Saturday 18 July 2015

Habits of mind

I have just finished reading Neuropsychology for Coaches, by Brown and Brown. I found it a very interesting and enjoyable read, as it explained the lightest theories and hypotheses emerging from the ever-expanding understanding of how the brain actually works, and discussed the implications for coaches.

In many ways, it confirmed things I already knew, and also offered fresh understandings of why some of the things I know work are actually effective - not least the story approach about which I have written my own book.

One of the key things for me was reaffirming the power of established neural pathways: the way in which every time we follow a particular pathway, we strengthen it and increase the likelihood of using it again.

That is phenomenally useful in terms of learning: indeed that is how rote learning of things like times tables works. But it also informs how we make sense of the world: the stories we construct, which is what I explore in my book. (Incidentally, when this is disrupted, it has very grave consequences for the individual: see for example this article in today's Guardian). And, as Brown and Brown make clear, these strengthened neural pathways largely determine how we act. The more we behave in a particular way, the more inclined we are to do so in the future. This is the force of habit.

So some of the things a coach is seeking to do when helping someone to make desired changes are to help them to:

1  remember to avoid telling someone what not to do, as the brain has no capacity for that;

2  discover where the new thinking or behaviour already exists in their repertoire (since, with adults, it is far easier to strengthen neural pathways that already exist than to create new ones though that is possible)

3  rehearse the new thinking or behaviour frequently, both in the coaching sessions and outwith them.

That is the premise not only of my (exceedingly new and original) work with shifting stories, and the more widely-known use of affirmations, but also of the ancient wisdom of the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle in particular) with regard to virtues.

Virtues were regarded as habitual ways of behaving. As a teenager, I rebelled against that notion: surely to be virtuous one should be choosing on each occasion to do the virtuous behaviour. Now, however, I am more inclined to agree with the Greek (and subsequent Christian) understanding of virtue as habitual.

The merit in virtuous behaviour, in this understanding, springs from two things: one is the effort that has gone into establishing the habitual good behaviour in the first place; and the second is the effort required to exercise that behaviour when other influences (self interest, the natural appetites, external duress etc) are pushing one in another direction.

That of course begs the question what is good behaviour: and again, I think the Greeks had some insights here, which were built on in the Christian tradition, giving us the classic formulation of Faith, Hope and Charity; Justice, Fortitude, Temperance and Prudence. As a set, these are hard to beat; I recognise that many who are not religious will raise an eyebrow at Faith, but would suggest that they consider it in the light of Viktor Frankl's work, and see it as referring to that sense of ultimate meaning which Frankl identified as so important. 

But the practical aspect of this with which I want to conclude is the question of how we develop such virtuous habits. Again the Greeks, and the Christian tradition, have some wisdom; wisdom subsequently rediscovered up by theorists like William James (Henry James' brother) and later by experimental researchers such as James Laird. This is the simple notion of 'as if' behaviour (and indeed 'as if' thinking). 

To become brave, for example, repeatedly behave as a brave person would behave, and you will establish that virtuous habit. To become more hopeful, deliberately think about situations as a hopeful person would, on a regular basis. In that way, you can strengthen those neural pathways, until they are simply part of who you are. Whilst the wisdom has indeed been around for centuries, Brown and Brown's book shows that the latest advances in neuropsychology help explain how and why that works.

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