Newsletter 640 – A thoughtful Football Story

Concussion 2If you follow American football you may be aware of a new book and motion picture each titled Concussion. They tell the true story of a Nigerian physician named Bennet Omalu who came to the United States, earned several additional degrees and became a renowned specialist in forensic neuropathology. One day Dr. Omalu “picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he never intended…. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old…[football player], one of the greatest ever to play the game.” Prior to his death the football player had developed serious mental deterioration. Omalu discovered that this was caused by a brain disease resulting from “relentless blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game.” The Concussion book and movie give a fascinating account about how others responded to this discovery and how the National Football League (NFL), “a multibillion-dollar colossus” tried to silence the doctor and discredit his work.

Why should you or I care? Here are two observations:

  • Be cautious about discrediting research that we dislike. The NFL is a huge corporation that tried to silence Omalu and produce research to disprove his results. This research was suspect from the start because it was NFL funded. But this is not limited to a football league. American politicians do something similar when they discredit research that appears to undermine their political agendas. Don’t theologians do something similar? What about academicians, advertisers, or public speakers who select or create research to support their positions and condemn or ignore the rest? If you do research, do it well. If you site research, be fair and try to site competent sources.
  • Be alert to the ways in which ideas, intellectual property and discoveries can be hijacked by others intent of gaining acclaim and money. Omalu’s discovery was claimed by others who took his ideas and built profitable organizations without acknowledging his contributions. When your dreams and accomplishments have been taken form you and used by others, it is difficult to trust again. Omalu struggled with this and withdrew, never expecting that the true story would be told. The book describes him as a man of courage. He also appears to be a man of integrity. That involves doing what is right regardless of whether anybody is watching.

Are these comments biased? Have I been unfair? Hopefully not! Even so, there’s value in pondering the stories of others and insuring that we’re not guilty of similar unethical actions. Please comment.

Newsletter 639 – New Year’s Attitudes

Quotation 7We all know this. The week around New Year’s Day is about reflecting on events of the year that is passing and thinking about the year that’s ahead. New years’ resolutions, goal setting, plans and expectations all come to our attention. They concern individuals, families and careers. Often they are a focus of companies, ministries, and organizations. These reflections and resolutions are not bad. They motivate us to action but there is research evidence that they rarely work very well to bring permanent change. Many involve trying to eliminate long-engrained habits that have lodged in the synapses and neural pathways of of our brains.

In case you are wondering, I rarely make resolutions. But I do spend time reflecting, setting goals for the year ahead, and initiating behavior changes that hopefully will stick. All of this is taken seriously but I plan the future lightly, aware that unforeseen circumstances can disrupt our best developed plans and recognizing that God alone knows what’s ahead.

During this past year, I’ve thought increasingly about the attitudes that influence so much of what we do. Most of us know people who seem super bitter, cynical, critical or engulfed in similar sour mindsets. These ways of thinking rarely accomplish anything. They can pull us into discouragement, perpetual anger, and sometimes hopelessness or despair. And they alienate everyone who hears the complaining.

Quotation 3When I was in graduate school a few of us spent a day with Victor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist to survived a Nazi prison camp. He watched fellow prisoners die because they had no hope. In contrast, those who survived had found meaning, despite their circumstances. (The quotation on the left comes from Frankl). Whatever comes in the new year will be met with some kind of attitude. Perhaps a positive perspective should be part of our new year’s plans and resolutions. That’s especially true for those of us who live with awareness of God’s ultimate control, care, and reason for hope

What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 631 – Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters

Susan PinkerIn 2004 following my only experience as a surgery patient, the doctor made a prediction that proved to be accurate. He said that I’d make a complete and relatively speedy recovery. In addition to good medical care he commented on several positive signs, including my overall good physical shape based on consistent exercise, the “spirituality” that he saw, a determination to get better, my sense of humor (it beats complaining), and the social support that came from family and friends. At times I thought of this while reading psychologist Susan Pinker’s fascinating book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter.

This is not a self-help book built on inspiration and subjective opinions. Pinker does include captivating illustrative stories but, in addition, she reports on her interviews with a variety of experts and ordinary people, plus references to an impressive body of scholarly research. For example, the book documents ways in which face-to-face contact contribute to athletic success, language learning, brain development, overall health, longer life, stronger marriage, spiritual growth and better recovery from surgery like mine over ten years ago. Pinker’s work demonstrates her wide knowledge of brain functioning and neurophysiology as these relate to everyday behavior, stress-management and life fulfillment. The Village Effect is written by one of those rare scholars who is able to engage readers, write clearly, and make empirical evidence interesting and relevant.

Here are summary conclusions adapted from comments on the book’s cover:

  • People with tight circles of friends who gather regularly are likely to live an average of fifteen years longer than loners.
  • Social contact at the beginning of life helps us cope with stress later on.
  • The lowest rate of dementia appears in people with extensive face-to-face social networks.
  • A hug or a pat on the back lowers one’s physiological stress response, which in turn helps the body fight infections.
  • Women with breast cancer who have large networks of friends are four times as likely to survive as those with sparser social connections.

This is an impressive summary of what most of us suspect or know. But in what practical ways does this book’s message relate to your work, career, relationships and lifestyle? We’ll have more on this next week. Meantime, please feel free to leave a comment.

Newsletter 598 – Depression and the Fear of Terrorism

PARIS EST CHARLIE 2One of my closest friends is Parisian. He has lived in Paris for most of his life and was there last week. Following the terrorist attacks he sent me an email message stating, in part: I’ve experienced the waves of terrorism in 1986 and 1995 in Paris. I’ve also experienced 9/11 in NYC. I know how to “protect” myself from these tragedies: I usually turn off the TV and limit my access to the media – non-stop media updates tend to format people’s minds and make them more anxious. I do not cut myself off but I deliberately watch less TV and listen more to the radio (to avoid the impact of images.) I listen a couple of times throughout the day – but do not keep the radio on all day long. The more we dwell on negative issues, the worse they get in our thinking and the more entrenched in our brains.

I thought of this when I read the November-December 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine focusing on depression. The authors write that despite diverse therapeutic treatments and anti-depressant medications (most of which work about equally well,) depression is increasing and becoming “the most important public health issue in the world.”

Even so, the “entire mental health establishment still regards the condition as an individual problem, confined within an individual skull.” Without criticizing individual therapies and medications, the PT writers note the massive evidence showing that individual depression is in reality “a vast and cultural problem inextricably linked to the basic habits, mores and expectation of our era.” These include our relentless competition, determination to attain unrealistic goals, and “unflagging desire for more–more money, more status, more power, more stuff and more happiness–all of which can create conditions for chronic low mood.”

Just as an unending (media or other) focus on terrorism can train the brain to be fearful, so too can brains be influenced and depression worsened by therapies that dwell on reciting symptoms or telling affected people that they have a solely genetic or brain disorder that is likely to persist. Maybe we need to get beyond the defect model, honor the strengths of depressed people, and help them learn how to get clear of the mood lowering impact of our changing social values and expectations.

It’s a paradigm change to view depression as a social as well as an individual and spiritual issue. What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 566 – Should You Care How the Brain Works?


NG Brain 2Richly illustrated with remarkable photographs, National Geographic recently (February 2014) published a cover-story article on “The New Science of the Brain.” About the same time (January-February 2014) Psychotherapy Networker  produced several articles under the title “Untangling Brain Science: How Has it Lived Up to its Promise for Therapists? Brain science may be the rage among psychotherapists,” writes one of the authors. It also infatuates many leaders, coaches, educators and others even though “most people can feel their eyes glazing over and their own brains going offline when threatened with serious neuroscience.”

For centuries, of course, people helping has been working, education has been making a difference, and the Holy Spirit has been working in the minds and lives of people who never heard of brain science. Why care now, especially when the field is so quickly changing, so complex and so difficult to comprehend? Here are conclusions among many  in National Geographic and the Networker:

  • Just about every mental function and emotion “results from external stimuli and a vast range of neural activities and connections drawing on many brain regions interacting with each other.” Don’t assume that any thought or behavior involves only one part of the brain.
  • Brain science is “roughly comparable to where biology was…around 1825.”  So don’t draw too many conclusions about what we know now.
  • At present, brain science has little if any relationship on how we bring change. But as it develops the field has huge potential for practical usefulness in the future.
  • Neuroplasticity is the idea that brain tissue changes. The things we do and think repeatedly bring changes in the neural structure of the brain. That’s how habits, addictions and attitudes develop. It takes time, repetition and determination to bring change in the brain. In contrast if we don’t stimulate a certain part of the brain, “the cortical real estate is taken over by other functions of the brain. Apparently we have use-it-or-lose-it brains.”
  • “Anything we consistently give attention to teaches the brain to produce more of it.” The same is true of negative thoughts.

As a non-specialist, I try to read broadly in the brain science area, learning from experts who can communicate clearly (that’s a rare breed) and applying what I can. How do you respond to all this? Please comment.

Newsletter 564 – Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Decisions?

DecisionsLast week’s Newsletter (#563) reviewed Philip Yancey’s new book The Question that Never Goes Away: Why. The book alerted me to the number of Why? Questions I was hearing from my friends: “Why did I spend thousands to get a degree and now can’t find a job?” “Why was my application for graduate school rejected without being read?” “Why did my cousin commit suicide this week?” Yancey shows that God never answers the Why? Questions but he permits tragedies that mold us. He wants to see how we respond. To use a cliché, do we get better or bitter? Do we acknowledge the grief or loss and then try to move on? Or do we wallow in misery and bitterness but never recover?

Have you ever pondered how tragedies and disappointments so often lead to unwise decisions and actions? To rephrase the title of this post: Why do otherwise rational people make irrational–sometimes self-destructive—decisions in times of stress? We see this prominently when politicians, people in ministry, and others make unwise decisions, sink their careers and destroy their families. Reasons include these:

  • The brain responds to intense emotion—fear, sadness, strong sexual and other arousal—by temporarily shutting down the cognitive, rational, thinking parts of the brain. This heightens our sensory system and narrows our cognitive focus so we are better able to detect stressors. As a result we make decisions with a narrow focus, miss the bigger picture, and take actions that are regretted later.
  • We lose perspective when we face trauma. For example, we dwell on the losses and fail to notice what might be positive in tough situations. Dwelling on the negative can lead to the destructive bitterness that counselors encounter and the Bible cautions against (Eph 5:31-2.)
  • We are influenced by people who pull us down and encourage us to take unwise actions while we’re in the midst of emotional overload. Involvement with a supportive community or caring friend can help maintain a more balanced view.
  • We see no reason to hope so we throw caution to the wind and move forward with unwise thinking and actions. Here is where our core values and belief systems become important. There’s a difference when one’s “hope is in the Lord.”

What would you add to this list? When we know reasons for unwise decisions in times of stress, we are better able to help others.  Please respond.

Newsletter #537 – Bringing Change: Does Neuroscience Help?

Brain imagery 3I have mixed feelings about neuroscience. For decades therapists, coaches, educators, ministry leaders and others (like me) have assumed that change in any field comes from empathic listening, vision casting, goal setting, effective communication, the eradication of painful memories, and maybe thousands of other methods for behavior change. We’ve known that all of this depends on the workings of our brains and neurological systems but we’ve rarely given much serious attention to those biological/neurological issues.

Until now! Emerging developments in neurophysiology have captivated our attention, suggests an article in Psychotherapy Networker (July/August, 2013). “Therapists have become enamored with brain science,” This fascination extends to other areas as well, including ways in which neurological functioning impacts leadership, coaching, music, creativity, education, and even spirituality. The Networker analyzes this “brain craze” and acknowledges the recent strides in neuroscience. But understanding how the brain works does not always translate into the practical side of bringing change.

One Networker article argues that “current neuroscience has yet to translate its findings into effective or practical recipes for therapists.” Findings from the brain-imagery lab haven’t demonstrated any “persuasive direct application of neuroscience to the practice of therapy” or to other means for bringing change.

This may be a debatable conclusion. Other Networker articles describe a few  practical change strategies that have emerged from neuroscientific discoveries. But scientific discoveries rarely have practical applications at least in the beginning.  At some time in the future neuroscience may help us understand how and why some of our change strategies work. We’ll know why some are ineffective. We will discover new practical strategies for making us more effective therapists, coaches, leaders, spiritual directors and other change agents.

Meanwhile, how do change-makers respond to neuroscience when we lack expertise in this field? As much as possible we keep abreast of what neuroscience is discovering. We encourage younger colleagues to enter one of the neuroscience/neuropsychology fields. We keep refining our skills and knowledge about methods that are proven to work. We stay cautious about using methods that have limited or no evidence-based support. We use the same caution when looking at another fad: the often-unsupported idea that if some method lacks so-called empirical evidence it is of no validity.

These are heavy issues. Please comment.

Newsletter #526 – Getting More Done

 Inc. is “a magazine for growing companies” but its writers go far beyond business. The April, 3013 issue, for example has several articles on getting more done, citing “new research on how to achieve peak productivity.” Building on this empirical evidence, practical recommendations include the following:Get it done

  • Pay attention to workspace. Window views can be distracting: output goes up if desks face inward.
  • Filter out distractions. Workers who wear headphones often are more productive, not necessarily rude.
  • Keep focused on your values and mission. These can “replenish your self-control” and focus.
  • Avoid multitasking. Numerous studies show that multitaskers make more mistakes and are less efficient. Multitasking even can have lasting harmful effects on brain function.
  • Don’t be controlled by email. “Employees are less stressed” and less distracted when email is turned off for much of the day.
  • Get more rest. “Lack of sleep suppresses activity in parts of the brain that control attention and filter distractions.” The value of a short nap every day is well documented.
  • Exercise consistently. This is good for your brain functioning as well as your body.
  • Spend time in nature. This clears the mind and “dramatically improves higher level cognition.”
  • Encourage debate among team members and honestly face disagreements.
  • Recognize that some people are most productive working alone. Too many star players or leaders on one team promotes conflict and declining productivity.

These and other practical, research-based suggestions can be helpful, except when productivity becomes too important. At times the drive for getting things done distracts from other areas in life that may be even more important. These include caring, helping others, building relationships, devotion to families, being still at times and knowing God better (Psalm 46:10). There is value in getting more done unless this slips into compulsive, potentially self-destructive lifestyles. What do you think? Please leave a comment.

Newsletter #489 – Does the Internet Make Us Crazy?

What is the Internet doing to our relationships, mental functioning and brain physiology? Does the surge in portable, all-pervasive texting turn millions of us into people who are “not just dumber and lonelier but more depressed and anxious,” more susceptible to obsessive-compulsive disorder, with shrinking brains that can look like those of drug addicts?

The July 16, 2012 issue of Newsweek magazine tackles issues like these in an article that is more serious and less sensationalist than the glitzy cover would suggest. The magazine does not conclude that the Internet can make us crazy but shows that research from around the world points in that direction. In some countries “Internet Addiction Disorder” is an accepted diagnosis especially relating to gaming, virtual reality and social media. One American neurologist describes the computer as “electronic cocaine” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches. Admittedly, some people need to keep connected as a part of their jobs, but consider how many among us cannot even turn off their devices for a few hours. When we can’t control the Internet, then the Internet controls us.

Amazon lists a number of recent books, some with disturbing titles like Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us or iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. I’ve read similar books and perused the Amazon descriptions and evaluations of others. Most appear to be research-oriented, written by professionals, and not especially sensationalist.  Like the Newsweek article, there is recognition that the Internet, including social networking, has tremendous value but these writers express concern about the possible implications of continuous Internet use. There is growing evidence that this adversely impacts our brain structure, cognition, stress levels and relationships.

Is this our latest god that we submit to and worship? Despite the brain scans and respected research is all of this an over-reaction to a new social trend? “Our world is not going to change, and technology will continue to penetrate society even deeper leaving us little chance to react” writes one critic. Left unanswered is the question of how we make maximum use of technology without letting it destroy us.

What is your reaction? Please comment.

Gary’s Newsletter #400 – Is Faceboook Killing your Soul?

Surely I’m among the oldest readers of Relevant, a magazine about “God, Life, and Progressive Culture” geared to twentysomething readers. The September-October 2010 issue features an article about the personal and interpersonal impact of Facebook and other social networking technologies. There’s a similar focus in several  New York Times articles and in Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Here are random conclusions based on recent research and published evaluations:

  • Our brains and ways of thinking are being remolded neurologically by the constant stimulation, overloads of information, and incessant bursts of short term messages that undermine our ability to concentrate or think in depth. New neural pathways are formed as we “abandon sustained immersion and concentration” but “dart about, snagging bits of information,” continually surfing the hypnotic Internet. (Nicholas Carr and NYTimes).
  • Digital devices and the myth that multitasking increases efficiency (the opposite is true) leave us fatigued and less able to learn, remember, and come up with new ideas. Gym routines accompanied by television and iPod docs are less effective than outside workouts or exercise without digital stimulation.(See NYTimes and Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain).
  • For some people, cell phones and the Internet have become addictive, leading to impatience, forgetfulness, and deteriorating ability to maintain healthy relationships in real life. Problems may be looming if you can’t shut off your devices or stay away from Facebook for a day or two (NYTimes)
  • The Relevant article argues persuasively that social technologies can build a subtle narcissism, exhibitionism, self-absorption and neurotic co-dependency.

None of this was relevant In 2002 when this newsletter started as a one-way commentary sent to the email boxes of students and professionals interested in counseling and coaching. Facebook did not exist when this letter began 400 plus weeks ago. Blogs were rare compared to today. Electronic readers and interactive hand-held devices were still novelties, unseen forerunners of new kinds of communication. The benefits of these new technologies is widely acknowledged, writes Relevant author Shane Hipps. Because of technology we read, learn, interact and think differently than we did before. Many in our technologically-connected culture only see the benefits but seem “utterly blind to the liabilities, the inevitable losses that certain technologies bring.” How does this impact your education, business, ministry, or people helping? Please leave a comment.