Monday, May 16, 2011

Tunnel vision of the grey matter

Peter unashamedly was reading email on his Blackberry in a team meeting. He thought the meetings were a total waste of time. The team leader asked everyone for their point of view but, unless it accorded with his own, their opinions were ignored or worst still, met with a cynical or sarcastic remark or look!

As Peter said to one of his team mates: ‘The man has got tunnel vision of the grey matter!’

Interestingly, he may be right!

How our brain filters stuff out

According to an article in Wired by Jonah Lehrer there could be some truth in Peter’s comments. He has an interesting explanation for why we often see or hear only what we want to see or hear.

We know that our amygdala responds to emotionally significant events that involve some sort of threat to us. Our amygdala continuously assesses whether something is a true life/death or physical risk to us.

And because the amygdala does not distinguish between physical and psychological threat, it also actively assesses threat levels in non-physical risk situations like an email from a client, a look from a colleague or the words of the boss.

In both physical and non-physical situations, if the amygdala activates the threat response and we react without using our thinking brain (pre frontal cortex) resulting in inappropriate behaviours, I call that The Almond Effect®.

Sometimes our intuition is wrong

However it seems that there are times when we don’t want to accept what we hear or see because it doesn’t accord with our expectations or our reality, so our brain carefully edits them out, instead ‘searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe.’

Lehrer describes an experiment conducted by Kevin Dunbar in 2003 at Dartmouth College. Dunbar showed students two video clips of two different sized balls falling to the ground. In one clip the balls hit the ground at the same time. In the other the heavier ball landed first.
The students were asked to select the more accurate representation of the law of gravity.

Those students who were not versed in physics believed that it was unrealistic that the balls would land at the same time, an intuition that strikes a chord with me.
However it is wrong as the science shows (Galileo and Newton) that once the balls reach a critical velocity, they would travel at the same rates and so the scenario where they would land together is correct.

You and your ACC and DLPFC

The part of the brain that registers errors and contradictions is the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex). It gets turned on when we see or hear or in any way sense that something is wrong and doesn’t fit with our patterns of experience. I have heard neuroscientists describe it as the ‘Oh Sh*t’ response.

But Dunbar found that there is another part of our brain, the DLPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) that is also involved. When it is activated, it suppresses thoughts that don’t square with our preconceptions.

As Lehrer so eloquently puts it, if the ACC is the “Oh Sh*T” circuit, then the DLPFC is the ‘delete’ key.

Don’t waste your time arguing

Now maybe my DLPFC is helping me out here, but this seems like a great explanation about how people behave when they don’t seem to hear or see something that doesn’t accord with their point of view.

And perhaps, significantly, it’s the differentiating factor between managers who can master their DLPFC and say, ‘that’s impossible’ and those who say, ‘that’s interesting – I wonder why you think that may be possible.’

Clearly the latter attitude is the one more likely to be open to innovative ideas, solve difficult complex problems and demonstrate great leadership.

So maybe Peter was right and those meetings are just a waste of time if the boss is only interested in their own point of view.

I suspect we all suffer from ‘tunnel vision of the grey matter’ occasionally but at least you now know why!

And maybe we need to check our own DLPFC if we can't resolve a difficult sitation. Are we in fact stuck because we are filtering out other ways of looking at the situation?

Time to put the headlights on!