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Thinking About the Brain and Pain

March 8, 2011

Filed under: Book Review,Coaching,observations,Wellness — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 4:28 pm

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the brain recently. If you’ve read any of my book review posts you know I have an interest in how the brain works and what makes us, us.

But, over the last three weeks there seems to be a convergence of sorts. Two weeks ago the Wisdom 2.0 Conference was held in Mountain View. Billed as conference seeking “deeper meaning” in the modern technology-rich age, the event focused on mindfulness and trying to get participants to ‘be’ present, rather than always looking to something in the future.

The speakers were among the biggest in the field. If you are not knowledgeable in the field, trust me, those in the know, such as my wife, told me the people on stage were the thought leaders. What was more interesting to me was the attendees – well over half the crowd was made up of coaches of one type or another.

There were a few physicians, a couple of psychologists and many practitioners of mindfulness, or meditation of other holistic practices, but the largest group seemed to be coaches.

A key focus of the event was the effect of mindfulness on the brain and the enhancement of cognitive abilities.

Around the same time several articles came out noting the impact of the brain on pain.

One of them suggested that a patient’s expectations  would impact their pain level and that the expected outcome of a surgical procedure was affected by a patient’s  psychological state. My wife, the pain psychologist, has been telling me this for years.

Then, last week I attended a meeting of the Northern California Association of Pain Psychologists to listen to a lecture by Dr. Sean Mackey of Stanford on what happens in the brain when we experience pain. I had recently finished Melanie Thernstrom’s “Pain Chronicles” which I found quite compelling so I thought lecture would be interesting. Plus my wife didn’t want to drive alone.

Dr. Mackey is head of the Stanford pain program and is known world wide for the studies they do trying to isolate how the bran processes pain and other emotions.

Finally, I was brought full circle back to the Wisdom 2.0 coference by a New York Review of Books article on  V.S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human , which asks the question: If we know how the brain works does that really help us understand the human mind? And further, what implications does this have for coaching, management, or psychology.

I’m not sure what all this means but it seems clear the topic is pretty hot.

Think about it and let me know what you think.

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How To Make a Change

September 19, 2010

Filed under: Book Review,Coaching,Management,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:44 am

Change is never easy. Organizational development specialists have made careers out of teaching companies how to successfully adapt to it. Not surprising, numerous books have been written on the the topic.

“Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath is just the latest to win public attention and climb up the list of business best sellers. It is well written, entertaining and filled with the usual list of everyday examples which ‘prove’ the authors’ contention.

Maybe I’ve just read too many books which claim to hold the key to effective change management, or maybe the authors just make it seem too easy, or perhaps I spent too many hours trying to motivate people or organizations, but it’s just not that easy.

The Heath’s use an Elephant and Rider metaphor to illustrate their theory. It’s just a more concrete way of explaining the rational vs emotional brain dichotomy. They admit the metaphor is not their own but they have adopted it to illustrate the need for a three-way change process.

In a nutshell, the Heath’s note, people need a rational fact-based reason to change, but they also need an emotional reason to make a move and they need to have a clear path. Their theory makes perfect sense, and they have numerous examples of how managers used their reasoning to make changes.

From Brazilian railways to the Woman’s Cancer Center at UC San Francisco there are numerous examples of how managers  created both  a rational and emotional reason for change and then put people on a path and direction they wanted. I’m not sure the managers they cite were consciously following the logic because they read the book or because it just seemed like the right thing to do, but it worked.

I think you learn more from mistakes than success and I would have liked to have seen more examples of change management that went awry when they attempted to use the theories in the book but maybe that’s too much to expect.

Still, I think the book is worthwhile and provides some valuable insights into some successful changes and can provide the underpinning for an organization or an individual trying to make a change.

It’s certainly another example of a technique any coach can use to work with client’s who say they want to change but can’t seem to get moving.

As I noted in an earlier post this was my first electronic book. I downloaded it from Amazon and read it on my iPad. Emotionally I just wanted an iPad, rationally I could carry this and many other books wherever I wanted and Steve Jobs certainly made the path pretty easy to follow.

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E-Book Reading

September 15, 2010

Filed under: Book Review,observations,Tech,Uncategorized — admin @ 7:01 am

I completed reading my first electronic book recently. (Review to come shortly)  The only thing I can say is that reading a book on an iPad (or any other device) is, well, different.

Little things I’m used to doing, such as thumbing ahead to see how many pages are left in the chapter, are more difficult.

Highlighting text is easier, once you understand what the device or application wants. Reviewing all the highlighted material, to help write a review or for research, is certainly much easier.

I was worried that my eyes would get tired quicker but that proved not to be the case. Downloading the books has been easy although, not every service has every book, so it sometimes takes a bit of searching. Browsing the online bookstores is certainly not as pleasurable as strolling through my local bookshop. You have to know what you want electronically speaking, before you go start.

Using the iPad was easy enough although it can’t be used in every situation and I doubt I would take it to the beach. But I was able to take several books on a recent trip with little or no extra weight.

It will be a while before electronic books replace the printed word. There is still something more satisfying about holding a book in your hand, but I have already downloaded a few more and I’m sure, in time,  iPad reading will become my regular habit.

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Seasonal Writing

August 10, 2010

Filed under: Book Review,Gardening,Uncategorized — admin @ 3:54 pm

When I finished reading Michael Pollan’s “Second Nature” I wished there were more seasons.

Pollan, who is now famous for telling Americans what they should eat, began his book-writing career with a work on gardening, and like many others he used Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall to keep things organized.

I just wish there were some extra seasons so he would have written more. I’m probably biased since I enjoy digging in the dirt and my career in journalism matches Pollan’s.

If you have read any of Pollan’s other works you will recognize the meticulous research which backs up his simple but eloquent style. The book traces his own life in gardening from his grandfather who loved to garden, to his father who had no use for even mowing his front lawn, to Pollan’s own love affair with a farm he owned in Central Connecticut over twenty years ago.

Along the way we learn where the American passion for green lawns began, where weeds come from and why there are so many rose varieties.

My favorite chapter is Pollan’s analysis of the seed and flower catalogs that every gardener gets. Pollan has more than a little fun explaining catalog hierarchy.

Pollan also dispenses a fair number of gardening tips although they’re often hidden among the philosophical underpinnings of compost.

About my only criticism, from a California perspective, is that some of the gardening advice doesn’t really apply to the conditions we have here, but if you have a green thumb or just an interest in why things grow, “:Second Nature’ is worth a read.

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The Real Eco-Story

July 16, 2010

Filed under: Book Review,observations — admin @ 8:35 am

If you are among the legions of Americans looking for the best way to rescue the planet from ecological disaster, Fred Pearce’s “Confessions of an Eco-Sinner” is a must read.

While Pearce is based in England and his examples and specifics are tailored to the experiences of that country, his investigations are enlightening for anyone who has ever wondered what ‘fair trade’ really means.

Pearce takes number of common beliefs or trademarks and follows them back to their source to see if they are really having the ecological and economic impact we expect.

So, for example, he traces the origination of ‘Fair Trade’ coffee to see if there really is some benefit to farmers. He doesn’t just research the topic in books and articles. He’s attends coffee bean auctions in Kenya with the buyers of the coffee and interviews the farmers who make more per pound for their fair trade crop. He asks them directly, if the extra work is worth it. He is not the most popular man in the room.

He looks at the common banana and finds the seeds of an impending economic disaster.

He looks at cotton, “The Fabric of our Lives,” as the ad tell us and finds out exactly what it means to the plant, whether it’s grown organically or not.

He looks at everyday items, from aluminum beer cans to the shrimp cocktail, to find out the real costs of production.

Not all the news is bad, some stories have a happy ending creating a system where both the people and the planet benefit, but it’s his intrepid investigations that are the real story.

Unless you’ve done considerable reading, or conducted your own research, I doubt you’ll read more than a few pages before coming across nugget that will have you reconsidering what you do to save the planet.

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Brains in Crises

June 7, 2010

Filed under: Book Review,Coaching,Management,observations — admin @ 4:39 pm

Barbara Strauch wants Baby Boomers to stop worrying about their ‘senior moments.’
Her latest book, “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain,” attempts to explain what’s going on when middle-age men and women walk from one room to another but can’t remember why.

You’ll be happy to know that there are a raft of scientists and psychologists studying brain functioning and trying to figure out what’s going on. But Ms Strauch, who admits to being among the age group she’s trying to put at ease, wants everyone to know, it’s normal, and better yet, it’s nothing to worry about.

Her book, like many written by journalist is easy to read and well written. I’m not sure you’d call it scholarly but it accomplishes its purpose.

If you’re middle aged there are changes in your brain that make it tougher to learn, and remember. But, she notes, our mature brains are much better at number of things, such as recognizing patterns and putting things in context, that allow us to keep up with our younger co-workers.

She points out a number of factors which seem to impact better brain function and then spends the last chapter explaining what we can do about it. Unfortunately she notes there’s no real evidence that all those Brain Games, given away on NPR fund-raisers, really make any difference.

Fist of all, even those that have been rigorously tested in double-blind longitudinal studies, base their conclusions on self reporting. Additionally, only one of the games have even been subject to any testing – sponsored by the game manufacturers – and the rest are just basing their claims on marketing hype.

“The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain” is a followup to her book on teenager brain function. It’s an interesting read and should help a lot of Baby Boomers laugh at the endless collection of jokes about our absent minded antics.

It’s worth a read to find out what really going in our brain on as we age.

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