Newsletter – January 2014

Daniel Goleman’s Focus

Daniel Goleman’s new book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence is an excellent follow-on to the December 2013 e-newsletter about Sherry Turkle’s research on the impact of digital distraction on relationships and communication and the January 9, 2014 post on Michael Merzenich’s book on neuroplasticity, Soft-Wired 

I heard Dan Goleman speak about focus – the nimbleness of attention that allows us to navigate our world well – at Spirit Rock Meditation Center the same week I was writing the December 2014 e-newsletter.  I learned that focused attention provides the neural platform for so many other mental functions: comprehension, learning, memory, attuning to ourselves and others, interacting intelligently with others.  It’s encouraging to me that there is a growing cadre of researchers, authors, teachers addressing the power digital devices have to capture our attention and disrupt our connections.  In an era of unstoppable distractions, it is imperative that we recognize the power of focused attention as the key to much of what we could consider happiness, productivity, and fulfillment.

May these reflections and tools to recover the power of your own full attention be useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS ON FOCUS

Relational intelligence requires self-awareness – awareness of our own thoughts and emotions – as well as empathy – comprehension of the thoughts and feelings of others – both of which can be strengthened by honing our skills of attention.Goleman explores three kinds of focused attention in the book:  inner focus, other focus, and outer focus.  Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions.  Without inner focus, we are rudderless.  Other focus smoothes our connections to the people in our lives.  Without other focus, we are clueless.  Other focus lets us navigate in our outer world.  Without outer focus, we are all to easily blindsided by life events.

Goleman smoothly synthesizes two decades of research from cognitive and affective neuroscience with the same span of findings from behavioral and psychological research into several key concepts:

1.  Self-awareness is essential to self-regulation of impulses and self-management of powerful emotions.

2.  Mindfulness is a form of basic attention training that strengthens the neural circuitry in the brain essential to self-awareness, for empathy with other people, and for the form of executive functioning that scientists call cognitive control.

3.  Measures of cognitive control in children of all ages is a better predictor of emotional intelligence and success later in life than either SES status of their families of origin or IQ.

Goleman then applies these findings in a broad-reaching, comprehensive look at many of the problems facing us as individuals and our society today:  the value of daydreaming for creativity but its negative effect on productivity; empathy and compassion for others in a speeded-up world rather than indifference; improvements in learning and education, value-based decisions in business leadership and management, the overwhelm of global warming and climate change.

Goleman’s writing is beautifully simple and his many stories aptly illustrate what could be mind-boggling concepts.  (See Stories to Learn From for three examples.)  In these reflections I offer three examples of focused attention applied to compelling issues, hoping to intrigue you into devoting some very precious conscious attention to the book itself.

The 10,000 hour rule

By now we’ve all heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill or sport.  Goleman includes the essential role of focused attention in the efficacy of that rule.

“The “10,000-hour rule” – that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field – has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops.  The problem: it’s only half true.

“Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient.  If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game.  You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.  How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference.

“Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the 10,000-hour rule of thumb, told me, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”  The feedback matters and the concentration does, too – not just the hours.

“Learning how to improve any skill requires top-down focus.  Neuroplasticity, the strengthening of old brain circuits and building of new ones for a skill we are practicing, requires our paying attention.  When practice occurs while we are focusing elsewhere, the brain does not rewire the relevant circuitry for that particular routine.

“Daydreaming defeats practice.  Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing.  Then…as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless  At that point you don’t’ need to think about it  – you can do the routine well enough on automatic.”

[This supports the learning model used in coaching trainings around the world:

1.  Unconscious incompetence

2. Conscious incompetence

3. Conscious competence

4. Unconscious competence]

Goleman points out, at whatever point we decide we have reached a “good enough” level of performance, where we can go through the motions more or less effortlessly, we begin to coast on what we’re learned.  When we no longer focus on concentrated practice, no matter how much more we practice in the bottom-up mode, improvement beyond that level will be negligible.

If we want to keep improving, we have to intentionally counteract the brain’s urge to automatize routines, concentrate on what’s not yet working, refining mental models or rehearsals, and paying attention to feedback.

“Smart practice always includes a feedback loop that lets you recognize errors and correct them.  Any time we stop learning, our skills plateau.”

Video Games

Goleman attempts a balanced approach toward the impact of video games on young (and aging) brains:

“The brain learns and remembers best when focus is greatest.  Video games focus attention and get us to repeat moves over and over, and so are powerful tutorials.  That presents an opportunity for training the brain; brain wave data does suggest a shift in the activity of the circuitry for executive attention, especially needed for young children with attention deficit disorder or autism, or to slow the loss of key cognitive functions associated with aging.

“One study taught attention skills to four and six-year-olds in just five sessions of playing games that exercise visual tracking (guessing where a duck swimming underwater will surface) spotting a target cartoon character within an array of distractions, and inhibiting impulse (clicking if a sheep comes out from behind a bale of hay, but not if a wolf emerges.)

“The finding: the neural scaffolding for both emotional and cognitive abilities was enhanced.  The brains of four-year-olds who got this brief training resemble those of six-year-olds, and those of the trained six-year-olds were well on their way to neural executive function seen in adults.

“Games that offer increasingly harder cognitive challenges – more accurate and challenging judgment and reactions at higher speeds, fully focused attention, increasing spans of working memory – drive positive brain change.   Do they transfer to real life with real people?  Not necessarily.  They might even acclimate some children to a stimulation rate quite unlike regular life in their family or studies in the classroom, a formula to “learned boredom.”  (As Sherry Turkle warned in her book Alone Together.)

“Although video games may strengthen attention skills like rapidly filtering out visual distractions, they do little to amp up a more crucial skill for learning, sustaining focus on a gradually evolving body of information – such as paying attention in class and understanding what you’re reading, and how it ties in to what you learned last week or year.

“There’s a negative correlation between the hours a kid spends gaming and how well he does in school, very likely in direct ratio to time stolen from studies.  When 3,034 Singaporean children and adolescents were followed for two years, those who became extreme gamers showed increases in anxiety, depression, and social phobia, and a drop in grades.  But if they stopped their gaming habit, all those problems decreased.

“Then there’s the downside of playing countless hours of games that fine-tune the brain for a rapid, violent response.  Some dangers here, the expert panel says, have been exaggerated in the popular press: violent games may increase low-level aggression, but such games in themselves are not going to turn a well-raised kid into a violent one.  Yet when the games are played by children who, for example, have been the victim of physical abuse at home (and so are more prone to violence themselves) there might a dangerous synergism – though no one can as yet predict with any certainty in which child this toxic chemistry will occur.

“Still, hours spent battling hordes intent on killing you understandably encourage “hostile attribution bias,” the instant assumption that the kid who bumped you in the hallway has a grudge.  Just as troubling, violent gamers show lessened concern when witnessing people being mean, as in bullying.

“On the upside, the demand that a player keep focused despite snazzy distracting lures enhanced executive function, whether for sheer concentration now or resisting impulse later.  If you add to the game’s mix a need to cooperate and coordinate with other players, you’ve got a rehearsal of some valuable social skills.”

One development of gaming in a positive direction is the example Goleman offers of Tenacity, a game incorporating attention to breathing while attaining a goal,  developed at the University of Wisconsin with input from Richard Davidson, director of the University’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

“We took what we were learning about focus and calming in our contemplative neuroscience studies,” Davidson says, “and put it into a game so kids could get the benefits and the benefits can spread more widely.  Our research on attention and calming informs the game’s design. Tenacity strengthens selective attention, the building block for all other kinds of learning.  The self-regulation of attention lets you focus on explicit goals and resist distraction.  If we can create a game kids want to play , it will be an efficient way to train attention, given how much time kids spend playing and how naturally it comes to them.  They’ll love doing the homework.”

Global Warming and Climate Change

“A “system” boils down to a cohesive set of lawful, regular patterns,  Pattern recognition operates in a circuitry within the parietal cortex, though the specific sites of a more extensive “systems brain” – if any  – have yet to be identified.  As it stands, there seems to be no dedicated network or circuitry in the brain that gives us a natural inclination toward systems understanding.

“Here’s the catch.  We are prepared by our biology to eat and sleep, mate and nurture, fight-or-flee, and exhibit all the other built-in survival responses in the human repertoire.  But there are no neural systems dedicated to understanding the larger systems in which all this occurs.

“We are finely tuned to a rustling in the leaves that may signal a stalking tiger.  But we have no perceptual apparatus that can sense the thinning of the atmosphere’s ozone layer, nor the carcinogens in the particulates we breathe on a smoggy day.  Both can eventually be fatal, but our brain has no direct radar for these threats.

“It’s not just perceptual mistuning.  If our emotional circuitry (particularly the amydgla, the trigger point for the fight-or-flight response) perceives an immediate threat it will flood us with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which ready us to hit or run.  But this does not happen if we hear of potential dangers that might emerge in years or centuries to come; the amygdala hardly blinks. ”

In order to deal a problem as overwhelming and from a systems point of view as “messy” as global warming, Goleman suggests: “It’s better to zero in on a manageable number of meaningful patterns within a data torrent and ignore the rest.  Our cortical pattern detector seems designed to simplify complexity into manageable decision rules.  One cognitive capacity that continues to increase as the years go on is “crystallized intelligence”: recognizing what matters, the signal within the noise.

“Systems are virtually invisible to the naked eye, but their workings can be rendered visible by gathering data from enough points that the outlines of their dynamics come into focus.  The more data, the clearer the map becomes.  Enter the era of big data.”

[I happened to be re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, for fun actually, while I was reading Focus and writing this newsletter.  Gladwell offers a beautiful example of a cardiologist names Lee Goldman creating an algorithm to crunch big data about signs of a heart attack in the making to identify four key factors, simply four factors, that ER doctors could reliable use, in the urgency and pressures of understaffed emergency rooms, to decide whether someone with symptoms of a heart attack needed to be hospitalized or could be safely sent home.  Big data, four points, reliable and efficient triage.]

“I’m as trapped in global systems as anyone.  Yet I find it hard to write about global warming without sounding shrill; our impacts on the planet are inherently guilt-inducing and depressing. And that’s my point.  Focusing on what’s wrong about what we do activates circuitry for distressing emotions.  Emotions, remember, guide our attention.  And attention glides away from the unpleasant.

“I used to think that complete transparency about the negative impacts of what we do and buy – knowing our eco-footprints – would in itself create a market force that would encourage us all to vote with our dollars by buying better alternatives. (See Goleman’s book Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What we Buy  

“Sounded like a good idea – but I neglected a psychological fact.  Negative focus leads to discouragement and disengagement.  When our neural centers for distress take over, our focus shifts to the distress itself, and how to ease it.  We long to tune out.

“So instead we need a positive lens. Handprints put the negative (our footprint) in the background and positives in the foreground.  When we are motivated by positive emotions, what we do feels more meaningful and the urge to act lasts longer.  It all stays longer in attention.  In contrast, fear of global warming’s impacts may get out attention quickly, but once we do one thing and feel a little better, we think we’re done.”

“Enter www.handprinter.org, a website that encourages anyone to take the lead in environmental improvements.    Handprinter takes all the helpful things we do – use renewable energy, ride a bike to work, turn the thermostat down – and gives us a precise metric for the good we do by lessening our footprint.  The sum total of all our good habits yields the value for our handprint.  The key idea;  keep making improvements, so that our handprint becomes bigger than our footprint.  At that point we become a net positive for the planet.”

POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE

Being able to focus on the person you’re with rather than the text you just received has become the new fundamental requirement for having a relationship with that person.- Daniel Goleman

Your focus is your reality.

– Yoda

“Neurons that fire together wire together,” as psychologist Donald Hebb neatly put it back in the 1940’s.  The brain is plastic, constantly resculpting its circuitry as we go through our day.  Whatever we are doing, as we do it our brain strengthens some circuits and not others.

– Daniel Goleman

In face-to-face interactions our social circuitry picks up a multitude of cues and signals that help us connect well, and wire together the neurons involved.  But during thousands of hours spent online, the wiring of the social brain gets virtually no exercise.

– Daniel Goleman

Don’t let the voice of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.

– Steve Jobs

Mindfulness strengthens connections between the prefrontal executive zones and the amygdala, particularly the circuits that can say “no” to impulse – a vital skill for navigating through life. Enhanced executive functions widens the gap between impulse and action, in part by building meta-awareness, the capacity to observe our mental processes rather than just be swept away by them.  This creates decision points we did not have before: we can squelch troublesome impulses that we usually would act on.

– Daniel Goleman

An older dichotomy in psychology between “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” abilities would put academic skills in a separate category from social and emotional ones.  But given how the neural scaffolding for executive control underlies both academic and social emotional skills, that separation seems as antiquated as the Cartesian split between mind and body.  In the design of the brain they are highly interactive, not fully independent.  Kids who can’t pay attention can’t learn; they also can’t manage themselves well.

– Daniel Goleman

As we’ve seen, a blind spot in the human brain may contribute to this mess [of global warming.]  Our brain’s perceptual apparatus has fine-tuning for a range of attention that has paid off in human survival.  While we are equipped with razor-sharp focus on smiles and frowns, growls and babies, we have zero neural radar for the threats to the global systems that support human life.  They are too macro or micro for us to notice directly.  So when we are faced with news of these global threats, our attention circuits tend to shrug.

– Daniel Goleman

Freud’s famous dictum “Where id was, there ego shall be” speaks directly to the inner tension between the lower and higher brain.  Id – the bundle of impulses that make us reach for the Dove Bar, buy that really-too-expensive luxury item, or click on that luscious but totally time-wasting website – constantly struggles with our ego, the mind’s executive.  Ego lets us lose weight, save money, and allot time effectively.

In the mind’s arena, willpower (a facet of “ego”) represents a wrestling match between top and bottom systems.  Willpower keeps us focused on our goals despite the gut of our impulses, passions, habits, and cravings.   This cognitive control represents a “cool” mental system that makes an effort to pursue our goals in the face of our “hot” emotional reactions – quick, impulsive, and automatic.

The two systems signify a critical difference in focus.  The reward circuits fixate on hot cognition, thoughts that have a high emotional charge, like what’s tempting about the marshmallow (it’s yummy, sweet, and chewy).  The greater the charge, the stronger the impulse – and the more likely it is that our more sober-minded prefrontal lobes will be hijacked by our desires.

That prefrontal executive system, in contrast, “cools the hot,” by suppressing the impulse to grab, and reappraising the temptation itself (it’s also fattening).  You (or your four-year-old) can activate this system by thinking about, for example, the shape of the marshmallow, or its color, or how it’s made.  This switch in focus lowers the energy charge to grab for it.  If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the SAT instead of watching television.  And you can save more money for retirement.  It’s not just about the marshmallow.

– Daniel Goleman

STORIES TO LEARN FROM

[from Chapter 6, The Inner Rudder]Football, basketball, debate, you name it – the big rival to my high school in the Central Valley of California was in the next town down Highway 99.  Over the years I’ve gotten friendly with a student from that other school.

During high school he wasn’t much interested in studies – in fact, he almost flunked out.  Growing up on a ranch on the outskirts of town he spent a lot of time alone, reading science fiction and tinkering with hot rods, his passion.  The week before he was to graduate, a car sped past from behind as he was making a left turn into his driveway, smashing his small sports car to bits.  He almost died.

After recuperating, my friend went to the local community college, where he discovered a calling that riveted his attention and mobilized his creative talents: filmmaking.  After transferring to a film school he made a movie for his student project that caught the eye of a Hollywood director, who hired him as an assistant.  The director asked my friend to work on a pet project, a small-budget film.

That, in turn, led to my friend getting a studio to back him as director and producer of another small film based on his own script – a movie that the studio almost killed before its release, yet which did surprisingly better than anyone expected.

But the arbitrary cuts, edits, and other changes the studio bosses made before releasing that movie were a bitter lesson for my friend, who valued creative control of his work as paramount.  When he went on to make a movie based on another script of his own, a big Hollywood studio offered him a standard deal whereby the studio financed the project and held the power to change the fim before its release.  He refused the deal – his artistic integrity was more important.

Instead my friend “bought” creative control by going off on his own and putting every penny of his profits from the first film into this second project.  When he was almost done, his money ran out.   He went looking for loans, but back after bank turned him down.  Only a last-minute loan from the tenth back he implored saved the project.

The film was Star Wars.

George Lucas’s decision to keep creative control and go out on his own requires immense confidence in one’s own guiding values.  What allows people to have such a strong inner compass, a North Star that steers them through life according to the dictates of their deepest values and purposes?

Self-awareness, particularly accuracy in decoding the internal cues of our body’s murmurs, holds the key.  Our subtle physiological reactions reflect the sum total of our experience relevant to the decision at hand.

The decision rules derived from our life experiences reside in subcortical neural networks that gather, store and apply algorithms from every event in our lives – creating our inner rudder.  The brain harbors our deepest sense of purpose and meaning in these subcortical regions – areas connected poorly to the verbal areas of the neocortex, but richly to the gut.  We know our values by first getting a visceral sense of what feels right and what does not, then articulating those feelings our ourselves.

Self-awareness, then, represents an essential focus, one that attunes us to the subtle murmurs within that can help guide our way through life.  This inner radar holds the key to managing what we do – and just as important, what we don’t do.  This internal control mechanism makes all the difference between a life well lived and one that falters.

[from Chapter 17, Breathing Buddies]

Drive to the dead end at the farthest reach of a street on the east side of New York City’s Spanish Harlem and you find an elementary school, P.S. 112, snuggled between the FDR Drive, a Catholic church, a parking lot for big-box stores, and the massive Robert F. Wagner low-income housing compound.

The kindergartners through second graders who attend P.S. 112 come from hardscrabble homes, many in those low-income apartments.  When a seven-year-old there mentioned in class that he knew someone who had been shot, the teacher asked how many other children knew a shooting victim.  Every hand went up.

As you enter P.S. 112, you sign in at a desk manned by a police officer, albeit a kindly older woman.  But if you walk down the halls as I did one morning, what’s most striking is the atmosphere: looking into classrooms I found the children sitting still, calm and quiet, absorbed in their work or listening to their teacher.

When I drop by Room 302, the second-grade classroom of co-teachers Emily Hoaldridge and Nicolle Rubin, I witness one ingredient in the recipe for the halcyon atmosphere: breathing buddies.

The twenty-two second graders sit doing their math, three or four to a table, when Miss Emily strikes a melodious chime.  On cue, the kids silently gather on a large rug, sitting in rows, cross-legged, facing the two teachers.  One girl goes over to the classroom door, puts a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the outside knob, and closes it.

Then, still in silence, the teachers hold up Popsicle sticks one by one, each with a student’s name – a signal for the pupils to go individually over to their cubbies and bring back their special, fist-sized stuffed animals: striped tigers, a pink pig, a yellow puppy, a purple donkey.  The boys and girls find a spot on the floor to lie down, put their stuffed animal buddy on their belly, and wait, hands to their sides.

They follow the directions of a man’s friendly voice leading them through some deep belly breathing, as they count to themselves, “one, two, three,” while they take a long exhalation and inhalation.  Then they squeeze and relax their eyes; stretch their mouth wide open, sticking out their tongue and squeeze their hands into a ball, relaxing each in turn.  It ends with the voice saying, Now sit up, and feel relaxed,” and as they do, they all seem to be just that.

Another chime, and still in silence the kids on cue take their places in a circle on the rug, and report on what they experience:  It feels nice inside.’  “I felt very lazy because it calmed by body.”  It made me have happy thoughts.”

The orderliness of the exercise and the calm focus in the classroom make it hard to believe eleven of the twenty-two kids are classified as having “special needs” cognitive impairments like dyslexia, speech difficulties or partial deafness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, points on the autism spectrum.

“We’ve got many kinds with problems, but when we do this, they don’t act out,” says Miss Emily.  “This help them relax and focus.  We also give them regular movement breaks – all these strategies help.  Instead of using time-outs, we teach kids to take “time-ins,” to manage their feelings,” part of an emphasis on teaching the students to self-regulate rather than relying on punishments and rewards.  And when children do have problems, we’ll ask them what they could do differently next time.”

Breathing buddies is part of the Inner Resilience Program, a legacy of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  Thousands of children in schools near the twin towers were evacuated as the buildings went up in flames.  Many hiked miles up the emptied West Side Highway, their teachers walking backward to be sure the children were not looking at the horrific specter behind.

In the months afterward, the Red Cross asked Linda Lantieri – whose conflict resolution program had already been successful in many schools – to design a program to help the children (and teachers) regain their composure after 9/11.  The Inner Resilience Program, along with a range of social and emotional learning methods, “has transformed the school,” school principal Eileen Reiter says.  “It’s a very calm place.  And when kids are calm, they learn better.”

“The biggest piece is getting the kids to self-regulate,” principal Reiter adds. “Because we are an early childhood school, we help students learn how to put their problems in perspective and develop strategies to resolve them.  They learn to size up how big a problem is, like getting teased or bullied – it’s big when someone hurts your feelings.  Or middle-sized, like being frustrated with your schoolwork.  They can match the problem to a strategy.

The classrooms in P.S. 112 all have a “peace corner,” a special space where any child who needs to can retreat for time alone to calm down.  “Sometimes they just need a break, a few moments, alone,” Reiter added.  “But you’ll see a child who is really frustrated or upset go over to the peace corner and apply some strategies they’ve learned.  The big lesson is to tune in and know what to do to care for yourself.”

While five to seven-year-olds get instruction in the breathing buddies exercise, from eight and up they practice mindfulness of breathing, which has proven benefits both for sustaining attention and for the circuitry that calms us down.  This combination of calm and concentration creates an optimal inner state for focus and learning.

Evaluations of a one-semester version of the program found that the children who need greatest hel- – those at “high risk” for derailing in life – benefited the most: significant boosts in attention and perceptual sensitivity, and drops in aggressiveness, downbeat moods, and frustration with school.  What’s more, teachers who used the program increased their sense of well-being, auguring well for the learning atmosphere of their classrooms.

[from Chapter 7, GroupThink:]

In the wake of the economic meltdown of investment vehicles based on subprime derivatives, a financial type who job had been creating those very derivative instruments was interviewed.  He explained how in his job he would routinely take huge lots of subprime mortgages and divide them into three tranches: the best of the worst, the not-as-good, and the worst of the worst.  Then he would take each of the tranches and again divide it into thirds – and create derivatives for investments based on each.

He was asked, “Who would want to buy these?”

His reply: “Idiots.”

Of course, seemingly very smart people did invest in those derivatives, ignoring signals that they were not worth the risk, and emphasizing whatever might support their decision.  When this tendency to ignore evidence to the contrary spreads into a shared self-deception, it becomes groupthink.  The unstated need to protect a treasured opinion (by discounting crucial disconfirming data) drives shared blind spots that lead to bad decisions.

President George W. Bush’s inner circle and their decision to invade Iraq based on imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” offers a classic example.  So do the circles of financial players who fostered the mortgage derivates meltdown.  Both instances of catastrophic groupthink entailed insulated groups of decision-makers who failed to ask the right questions or ignored disconfirming data in a self-affirming downward spiral.

Cognition is distributed among members of a group or network: some people are specialists in one area, while others have complementary strengths of expertise.  When information flows most freely among the group and into it, the best decisions will be made.  But groupthink begins with the unstated assumption We know everything we need to.

“Facts that challenge such basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed, said Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow.

Such self-deception seems a universal twist of attention.  For instance, when drivers rated their abilities behind the wheel, about three-quarters thought they were better than average.  Strangely, those who had been in a auto accident were more likely to rate themselves as better drivers than did those who driving record was accident-free.

Even stranger: In general, most people rate themselves as being less likely than others to overrate their abilities.  These inflated self-ratings reflect the “better-than-average” effect, which has been found for just about any positive trait, from competence and creative to friendliness and honesty.

It takes meta-cognition – in this case, awareness of our lack of awareness – to bring to light what the group has buried in a grave of indifference or suppression.  Clarity begins with realizing what we do not notice – and don’t notice that we don’t notice.

Smart risks are based on wide and voracious data-gathering checked against a gut sense; dumb decisions are built from too narrow a base of inputs.  Candid feedback from those you trust and respect creates a source of self-awareness, one that can help guard against skewed information inputs or questionable assumptions.  Another antidote to groupthink: expand your circle of connection beyond your comfort zone and inoculate against in-group isolation by building an ample circle of no-BS confidants who keep you honest.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

– Felix Frankfurter, Supreme Court justice

EXERCISES TO PRACTICE

[Along the lines of Barbara Fredrickson’s research on positivity, which Goleman references:]”Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down,” says Richard Boyatzis, a psychologist at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

To explore these contrasting effects in personal coaching, Boyatzis and colleagues scanned the brains of college students being interviewed.  For some, the interview focused on positives like what they’d love to be doing in ten years, and what they hoped to gain from their college years.  The brain scans revealed that during the positively focused interviews, there was greater activity in the brain’s reward circuitry and areas for good feeling and happy memories.  Think of this as a neural signature of the openness we feel when we are inspired by a vision.

For others the interview focus was more negative: how demanding they found their schedule and their assignments, difficulties making friends, and fears about their performance.  As the students wrestled with the more negative questions, their brain activated areas that generate anxiety, mental conflict, sadness.

A focus on our strengths, Boyatzis argues, urges us toward a desire d future and stimulates openness to new ideas, people and plans.  In contrast, spotlighting our weaknesses elicits a defensive sense of obligation and guilt, closing us down.

“You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive,” says Boyatzis.  “You need both, but in the right ratio.”

Exercise:

Frederickson reports that the right ratio is 3 positive moments for every 1 negative moment.  As an exercise in your own positivity ratio, simply mindfully, attentively, keep a log of whether you are experiencing positive thoughts/feelings or negative thoughts/feelings about your experience in the moment, or as you envision your future, say once an hour for the next five days.  If you find you want to increase your positivity ratio, check out the many, many exercises in Frederickson’s Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How the Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.

RESOURCES

Focus: The Hidden Drive of Excellence by Daniel Goleman, PhD.  HarperCollins, 2013.I read the excellent Greater Good Science Center interview with Dan Goleman (15 mintues) and heard him speak at Spirit Rock Meditation Center (1.5 hours), before I read the entire book (11 hours over 3 days).

Oh my.  The depth of material presented and the deeper comprehension when you have the time and focused bandwidth to read the book.  Learning the neural circuitry we can strengthen for motivation, willpower, and delayed gratification, and managing amygdala hijacks.  Learning how to improve our capacities to “gut intuition” and listening to our own inner voice.  Training the mind to stay in the sweet spot of “flow” and then bring the insights from that default mode of processing into harmony with focused attention and productivity.  Understanding the blind spots and groupthink that led to the financial collapse of 2008.  Learning how to strengthen the neural circuits of social sensitivity; that attention is the platform for love.

Treat yourself to a deep dive into clear seeing about attention and wisdom.