16 November 2009

Building rapport

If you have ever been on a selling, negotiating or coaching course, your tutor will probably have talked to you about mirroring the body language of the person you are speaking to in order to build rapport and create a greater sense of empathy.

While doing this deliberately may seem a little "false", mimicking the actions and expressions of other people is something that we all do anyway to a greater or lesser extent. For example, have you noticed how laughter is infectious? It is not just that everyone "gets the joke"; some people start to laugh before they even know why!

Some neuroscientists suggest that this is due to specialist brain cells they call "mirror neurons" which trigger similar physical traits in ourselves as in the people we are with. Because our physiology can affect our emotional state, these mirror neurons help us get a sense of what other people are feeling.

Although the theory is rather appealing it is not without its critics.  However, regardless of whether mirror neurons exist or not, the fact remains that the mirroring of actions and body shape can help create a similar emotional state than therefore enhance the degree that one person is able to empathise with another.

Can your personality change?

I have always been dismayed by personality tests that claim that a person’s personality is fixed for the duration of their adult life; as in my opinion, a person’s personality can and sometimes does change.

This view is supported by evidence from Brain Dominance profiles. Where people have completed the questionnaire more than once over a period of time, we do sometimes notice a change in their profile. When questioned as to why this might be, those people generally provide plausible explanations. For example, in one case a person’s profile had changed implying that their preference for “big picture thinking” had increased while their preference for detail had decreased. This took place over a three year period and coincided with promotion from a relatively “hands-on” job to a more managerial role.

Possibly the reason why some people claim that a person’s personality is fixed and stable comes from the mistaken belief that, since a person’s physical features do not change much beyond adolescence, neither will their brain. However, recent research suggests that the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself is much more extensive than previously thought.

In the past, research on “neural plasticity” (aka the brain’s ability to rewire itself) has centred on using slices of tissue taken from the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for short-term memory. Findings from these studies suggested that plasticity did occur but was limited. However, because the research used on a tiny portion of the brain, it was not possible to measure the impact of new learning on the whole of the brain.

Now, a team in Alicante in Spain have developed a means of inserting tiny electrodes into the brains of living rats. The electrodes stimulate certain neural pathways in much the same way as occurs when we experience new things. If the strength of the signals along those neural pathways increases over time, then the brain is “rewiring” itself.

As a result they have found that plasticity is not exclusive to the individual neurons and synapses concerned, but it has implications that are far more widespread than previously thought.

If the whole of the brain is capable of rewiring itself in the light of new experiences, it naturally follows that preferences and personality traits will also be capable of being modified through time.

No more counting sheep!

Did you know that the National Health Service spent more than £36 million on sleeping pills this year – and the cost is rising 20% each year?

There have been many remedies proposed to help beat insomnia, but according to the Daily Telegraph today a young inventor is now successfully marketing her "cure" through a major high street chemist. Kate Evans designed the LightSleeper to help tackle her sleepless nights whilst at Lancashire University.

Her invention is a small lamp which works by moving a soothing blue light across the ceiling in a darkened bedroom. The luminance of the light slowly rises and falls. As you watch the light your breathing will synchronise with the light as it becomes slower. The deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and causes a relaxation response. Blue light also helps to re-calibrate the circadian rhythm, the body’s sensitivity to day and night through specific receptors in the eye that interpret blue light as day light. When the brain sees the blue light fading away, it interprets it as "time to sleep".

Although it seems slightly paradoxical that something that requires you to have your eyes open for it to work can actually help you go to sleep, but sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, who has tested it, said: "This could really help people who have difficulty relaxing."

Anything that helps reduce the amount of sleeping pills taken has to be a good thing, but for me, a good book, even though stimulating my brain is still the best way to nod off.
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