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Throughout the first 15 years of my life, my mother’s heart had a dream for me: I would attend MIT and become a civil engineer. I have no idea why that strong wish for me lived in her. As far as I know she didn’t know any civil engineers, nor anyone who ever went to MIT. 

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That’s me – 2nd from the right – in my mother’s psychotic dreams

One morning however, I woke up to discover that my mother’s dream for me had changed. “Last night Tom came and told me not to worry,” she said (Tom was her first husband who had recently died of tuberculosis). “He said that you’re going to play baseball for the New York Yankees.”

This was the form that my mother’s psychotic break from reality took that morning shortly after I turned 16. She had to be immediately committed to the state mental hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. My 14-year-old sister and I were soon placed into the care of our 23 year-old-half-sister – Tom’s daughter – developmentally still a child herself.

While somewhat of a dramatic illustration, I think it clearly points out what I’m describing. My mother dreamed of me being educated and successful. It was probably also a dream she simultaneously had for herself – she was an avid reader – but she lacked sufficient inner and outer network resources to begin putting the foundations in place which would allow such a dream to become reality. My mother’s good heart lacked teeth. Another way to think about it is: the connectivity in my mother’s neural networks was severely compromised by her own childhood traumas (Our father’s own trauma had him abandon our family when I was four and my sister was two).

Over the years I have been fortunate in my life to encounter people whose healing dreams for me not only turned out to be well-matched with my own, but whose hearts had sufficient teeth to help me bring those dreams into reality. I won’t name them all here. You know who you are.

Taking It to Level 7 on the Brain Integration Scale

Most of those toothy angels who periodically appeared in my life had progressed in their own lives through Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Human Psychosocial Development and made it to the generativity (rather than the stagnation) side of Stage 7. This is the stage that begins to care about and offer support to the generations following behind it.

Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development

When you look at each of Erikson’s stages, it’s not too hard to imagine there are neural network correlates associated with each of them. If you administered fMRI brain scans to people previously identified at Stages 1-8, I’m guessing you would see specific patterns of network integration that would correlate with each stage. As a general observation, I would posit that it takes more energy and information and network integration to begin thinking about people other than only about ourselves. We know, for example, that the networks are configured differently in people identified as narcissists than in people who easily express high degrees of empathy. Caring for and helping others just seems to be the general direction that healthy, integrated, aging brains want to naturally move. Our brains want to grow our hearts in ways that have teeth.

Sweethearts True

Most of the people I know whom I would describe as good-hearted are true sweethearts. I like spending time with them. I sometimes find myself in that category. Mostly though, I am aware of not having sufficient teeth to provide the help I might want to offer that others may need or could benefit from.

For example, several years ago I applied to be a volunteer member of our town’s local Ethics Board. I would be part of the team that received complaints about town police or public officials committing “actions that are not in the town’s best interests or that have the appearance of impropriety.” My application for the position was rejected and I was given reasons that I felt were specious – one of my references had unproven ethical allegations made against her (making me guilty by association); and the interviewers (all men) didn’t like research I mentioned from MIT (interestingly) citing that groups made up of all men don’t make decisions as wisely as groups with at least a few women members. Instead of taking issue with the decision, I simply meekly accepted the rejection and went on my way. I then made up all kinds of stories about why their decision was “for the best.” In my heart though, I knew I had no teeth, that I had abdicated the pursuit of something I was initially really interested in taking on.

What I know and now regularly practice as best I am able is that: “abdication is not integration.” And if my heart’s going to grow teeth, I have to practice … fighting hard for what I want. It’s even okay to recruit some allies along the way whose hearts do have plenty of teeth: Fellow sweethearts (kalyana mitra) on the journey.

About a year and a half ago, my brain and I unexpectedly received a “Call to Adventure.” For those of you unfamiliar with elements inherent in the Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey, the Call to Adventure is an invitation to leave the stable, predictable, sane, comfortable Ordinary World, and descend into the unstable, unpredictable, sometimes insane and uncomfortable, Special World.

The Hero's Journey Examples | Stages of the Monomyth Cycle

Being the Hero of my own life that I am, naturally, I refused the call. I clearly remember thinking, “I’d have to be an imbecile to accept that invitation. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Well, 14 months ago, the call came again. This time though, I didn’t immediately refuse it out of hand. I actually gave it some sincere consideration. “I don’t have to dive into the Special World all at once,” I reasoned. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t have to dive in at all. Call refused once again. Offer this Special World Adventure to some other brave soul.

The Supreme Ordeal

A month later the Call showed up a third time. This time though, it showed up together with a friend of mine who’s a pediatric oncologist – the Wisdom Bringer / Mentor on the Hero’s Journey. She took one look at the lump on my neck and said, “You might want to get that scanned. If it turns out to be serious, addressing it sooner is better than later.”

Cancer tumor
Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Naturally, I trusted her advice, but I also verified it with the Medical Director of our local Hospice, also, a friend who’s a retired internist and my primary medical care provider. They all advised that this was probably the time to stop denying the difficulty the lump was causing me with breathing and swallowing and accept the Call, Cross the Threshold, and enter The Special World of Mainstream Medical Cancer Care. 

The lump on neck turned out to be my lymph node doing it’s best to contain the postage stamp sized squamous cell carcinoma that has been growing at the base of my tongue for approximately a year. My first thought upon receiving the diagnosis: “Great! Cancer in the time of Covid!”

Allies and Enemies on the Journey

colonoscopy-s1-what-is-colonoscopy-illustration

It’s pretty much impossible to take the Cancer Journey alone. You will inevitably meet allies and enemies along the way. One enemy turned out to be a gastroenterologist who kept me isolated and waiting for five hours in the prep room before a colonoscopy intended to be sure the cancer hadn’t spread. Already, greatly hyper-aroused, when he finally got around to beginning the procedure I had a bradycardia event and stopped breathing on the operating table. They had to abort the procedure as a result. When I came to and threatened to check myself out of their ICU against medical authority, they gave me a release (along with a bill for my insurance company for $12,000! Thanks for less than nothing).

Although I did my best not to see it that way, another enemy turned out to be the cancer tumor itself. It’s hard not to think of something that wants to spread through your body and shut down all your organs as something other than an enemy. Just the difficulty it was causing me breathing and swallowing was enough to place it on my Enemies List. To grapple with this adversary I had to call on a lot of my neuroscience and Buddhist training.

The Road Back

Well, after four sessions of having a heavy metal (Cisplatin) injected into my veins and 35 radiation treatments later, I’m happy and pleased to report that I have been cancer-free now for nine months! I lost 70 pounds over the course of the treatment, but have managed to gain 15 of them back. Also, some muscle and healthy fat. But most noticeably, I’m finding the connections in my brain are slowly returning to their former live-wired, robustly connected glory. I can sustain concentration and exercise for longer periods and I can engage in research and complex thought operations as I used to. I’m also able to research and write blog posts much as before! If this is my Ordinary World, it’s unquestionably great to be back bearing the boon.  🙂

Take a look at this 90 second video: Purple Brain Neuron Video. When you get to the end, scroll back to the Start and notice the density and the amount of connections that have taken place over that brief time. What you’re witnessing is the brain’s “live wired” capacity for learning. Anything we wish to master in life – be it the alphabet, or public speaking or generosity, kindness and compassion – is going to require us to grow new neuronal branches making new neuronal connections. We’re going to have to immerse ourselves in learning and practice.

Livewired to Connect

Where I often run into difficulty with something I’m attempting to master is in my tendency to come to it with a conscious or unconscious expectation that I should already possess all, or a great part of the mastery that I’m seeking. Recalling or reviewing that Purple Neuron Video in the paragraph above, illustrates just how silly that expectation is. I can’t have Mastery Networks before I do the study and practice required for building them. It is much like the requirement for learning the multiplication tables.

Speak Up, Man

Several decades ago, I decided my terror at public speaking was negatively impacting my life. Just the very thought of standing and speaking in front of a group of people would send waves of stress hormones flooding through my body. I decided teaching would be the form my public speaking would take. What to teach? What else but … Listening Skills.

Embrace the Pain

My first attempts were dismally painful. So bad, in fact, that several students complained to the department chair who summarily replaced me with another instructor. At that point, my public speaking, neural-network-building enterprise came to an abrupt pause. In order to master anything, most of us will have to go through a “you suck” phase. The hard work is to not be discouraged and stopped by it. It’s not you, it’s your brain!

How might I continue to grow network cells and connections in service to being able to master teaching and public speaking? First, using a linguistic trick (second-person self-talk) I learned from Marcus Aurelius, I asked myself: “What is it about speaking/teaching that makes you so nervous?” Turns out it was two things: not being adequately clear about the content I would be presenting, but mostly fearing I’d be two hours into a 3-hour class and find myself with nothing left to say.

These concerns turned out to be easily addressed. I simply wrote out a choreographed content outline broken down into ten minute increments. For a 3-hour class I would outline four hours worth of material.. I would also have stock exercises I could do with the students in a pinch. In addition, I studied great speeches and compelling presentation structures (like The Hero’s Journey and Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling). You can imagine my surprise and delight after finishing a daylong presentation for UC Berkeley extension months later and having the students spontaneously stand and applaud!

Taking Mastery to the Max

Eric Kandel, MD with Aplysia

I spent ten years on the staff of The Center for Advance Study in the Behavioral Sciences (undercover as the maintenance man). CASBS is a think tank at Stanford University where MacArthur geniuses, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners get invited to come and spend a sabbatical year to write up much of their work in progress. Visiting fellows there are masters at focused, specialized study and learning. Although he wasn’t one, Eric Kandel – who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001- could have been a fellow at CASBS. Kandel spent 30 years (!) studying how two neurons in Aplysia, a sea snail found mostly off the coast of California, learn and remember things. Turns out how sea snails learn and remember things is very much the same way you and I learn and remember things: we grow new neuronal branches and we make new neuronal connections. Sea snails gain mastery the same way you and I MacArthur geniuses gain mastery – by making connections just as you saw in the Purple Brain Neuron Video in the opening paragraph. We are indeed, all live-wired to learn and connect.

Recently I came across THIS STUDY out of NYU claiming that having a good listener in your life is a net positive for brain health (The study didn’t examine what BEING a good listener does for brain health. A number of other studies suggest being is more beneficial, which makes sense when you consider the greater amount of sensory networks necessarily recruited for listening). Here’s a short TED Talk with 25 million views that explains a lot about why that is so.

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The research above didn’t detail what constitutes “good listening,” but there’s lots of research from the International Listening Association that suggests just hearing the words people speak offers access to only a small part of the message they’re offering (If you really want to go granular on what constitutes truly skillful listening, see The Tao of Listening trilogy below). Turns out you actually have to practice and grow neural network fibers in the temporal lobes and other connected network areas to improve listening skills, much as you might do when learning to play a violin or learning the names for different brain parts. And while I’ve read all kinds of studies assigning some percentage breakdown to verbal versus nonverbal communication (from 33% to 93%), what’s relevant here is that much of the nonverbal dimension is absent on the ZOOM platform.

We can’t, for example, generally see what people are doing with their hands. Is a foot tapping? Are their legs crossed or are they “manspreading?” We can’t see if pupils are dilating or cheeks are flushing. All these elements and more go into in-person communication, even though many of them are only taken in on a subconscious level.

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Last month I posted a TED talk by 7-year-old Molly Wright. Molly argued that her robust neural networks were very much the result of serve-and-return (contingent) communication. Whether you’re 7 or 70, I would argue that such communication is critical for enriched neural network development. While the verbal elements might be available to us on a ZOOM call, most often much of the nonverbal are not. Often, we end up with something Stanford researchers call ZOOM Fatigue. I would argue it’s more than simple fatigue. I would wager that excessive, imbalanced use of the ZOOM platform can result in significant neural impoverishment.

Another factor to consider is that in everyday communication, we’re not able to look at ourselves at the same time as we’re looking at the person we’re conversing with. This distraction tends to fragment our attention, directing it first at the person we’re talking to, and then at our own image. Additionally, how many calls have we been on where the person’s eyes are looking down at their computer while they’re talking to us, making no real eye contact whatsoever (Interestingly, the newest iPhone comes with “eyetracking software” that automatically makes it look like you’re looking at the camera). How do we respond when someone in person makes little eye contact with us?

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TO Order, Email: floweringbrain@gmail.com

Here’s a 7 minute TED talk by Here’s a 7 minute TED talk by a 7-year-old explaining what contributed to her robust neural networks:

Molly Wright

I think I’ll let my favorite neuroscientist, David Eagleman, explain it to you directly. Here’s an excerpt from his new book, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

WHAT DOES DREAMING HAVE TO DO WITH THE ROTATION OF THE PLANET?

One of the unsolved mysteries in neuroscience is why brains dream. What are these bizarre nighttime hallucinations about? Do they have meaning? Or are they simply random neural activity in search of a coherent narrative? And why are dreams so richly visual, igniting the occipital cortex every night into a conflagration of activity?

Planet Earth Spinning Half Covered Stock Footage Video (100% Royalty-free)  1006591891 | Shutterstock

Consider the following: In the chronic and unforgiving competition for brain real estate, the visual system has a unique problem to deal with. Because of the rotation of the planet, it is cast into darkness for an average of twelve hours every cycle. (This refers to 99.9999 percent of our species’ evolutionary history, not to the current, electricity-blessed times). We’ve already seen that sensory deprivation triggers neighboring territories to take over. So how does the visual system deal with this unfair disadvantage?

By keeping the occipital cortex active during the night.

We suggest that dreaming exists to keep the visual cortex from being taken over by neighboring areas. After all, the rotation of the planet does not affect anything about your ability to touch, hear, taste, or smell; only vision suffers in the dark. As a result, the visual cortex finds itself in danger every night of takeover by the other senses. And given the startling rapidity with which changes in territory can happen (remember the forty to sixty minutes we just saw in the blindfolded experiment), the threat is formidable. Dreams are the means by which the visual cortex prevents takeover.

Dreams and Karma – Part 1 | Isha Sadhguru

To better understand this, let’s zoom out….During most of the night, there is no dreaming. But during REM sleep, something special happens. The heart rate and breathing speed up, small muscles twitch, and the brain waves become smaller and faster. This is the state in which dreaming occurs. The increased activity in these neurons has two consequences. The first is that the major muscle groups become paralyzed. Elaborate neural circuitry keeps the body frozen during dreaming….This muscular shutdown allows the brain to simulate world experience without actually moving the body around.

There's No Such Thing As a Universal Symbol in Dreams

The second consequence is the really important one: waves of spikes travel from the brainstem to the the occipital cortex. When the spikes arrive there, the activity is experienced as visual. We see. This activity is why dreams are pictorial and filmic, instead of conceptual or abstract.

We theorize that the circuitry behind visual dreams is not accidental. Instead, to prevent takeover, the visual system is forced to fight for its territory by generating bursts of activity when the planet rotates into darkness. In the face of constant competition for sensory real estate, an occipital self-defense evolved. After all, vision carries mission-critical information, but it is stolen away for half of our hours. Dreams, therefore, may be the strange love child of neural plasticity and the rotation of the planet. ~ pp. 45-47

Humor me and take 1:42 seconds to watch this short video from Harvard’s Center for Child Development before reading further: Serve and Return.

Our brains are live-wired to learn from before birth. Serve-and-return interactions – or contingent communication in developmental science jargon – is how humans learn best. Contingent Communication is the primary driver of secure attachment. And not just for babies, but for humans of all ages. It’s a powerful nervous system integrator. It enriches human neural network connectivity.

Serve and No Return

But what happens when we serve and nothing gets returned? Or what gets returned has little or no connection to what we served – for example, with gas-lighting or non-sequiturs?

Tennis GIF - Find on GIFERFirst, let’s take the simple everyday experience of sending a text or an email to someone. In your mind the message you sent requires a response. But what happens when nothing comes back? Depending upon how urgent or critical we feel the message is, our stress hormone levels might begin to elevate. If non-responsiveness happens in our world on a regular basis, we could expect our baseline levels of stress hormones to become chronically elevated. And there is a vast and growing research literature that suggests convincingly that chronically elevated stress hormones adversely impact neuron growth and connectivity.

 “When (chronic stress) happens, (binding proteins) become unable to perform their role as modulators of synaptic plasticity” explained Professor Carmen Sandi of the Brain Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. “In turn, these effects lead subjects to lose their sociability, avoid interactions with their peers and have impaired memory or understanding.”

Without You, There’s No Me

And that’s just for starters. We are all greatly dependent upon the people around us to reflect their experience of us back to us. By what people say to us and how they behave towards us, our brain learns to copy other people’s minds. This is how socialization unfolds at the level of our neural networks. Sam Eriera at University College London has done extensive research on how this socialization takes place:

We are highly sensitive to people around us. As infants, we observe our parents and teachers, and from them we learn how to walk, talk, read—and use smartphones. There seems to be no limit to the complexity of behavior we can acquire from observational learning.

But social influence goes deeper than that. We don’t just copy the behavior of people around us. We also copy their minds. As we grow older, we learn what other people think, feel and want—and adapt to it. 

Our ability to copy the minds of others is hugely important. When this process goes wrong, it can contribute to various mental health problems. You might become unable to empathize with someone, or, at the other extreme, you might be so susceptible to other people’s thoughts that your own sense of “self” is volatile and fragile.

What Is Gaslighting?As a kid, I recall my mother frequently admonishing me: “People judge you by the company you keep.” While the benefit of keeping good company might have been easily inferred, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I finally began to connect the dots – spend time around people who inspire you and you can learn things from that you’re interested in. Duh. 

But because of my early socialization and psychological conditioning, the people I would have loved to spend time with and learn from, were essentially people who made me more than a little nervous. In Polyvagal Theory jargon – they activated my spinal sympathetic nervous system – fight or, in my case, mostly flight.

A Not-So Everyday Example

I spent 10 years working as the maintenance man at CASBS, a Stanford Think Tank that has served as a sanctuary for 24 Pulitzer, 51 MacArthur, and 27 Nobel Prize winners. Many of these illustrious visiting scholars, in addition to being brilliant researchers and people capable of complex, nuanced thinking – they were also lovely people.

One of them in particular stands out for me: Jim Scott. Jim is a history professor at Yale. One day, out of nowhere he approached me and asked me to join him in the scholars’ regular afternoon volleyball game. I was actually a pretty decent volleyball player in high school, but this invitation out of the blue from a Yale professor was more than my nervous system could handle (I grew up in a New Haven housing project in the shadow of Yale University. If I ever had dreams of attending there, they never made it to conscious awareness). Jim’s invitation to me got less than a serve-and-return response – I simply looked at him and walked away without uttering a word! How bizarre is that? Not bizarre at all when you understand how super-elevated stress hormones can activate a dorsal vagal shutdown of the speech and language centers in the brain. Silently walking away from Jim and his invitation was simply the best self-regulation strategy that I could muster in the moment to avoid a complete brain and body shutdown.

Abdication Is Not Integration

I hope these few examples do the job of underscoring just how important it is to do our level best to respond with truth, kindness and compassion to the people we care about in our lives. Even when such responses involve Difficult Conversations; no, especially when such responses involve Difficult Conversations. To take this up as a dedicated, serious practice will go a long way towards moving human evolution on Planet Earth in the direction we’d ideally like it to go.

 

Recently, I’ve been watching the reality TV series called, Undercover Billionaire. The story is about a real life, self-made billionaire – Glenn Stearns – who decides to travel to a new town where he’s unknown, with $100, a cellphone and an old truck, and turn that $100 into a business worth $1 million dollars … in 90 days. If he fails, he’s agreed to donate $1 million dollars of his own money as the kicker.

The Underdog Entrepreneur Fund – Underdog BBQWhen I watch the show, it’s easy for me to see Glenn operating with this rag-tag team he assembles as the part of the brain responsible for our so-called “Executive Function.” Here is a partial list of the qualities that make up Executive Function in the human brain:

    • Paying attention.
    • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing.
    • Starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion.
    • Understanding different points of view.
    • Regulating emotions.
    • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing).
    • Responding rapidly and effectively to changing scenarios.

On this show, Glenn demonstrates all of these functions over and over again in spades. Where he really shines is when obstacle after obstacle comes up, that he and the team couldn’t predict, but are forced to deal with. Essentially, his journey is one of creatively addressing and solving problem after problem in the unwavering pursuit of this one clearly defined goal: create a business in 90 days valued at $1 million dollars.

There are many really interesting dynamics that take place on this journey. One is: Glenn’s in a strange town – Erie, Pennsylvania – where he knows no one and knows nothing about the town. He also has zero idea about what business he’s going to start or how he’s going to start it. The first week in town, in order to save money, he sleeps in his truck, as night temperatures drop below freezing. To get money for an apartment to live in for the 90 days, he scavenges used heavy equipment tires that are littered all around Erie, and sells them to a wholesaler for $400 apiece. It’s a pretty humble beginning.

Three Takeaways

I have three neuroscience takeaways from the show. The first is: The Power of The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience states that it takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain. Think: parents and teachers with children. Or think: an accomplished professional in any field mentoring a beginner. On this show Glenn is the man with the plan, the seer with a vision, the guy with his eyes on the prize – to create a business valued at $1 million dollars in 90 days. The Prefrontal ParadoxIt becomes his primary job to take the disparate and fragmented group of individuals he’s managed to assemble around him (and convinced to work without pay), and organize and shape them into a coherent, integrated team. This seems to be much like the work of an integrated ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) – where Executive Function primarily comes to live in the human brain.

The second takeaway is the need and requirement for give-and-take, serve-and-return, Contingent Communication. Glenn is a master at not only responding to people, but getting them to respond to him. I think it becomes especially easy because he knows that he ultimately has each person’s well-being and best interests at heart. If, as Polyvagal Theory posits, we only have two choices in human relationships – connect or self-protect – Glenn meets most every attempt at self-protection with an invitation to connection. Note: He’s an extremely accomplished listener.

Like with any good dramatic presentation, there are more than a few intense conflicts and challenging problems the team needs to address – like running out of food in a restaurant three days straight (this is not really a spoiler, so no need for an alert). And Glenn gets thrown for a loop time after time. The main difference say, between him and me, is that his downtime in the wake of all these challenging circumstances is that the time he remains knocked off-center becomes shorter and shorter as the series progresses.

The third neuroscience takeaway for me is the real power in answering The Big Brain Question for people. Over and over and over again, Glenn overtly and covertly conveys to people that he’s there for them, even though he supposedly has very little money and is not paying them for their work. This was the most extraordinary element of the show for me: how he got people to have faith and trust in him as a leader, with absolutely no guarantees that they would be successful. They could count on Glenn for many things that had little to do with money: to be clear and consistent in the communication of his vision; to be able to pivot and give direction when obstacles to the goal appeared unexpectedly; to show and express public care and sincere appreciation for all the time and energy each of the people put into their collective effort. To me, this series was a Master Class in the famous Margaret Mead observation …

Purpose | Small groups, Margaret mead, Change the world

Long time readers of this blog will recognize that Rudyard Kipling is speaking to the need to engage in regular practices that grow neural networks sufficient to help us become … Adrenal Ninjas, with the masterful ability to not become immediately reactive when stress hormones attempt to activate us in unskillful ways.

If
by Rudyard Kipling

 


If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Woman, my daughter!*
*Intentionally modified to bring some gender balance.

The answer is – like many of the research findings in neuroscience – it depends. Some of what it depends on is how granular our training has been for choosing the best time, place, type, tone, sequence, and framing of questions and for deciding what and how much information to share to obtain the most fruitful exchanges from our interactions.

10 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Used Car | CARFAX Canada

Another thing it depends upon is how the questions we are asked and the questioner him or herself affects our threat-detection networks. Being asked a question by one of our children will most likely produce a different somatic response than being asked a question by a Homeland Security agent.

Why Question?

Most questions are asked to either obtain information or to orchestrate impression management (getting people to like us). The good news beyond that is that by asking questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better questioners—a virtuous cycle.

When scientists began studying conversations at Harvard several years ago, they discovered this foundational insight: People don’t ask enough questions. In fact, among the most common complaints people make after having a conversation, such as an interview, a first date, or a work meeting, is “I wish [s/he] had asked me more questions” and “I can’t believe [s/he] didn’t ask me any questions.” Here are some reasons why we hold back:

We may be egocentric—eager to impress others with our own thoughts, stories, and ideas (and not even think to ask questions). Perhaps we are apathetic—we don’t care enough to ask, or we anticipate being bored by the answers we’d hear. We may be overconfident in our own knowledge and think we already know the answers (which we sometimes do, but usually not). Or perhaps we worry that we’ll ask the wrong question and be viewed as rude or incompetent. But the biggest inhibitor is that most people just don’t understand how beneficial good questioning can be. If they did, they would end far fewer sentences with a period—and more with a question mark.

In addition to asking questions, Alison Wood Brooks a Harvard Business School professor – in her talk “How to Talk Gooder in Business and Life” – offers some additional suggestions for how to make conversations enjoyable and productive, i.e. activate the reward circuitry in yours and your partner’s brain.

Plan ahead of time to talk about 2 to 3 specific topics.

Give yourself permission to switch topics frequently.

Ask followup questions.

Avoid “Boomerasking”.

Boomer-what-ing?

Firsts - Live One: BoomerangsWhat is Boomerasking? I know you want to ask me, so I’ll go ahead and answer. Boomerasking is self-centeredly asking questions of people as a means of momentarily letting someone else have the floor so that you can then immediately boomerang the conversation back to you and continue to talk about what you and your oh-so-amazing ideas and life experiences. I’m sure we’ve all been in conversations with people who operate in this manner. You might be upset about an interaction with a work colleague and go looking for a willing ear to vent to. Visibly upset, you go to an office mate who asks you what’s wrong? You tell them about your upsetting exchange and they immediately begin recounting a series of upsetting interactions with the same person or even other people.

Or, you’re on a Zoom call about a topic that’s of great interest to you. Frequently, someone on the call will ask a question and as soon as an answer is given, they’ll be off on a tangent that may or may not be related to the topic of the call.

The Courage to Question

I have a suspicion that the easy ability to ask sincere questions is connected to how well each of us has developed our Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is a developmental stage where sufficient neural network connectivity is present that allows us to recognize that other people may have different thoughts, wants and needs than we do, and by and large, that’s all right. When we have developed strong awareness of how Theory of Mind operates in ourselves and others, and we can find ourselves genuinely surprised by some things people say or do, that’s a natural experience that could make us curious. It might lead us to ask questions. The challenge will be, as it often is in social interactions, to ask those questions in ways that do not trigger defensiveness. Ahh, now THERE’s a practice worth taking up!