly into its neural networks. The future looks brighter for us all.

Yes, there will always be those who deny the growing mountain of evidence that reveals the extent to which depression, sadness and emotional damage is not just repairable but can make people stronger, more useful and better resourced. There is a growing number too who are sufficiently free from the confusing clutter of old psychology to embrace the evidence on offer. I spoke recently to a group of 40 GPs in a Medical Education Centre in West Sussex and at the end two of those GPs came to me and asked if I would see a member of their family. That’s five percent.

The night before the Association for Coaching conference, I finished Dr Martin Seligman’s outstanding book on wellbeing called ‘Flourish’. (If you haven’t read it you’re missing out.) Dr Seligman (Marty to his friends) is another David in the field standing out against the traditionalist Philistine giants that are trying to shout down those presenting the evidence. Let them shout until they are exhausted, for the world has changed. Relationships, businesses, families, children, teenagers, emotional health and wellbeing will never be the same, thank God. They will be better.

So “psychiatry is finished” – or at least lying on its death-couch. Now after all these decades of endless drug-induced ‘slavery’ some people will retake control of their own wellbeing and future lives.

Dr Paul Brown spent several minutes of his time talking about some answers: developing trust, love, hope. He showed how healthy loving relationships inspire trust, and hope, and are a healing panacea for so much of the unseen damage in our brains. Loneliness, rejection and separation are poisons of wellbeing. Community, friends, life partners, affection, joy are the answers. Love heals. Did I perchance hear an echo from the ancient writings of Professor Paul’s namesake of 2000 years? “Now abide these three; faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love.”

Two millennia further on from when those lines were penned it seems researchers may be revealing the neuroscience behind the poetry.

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