10 September 2018

Disrupting your environmental triggers to break a habit

Changing a habit can be easier when you change your environment first. Identifying the cue or trigger is often a first step to gaining control and helping you to change a habit that doesn’t serve you into one that does. Triggers may be a thought popping into your head, a feeling bubbling to the surface or something in your environment. For example, thinking you are never going to reach your ideal weight may trigger you to eat more chocolate; feeling you aren’t good enough may trigger you into a spiral of apathy, or seeing your office desk piled with work may be enough to bring on a sense of overwhelm.
Your environment is often something you can control and play around with and make an impact. Even just randomly changing something and disrupting your habitual pattern can start a cycle of improvement and enable new habits to form. Neuro linguistic programming calls this disruption a ‘pattern interrupt’, which can facilitate changes in your thought patterns and behaviours. Get a new screensaver, wear different clothes, drink coffee rather than tea, move your desk, work in a different room, change your office chair from a blue one to a red one, hang different pictures – even subtle changes can have a great effect.
It is thought that the chunking of tasks is an important component in how they become habits. Over time, the repetition of sequential tasks becomes a habit; changing a task therefore disrupts the sequence and can prevent a habit from being formed. Similarly, stopping the initiation of the first task in a sequence of a habit can prevent the follow through.
New research suggests that once started, the brain wants the whole routine to run. Neuroscientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that certain neurons in the brain are responsible for marking the beginning and end of these chunked units of behaviour in a sequenced habit. These neurons in the striatum fire at the outset of a learned routine, go quiet while it is carried out, then fire again once the routine has ended. The researchers found that excitatory neurons produced what they called the bracketing pattern at the beginning and end while different neurons, interneurons, activate in the middle of the learned sequence1.
This task-bracketing appears to be important for starting a routine and then notifying the brain once it is complete. Once these patterns form it becomes difficult to break the habit. The brain considers the pattern valuable and worth keeping. The researchers suggest that the interneurons prevent the excitatory neurons from starting another routine until the current one is finished, implying that once started, the brain wants to complete the activation of the habit.
The neuroscientific evidence therefore implies that habits consist of two phases; initiation and routine.  If you want to change a habit, changing the trigger that causes the initiation will be the most powerful way, but if this is not possible, changing elements in the subsequent routine can also be effective.  For example, many people struggling with quitting smoking are now finding that, rather than trying to stop completely, smoking an e-cigarette instead changes the routine. It may not be the perfect solution, but it is a healthier alternative to the previous habit, and is a step towards kicking the habit altogether.  
1 Martiros, N., Burgess, A.A., Graybiel, A.M. (2018). Inversely active striatal projection neurons and interneurons selectively delimit useful behaviour sequences. Current Biology, 28 (4), 560-573.e5

25 April 2017

Out and About With MyBrain

2017 has been a busy year so far. As well as our regular client sessions and practitioner training days, we have also been attending and running a number of events.

In January we spoke at a number of events run by Ambition School Leadership, a charity dedicated to transforming children’s lives in disadvantaged areas by building a network of exceptional school leaders. The MyBrain sessions focused on the ways in which cognitive bias can influence decisions, without us even being aware of it. Audiences in Birmingham, London and Leeds were fascinated in the neuroscientific research in the decision making area - and discussed strategies for dealing with bias in order to form more considered judgements.

In February, we were honoured to be asked to speak at a major seminar in Mumbai jointly staged by BBC Knowledge and the World HRD Congress.

The subject of our talk was the insights neuroscientific research is providing into the ways in which the concept of storytelling can create neurological alignment.  This is important as organisations are increasingly finding that traditional approaches to maintaining organisational focus and alignment are proving too inflexible in today's fast-moving economic environment.

At the same conference we were also extremely flattered to receive a prestigious award in recognition of the work MyBrain has done in introducing neuroscientific knowledge and neurometric profiling into coaching practices.  In many ways this work is in its infancy, but the fact that it provides coaches with an evidence-based approach to understanding the energy, motivations and preferences of their clients is already proving invaluable.

In March we were in Edinburgh for the annual CIPD Scottish Conference and Exhibition, where we took a stand and connected with over 400 delegates. Conference topics were varied but many embraced the enormous area of organisational health and wellbeing. We had numerous conversations about the role of neuroscience in this area and how the MyBrain work and MiND can enable organisations to make strides with their teams in employee engagement, performance and happiness.

Finally, during March and April we have run two highly successful seminars in conjunction with our sister company Extensor with the title of "Neuroscience and the 21st Century Leadership Challenge". We talked about the global trends that are today leading organisations to require people to work in ways that run contrary to the default ways evolution designed our brains to work.  We looked at the evidence to support this argument and at the solutions that can be adopted.

If you would be interested in exploring ways in which MyBrain could work with your organisation please get in touch for an informal conversation.

25 September 2016

How your synaptic network develops

Given that all human brains, like human bodies, are remarkably similar, it is surprising that thoughts, ideas, like and dislikes can be so different.  The reason is that it is not our brain regions per se that create the difference, but rather the ways in which those regions are connected.

Each human brain consists of something in excess of 85 billion specialist cells called neurons, and each neuron will establish an average of around 15,000 connections with other cells in your body.

Amazingly, brain cells do not touch one another but instead communicate with other cells by converting the electrical impulse from within the cell to a chemical message that then passes to other cells across gaps between the cells called synapses.

These tiny gaps, around one ten-millionth of a millimetre in size, form what is known as your synaptic network.  As a result of the DNA you inherited from your parents and your lifetime experiences, it is this network of connections that makes you the person you are.  Everything you think, know and feel is as a result of the way in which this network operates.  In the words of the American neuroscientist and NYU Professor Joseph LeDoux, "You are your synapses.  They are who you are."

In order to explain how your synaptic network develops we often use the analogy of the way in which a road network develops and evolves over time, but we recently came across a brilliant video clip from a BBC series featuring the British doctor and Professor Robert Winston.  In the video clip he describes the way in which the synaptic network develops as we learn something new by drawing an analogy with crossing a deep ravine.  Have a look at the video and see what you think:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGieqH2tl8M

18 April 2016

Do you allow pets in your bed?

Hygiene debates aside, a new survey published in journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Krahn et al., 2015) suggests having a pet in bed may benefit some people’s sleep. Of the 150 pet owners interviewed, over half allowed their pets into the bedroom with 41% of that group saying there was no disruption to sleep. Indeed some people claimed it to aid sleep, providing relaxation, security, companionship and even bed warming.

Recognising the potential for bias in positive responses, the researchers state that sleep is dependent on a state of physical and mental relaxation, so indeed it must be true that some pet owners sleep better with their beloved animal next to them. Many pet owners view companion animals as family members that they wish to bring into as many aspects of their life as possible.

It is long known that animals can tap into calm and well-being in people. Pet therapy has a huge impact in elderly care homes and tactile stimulation can enable some memories, however fleeting, to return to previous pet owners now suffering from neurological disorders. We should encourage more interaction with animals and the elderly – maybe not for a sleepover, but certainly to stimulate and build relationships with.

Sleep Cleans the Brain

Sleep continues to be of great interest to scientists as we look to discover why it is so important for human survival. Sleep is not an inactive state, rather it is a period of time when strengthening and rejuvenation takes place. We know it matters for our bodies to restore and regenerate, to grow muscle, repair tissue and to synthesise hormones. We also know sleep matters for our brains and for optimal cognitive functioning. It is required for storage of memories and lack of it impedes attention, decision making, reasoning and focus.

Some new research led by Danish Neuroscientist Dr Maiken Nedergaard and her colleagues at the University of Rochester Medical Centre have now started to unlock some of the mysteries around the mechanisms behind sleep benefits for the brain. She is interested in the glial cells – a group found uniquely in the brain – and their purpose, believing them to be part of what keeps the brain “healthy”.

Given the fact that brain tissue has a significantly higher energy demand than other human tissues Nedergaard’s team were interested in the lack of a lymphatic system in the brain and spinal cord to “drain away” excess molecules such as proteins. The lymphatic system plays a critical role in the human immune system enabling the disposal of waste to the liver – so why does this process not apply to the brain?  Her team have found that cerebrospinal (CSF) fluid, a clear liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, moves through the brain along a series of channels – managed by the glial cells. It is as if the CSF acts as a “sink” for waste and the brain actually can export molecules to the liver. Rodent studies show that the glia are the start of a transport network that end up in the lymph nodes in the neck. The team have termed this process the glymphatic system.

The team reported that this glymphatic system helps remove a toxic protein called beta-amyloid from brain tissue and their most recent research shows that sleep helps to clear these proteins. This has a huge implication for a number of neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias as they are characterised by an accumulation of proteins. Dr Nedergaard also points out in the journal Science that medical teams should allow patients with traumatic brain injury to sleep and not to keep waking them up every 10 minutes to take vital measurements.

The glymphatic system paves the way for more understanding of brain health. And the message is, as Dr. Nedergaard says, “…we need sleep. It cleans up the brain.”

The work was funded in the USA by the National Institute of Health’s specialist group – The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

24 September 2015

The Brain at Work

Would you like to learn more about the fascinating subject of neuroscience and the way in which it can help individuals and teams become more effective at work?

If so MyBrain International is running two free seminars on Thursday 8th October and Monday 30th November in central London.

Seminar attendees will also have the opportunity to complete a MiND profile.  

MiND is the world’s first and only neurometric - a profiling tool based on the latest neurological research and discoveries.

It was developed following research by various eminent neuroscientists into the way in which information is distributed by the synaptic network.  As a result we are now able to identify the causal link between the psychology of a person and the physiology of their brain.  This insight has made MiND a genuinely ground-breaking tool as, for the first time, we are able to go beyond the mere assessment of how people think by providing an explanation of why they think the way they do and why other people may think differently.

In addition to providing an opportunity for you to complete a profile for yourself, the seminar will cover:
  • An overview of the neuroscientific research that has led to the identification of the causal link between the psychology of a person and the physiology of their brain.
  • An explanation of how that research led to the development of MiND, the world’s first neurometric.
  • Details of how MiND differs from psychological profiling tools including an explanation as to why those differences are so valuable in team-building, leadership, coaching and numerous other applications.
  • A demonstration of the ways in which MiND and the subject of neuroscience provides people with genuinely new insights into why they are the way they are and in what ways other people are different.
Who should attend?
The seminar open to senior managers, trainers and HR professionals who are interested in either becoming an accredited MyBrain Practitioner themselves or in learning how the use of the MiND tool could benefit their organisation.

Seminar Details:
Dates: Thursday 8th October (almost full) or Monday 30th November
Time: The event will begin at 9:30 with coffee served from 9:00. It will end at 2:00 following lunch
Venue: The Meeting House, 124 Wigmore Street, Central London, W1U 3RY

Please note that places are limited to a maximum of two people from any one organisation and will be allocated on a first come first served basis. Please use the following link to book places:

Click here to book.
Click here for more information on the MyBrain Practitioner programme.

If you would like to attend but are unable to make this date or location, please email enquiries@mybrain.co.uk providing your contact details and we will be in touch to see if we can accommodate you at a future event.

14 August 2015

Left Handers’ Day

Did you know that people who are left handed have a special day dedicated to them?  The 13th August.  It was a day to celebrate the fact that lefties are special as they represent less than 10% of the population.

Lefties often claim special skills.  For example, did you know that three of the last four US presidents are left handed, as were Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Bill Gates and Bart Simpson!

Because the brain is cross-wired to the opposite side of the body, it is often claimed that left-handedness is associated with the type of creativity sometimes associated with the right hemisphere of the brain.  While there appears to be some evidence to support this, there is no evidence to support the claim that all left-handers are right-brained.

Interestingly, the incidence of left-handedness appears to be consistently around 10% of the population everywhere in the world.  It is also interesting that in virtually every society left-handers have been persecuted.  I recall that one of my friends at primary school in the 1960s in a small village in Lincolnshire used to get caned by our teacher if he was caught writing with his left hand.  Why our teacher thought that handedness mattered and what psychotic perversity led him to believe that corporal punishment was needed to correct such a trivial matter is anyone’s guess.

So why is right-handedness more prevalent than left-handedness?  The answer to this question is not known but numerous theories exist ranging from hemispheric lateralization in the brain to genetic factors.  Interestingly a study of ultrasound scans of human foetuses in 1991 found that at 15 weeks most foetuses prefer to suck their right thumb, hinting that handedness is present prior to birth. Interestingly, Hepper et al. followed up this study of 75 individuals. They found that the 60 foetuses that preferred to suck their right thumb were indeed right-handed as teenagers, and of the 15 foetuses that preferred to suck their left thumb, 5 were right-handed and 10 were left-handed.

Whether handedness is an inherited genetic trait or not is also not known.  In 1991 Robert Collins of the Jackson Laboratory attempted to breed left- or right-handed mice.  Since the attempt failed it suggests that handedness is not inherited.  However, the study did find that left or right paw dominance was associated with higher levels of dopamine in the corresponding hemisphere, leading to suggestions that physiological and neurological lateralisation are associated.

Left Handers’ Day may seem like a bit of a gimmick, but as a result of highlighting the plight of left handers many things have improved.  For example, whereas once items such as can openers, scissors and computer mice were only available in right-handed versions, today many more products are designed to be ambidextrous.

To find out more about Left Hander’s Day visit www.lefthandersday.com.
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