It’s human nature to want to maximize our potential and create a real impact with our work and lives.
While we might not be the next Einstein, we can absolutely rewire our brains to improve our potential.
The brain has infinite potential – see Einstein
By some estimates, our brains have 100 billion neurons or nerve cells that can transmit information. That’s a lot of potential neural connections!
Although science is only beginning to understand the complexities of the human brain, we know that greater neural connections create a higher functioning brain.
For instance, Albert Einstein, was not only a Nobel Prize winning physicist, he also worked at a patent office while making scientific discoveries in his free time (prior to working in academia), was a skilled violinist, and spoke multiple languages. These varied skills required many different neural connections in and among diverse parts of the brain.
Scientists have been looking at Albert Einstein’s brain for years since it was removed after his death in 1955 (against his wishes). Research found that the nerve fibers between the left and right hemispheres, collectively called the corpus callosum, were thick and showed a greater connectivity between the two sides of the brain.
And although Einstein’s brain weighed less than average, he had a higher density of neurons and greater connectivity particularly in the parietal cortex which processes sensory information (e.g., sights, sounds, movement) and helps make associations between different sources of information.
In discovering his theory of relativity, Einstein creatively explored beyond established scientific rules to understand connections and make sense of apparent incongruities, such that (1) the laws of physics are the same everywhere, and (2) time and space are not absolute but subjective to the observer.
The integrated brain
To fulfill our greatest potential and creatively solve challenges, we, like Einstein, need a well integrated brain that has many connections between neurons in different parts of the brain.
An integrated brain is like having many superhighways connecting across all parts of a city, not just a few roads that go from one well-populated part of the city to another.
A highly integrated brain has greater skill and flexibility in a variety of situations. It does not become “stuck” in one way of thinking, but is adept at considering different thoughts, ideas and feelings, moving between them and/or even merging them.
But what often happens, without realizing it, is that we come to identify with certain ways of thinking and acting and forget – or even dismiss – the others.
We may have innate tendencies and well-worn pathways, but for the most part we’re limiting our potential with such fixed narratives. Imagine if Einstein decided he were just a patent officer, or just a musician?
The brain can grow, but needs direction
While we might not become another Einstein, we absolutely have the ability to rewire the brain to be more effective and improve our potential. Our brains are plastic and can make new neural connections by shifting our focus and attention.
As Dr. Dan Siegel says, “Where attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connections grow.”
But if we don’t focus our attention in new and different ways, the brain will fire on existing neural connections. We repeat the same thoughts, actions and narratives. Point A leads to Point B, and you never explore what other paths you might take.
As Einstein is quoted as saying, “We cannot solve our problems by using the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Left brain or right brain?
To say we are “left-brained” or “right-brained” is not accurate, but we do likely have well-worn neural pathways that tend toward and reason and logic or creativity and intuition.
Although we know that both hemispheres are needed for reason and creativity, some research has shown dominant firing of neural connections in one hemisphere or the other according to “subnetworks” within that hemisphere.
Brain regions showing greater activity in the left hemisphere include those involved in language and the default mode network. The default mode is a network of attention that is active during resting states or mind-wandering, and tends to involve internal focus or self-referential thoughts (e.g., how does this person or situation affect me?).
In contrast, connections that appear more in the right hemisphere correspond to the salience network that takes in new information and helps the brain decide which stimuli is most relevant (or salient) and needing our attention. The salience network is more active in relation to the external world.
A left brain dominant world
Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist, researcher and author of several books on the brain, points out that our modern culture favors logic and activities of the left brain, which sees the world as fixed, certain and knowable. It interprets the world in parts, focusing on details, labeling and categorizing information in order to make the world more knowable and simple.
As a former lawyer, I used to describe myself as left-brained. I wanted to see the world, and legal cases, in terms of black and white. Of course, cases and courts involve people; life is messy, and outcomes are uncertain.
I was uncomfortable with the messiness and uncertainty because, as McGilchrist puts it, if something doesn’t fit with an existing framework, the left brain cuts it out or ignores it.
As the left brain is also where the self-referential default mode network is most active, if our neural pathways on there, we might become pretty convinced of our own narratives. And we won’t even see the need for growth and change, because we’re already sure that we’re right.
How can making stronger connections in the right hemisphere help us? Unlike the left which reduces concepts into parts, the right brain sees the whole. It also focuses attention on the external world, including people and relationships. In the right brain, people are not categorized but unique. The world is not static, but changing, complex and interconnected. The right brain is also open to new ideas even those that don’t fit with prior understanding. (For more, see Iain McGilchrist.)
According to Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We’ve created a society that honors the servant but has forgotten the gift.”
Connecting the brain for greater potential
Reason, logic, and linear thinking are highly favored in our culture, schools and workplaces.
But that’s only part of the brain’s potential. So do we want to use all of the brain, or just some of it?
To be sure, seeing the world in simple and certain terms is an attractive pull, but it cuts us off from exploring other possibilities, expanding our ideas and opportunities, and making new neural connections in less-activated parts of the brain.
In order to reach our greatest potential, with all the powers of the human brain, we need to step outside of what we already know, out of our well-worn neural pathways to explore greater possibilities, people, connections and the external world.
In essence, we need to step outside of ourselves and our usual thinking (as often shows in the self-referential default-mode network), to connect the brain in different ways with our focus and attention.
Tips for integrating the brain for greater potential
When you start looking outside of well-worn pathways, new ideas, connections, and possibilities are endless.
Einstein is also quoted as saying, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
When we begin to tap into underutilized parts of the brain, we rewire the brain and improve our potential.
But it does take work, like creating a new path in the woods. If you’ve ever said that you don’t have the energy to change, you might be speaking for your brain. When you’re stressed, tired or sick, the brain will not want to spend your precious energy on creating new neural connections. But barring extreme stress or illness, greater integration is possible.
The best approach is to enlist another person in this process, be it a coach or trusted mentor. Through this relationship and particular questions coaching questions, the brain becomes activated in new ways and begins to rewire.
As Dan Siegel has described it: “When there is contingent collaborative communication, the brain functions optimally both within itself and within present and future relationships.”
At Case Western Reserve University, research by Richard Boyatzis and Jack Anthony has shown that certain coaching questions can light up positive parts of the brain. Further, coaching questions activate greater neural pathways in the brain than receiving advice or recommendations.
And as research psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, said of the brain and coaching: “The questions you ask of your brain significantly affect the quality of the connections it makes…. [And i]f you pay enough attention to a certain set of brain connections, it keeps this relevant circuitry stable, open and dynamically alive, enabling it to eventually becoming a part of the brain’s hard wiring.”
Short of having a coach or skilled and trusted partner to help shift your attention and rewire your brain, how else might you begin to strengthen connections in under-utilized parts of the brain?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- explore ideas and perspectives from different points of view, such as that of another person, or from a future perspective
- be open to not knowing right away, holding uncertainty and grey areas
- be curious about and open to different ideas, people and backgrounds
- explore a challenge without words, such as through a metaphor, visual image or other sensory context
- step outside of the current situation or challenge and take a helicopter view – what does it look like from the outside looking in?
- explore the possibility of a larger connection in a situation; e.g., how might these ideas, challenges, people be connected?
- consider what is unique about the problem, person or challenge
- approach people, situations and problems with greater curiosity, even if you think you already have it/them figured out
Like practicing an instrument, consistency and repetition are key to strengthening the neural connections. The more you practice shifting your attention in different ways, the more you will start to create that superhighway in your brain and improve your potential.
We may not be Einstein, but with a little practice and letting go of what we know (or think we know), we – and our brains – can step into our greater potential. Just remember: do you want to use all or part of your brain?
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