The neuroscience of resilience, leadership and teams. The Møller Institute at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, collaborates with...
Resilient well-being: Navigating our way through an uncertain world
What the unconscious-to-conscious and individual-to-collective systems tell us about resilient well-being.
Author: Dr Etienne van der Walt, neurologist and CEO & Co-Founder of Neurozone
I have always found it fascinating to consider the interconnectedness of life, how all living organisms build an intricate, layered network to form a whole. From cells to organs to us as individual organisms, complex systems work together to keep us alive and to thrive, which is the ultimate goal of our brain-body systems.
While we may think of ourselves as individual entities, it’s important to remember that individuals are not the ‘final product’ of human life. We are also part of larger systems, such as families and tribes, teams and organizations, and even society as a whole. In the same way that when we look after ourselves, our organs and cells are better off and we avoid disease, we also make use of these higher-order entities to enable us as individuals to thrive better.
So how do we, as living beings driven at least 4-6 times more by fear than reward, make our way safely in a world that is treacherous and sometimes benign? It all starts with the brain.
Our brains have the ability to make sense of the external world, the physical world of time and space where we interact with tangible entities such as people, places, and objects. But we also need to make sense of the emotional world, where we interact with each other through non-verbal communication systems, forming connections that help us thrive as social creatures. As we delve deeper, we will start to recognize the interconnectedness of everything, leading us into the world of self-transcendence in which we realize the larger systems of which we are but a small part.
Understanding how these three 'worlds' - the physical, emotional, and spiritual - interconnect helps us achieve a better understanding of ourselves as well as how we relate to the world around us – how accurately we interpret it and how we make sense of our place in it. Although our brain-body system’s processes are, on average, around 95% unconscious, we still need to develop the capacities and capabilities necessary to safely navigate through life.
One life, one brain
The unconscious and conscious are one brain, working in a multimodal fashion. In navigating the physical world, our brain plays a crucial role in processing and interpreting the information received through our senses. Its interpretive domains rely on vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste as well as the sense of position and movement to give us an interpretation of the external world. But how do we know it’s accurate? We compare the sensory information to a memory system in our brains, which acts as the foundation on which we build our map of the world.
The template of this map is stored in our cells, in the neural networks our brains develop as we learn from experiences and build paths on our journeys that are meant to guide us safely through life. The genetic memory is a deeply wired part of the ‘human footprint’ as it’s something that we don’t have to learn in our lifetimes because we unconsciously know it. We also have other forms of memory that are built through experience and repetition, which help us avoid danger and stay safe.
Our brains continue to consolidate and reinforce the map that guides us through life, based on what we deem important for our survival. By assigning values to incoming cues, a value system is created. These values are reflected in our mindset, belief system, and worldview. Our ideas of what is possible or important are not static; instead they are shaped by our memory systems, which are reinforced by our experiences and the contexts in which they were experienced.
When we sleep, our brains build our memories and solve our problems. This dynamic map shapes our mindset. Note the two processes, learning and problem-solving, are also the two major ingredients of resilience. The continuous cycle of consolidation and re-emphasis of adaptive learning during sleep can also lead to a mindset that is not necessarily favorable. But by recognizing the importance of a healthy mindset, we can make conscious efforts to reinforce positive values and thought patterns and lead a fulfilling life.
How do we ensure that we share a common ‘map’ that will guide us in the right direction? One way is through the conversations we have. We talk about our beliefs and challenge others’ ideas in coffee shops, at Sunday lunches, and around the water cooler. These discussions are crucial for continuous alignment and calibration, ensuring that we share a common belief system and mindset.
Our moral compass – what we define as fair, moral, and ethical – not only affects how we view the world but also how we behave and relate to others. And then there’s the self-transcendent consideration: our deep interconnectedness with nature and our role in the greater scheme of life.
We build a map of our emotional, physical, and self-transcendent worlds through these experiences, and our brain uses this map to interpret our environment. In this way, the sophisticated machine that is our brain-body system guides us, allowing us to avoid threats and maximize rewards.
Most of this is done unconsciously, with only a small fraction of our thoughts and emotions under conscious awareness and control. This is why it is crucial to pay attention to our conscious thoughts, as they become the foundation for our unconscious drives and actions in the future.
Our psychology has a profound effect on our brain-body system. There is a very strong link between our behavioral responses, our thoughts and emotions, and the way our brains change. This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, means our brains can change their circuits, grow new cells, and strengthen connections. This happens especially in areas responsible for problem-solving and learning, such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala. The amygdala plays a crucial role in assessing the emotional significance of incoming cues and assigning values to them. Through neuroplasticity, however, we can attenuate the amygdala’s response, reducing the level of reactivity and decreasing hyper-irritable reactions.
Our psychological interpretations of the environment, and the cues we receive from it, can create a physical environment that affects our brain-body system and overall physical and mental health. These interlinked relationships can result in problems in the brain and nervous system (neurological disorders) as well as psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.
A fascinating example of how intricately neurology and psychology are linked is the glymphatic system, which is responsible for cleaning out toxins in the brain while we sleep. To get the full benefit of this cleansing, we need about seven to eight (some experts push this to nine) hours of sleep each night. If we don’t get enough sleep, toxins build up over time, increasing our risk for neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia.
Another new discovery is the somato-cognitive action network, or SCAN, which links the motor cortex of the brain to our behaviors. Deep breathing, walking and other physical movements can have a profound effect on our anxiety levels. When we’re anxious, walking or deep breathing can help relax our muscles and reduce tension throughout the body, leading to a reduction in our overall stress response.
These findings highlight the close connections of our psychological, neurological and immunological systems, and have led to the rekindling of the term ‘psychoneuroimmunology’, or PNI. As we continue to learn more about how our external environment affects our internal environment, PNI is gaining increasing attention and traction as a field of study.
Good leaders lead their teams and their organizations as living and breathing entities, keeping them safe and optimizing their psychology, neurology, and immunology for well-being and high collective productive yield. These performance outcomes are all deeply dependent on the biology of the brain-body system. Leaders who are looking for the edge therefore need to pay careful attention to the applications of the important emerging field of PNI.
In our next article, we will look at how this interconnectedness of systems has led to the development of the Neurozone Equilibrium.
How can we help you?
We specialize in training professionals who use a coaching approach to optimize their people.
Contact Cuan Macnab-Holding, Neurozone Consultant: Business Development & Organizational Resilience