Derek’s Live Chat Show – Dr Lynda Shaw – Neuroscientist

NOTES by Jill

Derek introduced Lynda as the next President of he Professional Speakers’ Association (in the UK and Ireland).

Lynda began her career as an Air Hostess, had kids, ran a gym business with 20 staff and 2,000 members and when the recession hit, decided to become a mature student and after 9 years at University, Lynda is a neuroscientist.

Derek – first question – what is neuroscience?

Lynda – I studied cognitive neuroscience where we study how the brain changes behaviour and how behaviour changes the brain. This is all to do with being in more control of our behaviour and our brain.

We can ‘rewire’ our brain more easily than we think and we can lead a better life and be more effective and efficient that we think. In my studies I use an FMRI scanning machine where we looked at the brains of people lying in the scanner while they experienced extremes of emotion, either very pleasant or very unpleasant. We examined images of what was going on in their brains when experiencing these emotions.

The key point was that the emotions were triggered by images we showed at a below conscious awareness, so I was looking at unconscious processing of emotion.

Derek – why did you go into this subject after all those other things at you did?

Lynda – ever since I was 14 I had been reading about consciousness, it’s a fascinating subject it’s like the last frontier in our knowledge base and it’s a really tough topic to talk about. I had the health club then I made babies and carried on working part-time when my daughter was 9 and my son 6. I began A levels at night school, I thought I wasn’t very bright and not academic, so I just tried this out.

I discovered that studying was not so bad. I applied to university and wanted to study social anthropology, was interested in why people did what they did, I was also a travel junkie. They made me study a second topic, so I chose psychology by default and halfway through the course, psychology became a lot easier, social anthropology became a lot harder, social anthropology is about life – that’s as big a topic as you can get.

I got my degree, I decided to do a Masters in psychology and when it came to choosing my supervisor, I looked at his interests and the last on his list was consciousness – so I began my PhD in unconscious processing.

It sort of evolved – I had no idea when I went to night school that I’d be going to university, no idea at university I’d be doing a Masters and no idea I’d go on to do a PhD.

I studied full time for 9 years and it unfolded from being a businesswoman who is thought she was not very bright and was not at all academic to discovering I was not too bad after all.

Derek – when you thought you would not very bright and look where you ended up, now that all links to self-talk doesn’t it – whether you think you can or think you can’t you are absolutely right.

Clearly, if we think we can we can do anything. That brings us back to one of my subjects NLP and if we can model what other people do, you can do it yourself, if you are determined enough.

Lynda – it does depend if you are a 6 foot 4 inch, 25 stone lorry driver you will not make a very good ballet dancer. There are some limitations, we can control more of our lives than we realise. What drives me is to show people that they are in control of their lives – to a certain extent. Not completely and you don’t want to be completely in control, if you were completely in control you would not have the important survival instincts of fight or flight. But for mainstream normal life, we can have more control than we think – if we want to engage.

Derek – you studied emotions when people were unconscious?

Lynda – No, I studied emotions when my subjects were unconscious of them. My subjects were conscious but their experience of emotions was below the level of consciousness. They were not dreaming – dreams are tested in a sleep lab and that’s quite unnatural, or at home, when you have to phone to interrupt their sleep – it’s quite difficult to study dreams as the research process is unnatural. I am sure there will have been improvements in the process.

There is a database of some 800 images collated into the IAPS (International Affective Picture System), these have been measured and labelled as nasty or nice and are what is used by psychologists around the world so that we can compare our research fairly.

If you show an image to somebody and then put a control image before and after your research image so you are masking it you have interrupted the pattern of the brain working out the images they have seen. I also put those images up for 10 milliseconds although the refresh time on the computer is probably about 17 milliseconds. The participants were looking at a screen but were not aware of the images I was presenting to them. So bits of the brain that were lighting up show that we do very much process emotions at a below conscious level.

Derek – do you have your brain with you – are brains all the same size?

Lynda – shows one of her two models of a brain (these have gender-neutral labels). Let me tell you in secret, size doesn’t matter.

I believe Einstein’s brain was probably quite small, it is all very tightly packed together, size isn’t an indicator of intelligence. The stereotypical female brain tends to be smaller than the stereotypical male brain, talking about gender differences in the brain is never a good idea.

Derek – what happens when someone has a stroke?

Lynda – a stroke happens when either not enough or too much blood reaches the brain. The effect of this can either be a little or a lot depending on the size of the challenge. I worked in an NHS hospital for about 6 months in a rehabilitation unit dealing with head injuries. The clinical psychologists and speech therapists helped a lot – many made a very good recovery, some didn’t. You can’t tell.

Derek – and you can tell which part of the brain works our memory? Why is it that way sometimes we wake up thinking of something happen 20 or 30 years ago?

Lynda – memory is a really complicated topic. When you wake up impacted between sleep and awake state, the brain is in alpha/electrical frequency which is when we are is at the most creative we can be – it’s like a light meditation state. And when we are in that creative state all sorts of answers come to us it’s a good idea to have a notepad by your bed to make a note of those things. It’s like a daydreaming state – you can put your brain in that state throughout the day if you wish, but it’s a natural place when you first wake up.

If you wake up thinking of something from 20 or 30 years ago, it might have been that was dreaming it but you have forgotten the dream already. Perhaps you realised that you have you had an issue you have been incubating and realised you had an answer 20 years ago but didn’t connect it. When the brain’s on alpha, we get those ‘aha’ moments. That may be what happened.

Derek and we have to write them down because those thoughts disappear very quickly?

Lynda – it decays very quickly – I used to have low blood pressure and couldn’t get up very quickly in the morning as I would get dizzy so I made myself stay in bed until I had woken up properly and could stand up. I found I was having amazing thoughts to answers just because of that lovely alpha state and there are lots to think about and explore.

Derek – Does beer put you in an alpha state – I get creative ideas after 2-3 pints?

Lynda – No

Derek – what can we learn from this? How can we use this as ‘lay’ people?

Lynda – if you can learn a little bit about your brain you are more in the driving seat to of your destiny. You can learn how to change habits, habits that no longer serve us. If you learn that you can put your brain into that light meditative state, that alpha frequency, you are more creative, you come up with answers.

We can do a lot more with our brains than we believe because of the neuroplasticity of the brain. Our brain changes because of our behaviour. The rewiring of our brains is absolutely phenomenal and we can change that and we can choose how we want to wire our brains and that’s so cool!

Derek – so if we think positively or negatively, that’s what we get and it does seem to make a difference to the attitude of people and how they come across etc, is that where you are going with this?

Lynda – almost – we must remember that all emotion is valuable. It’s not good if you have a negative emotion, fear, anger, anxiety, all of that, what’s not good is if you hold onto for too long. Don’t get me wrong, emotions are fleeting and constantly changing.

Sometimes the emotion goes but we hold onto the feeling, sometimes for days becoming a mood. During that time we would have other emotions but we would feel in that time but we are holding on to that not-very-useful feeling and that’s a waste of time and it can put us in a very stressful situation, especially if it’s one of fear, or anxiety or anger.

If we put ourselves in a stressful situation for very long, those stress hormones rage around the system at a chronic level and can lead to in high blood pressure, it can even lead to cancers etc – so it’s a really good idea not to allow ourselves to hold onto those negative feelings from those emotions for too long, so we are in control of the stress hormones which means that we are healthier.

Derek – that gives us a lot to think of. Here’s a question form the chatbox – this is all fascinating stuff – please explain how a) exercise and b) the loss of a loved one affects the brain?

Lynda – there are stages of bereavement, these are not always all felt and don’t always occur in the same order – the first are shock, denial and anger.

There is nothing anyone can do apart from listening and be there for you when you want to talk – everyone handles things differently – some do want to talk, others don’t. As a friend or loved one of someone who is grieving all we can do is be there for them, regardless what state they are in, learn how to listen because their brain will be in a complete state of overwhelm with all the emotions and high level of stress. Stress hormones will be racing, cortisol controls and dampens down serotonin (the happy hormone all about eating, mood, sleep) and dopamine (which is about reward, motivation and anticipation), so we won’t want to do anything. There’s an awful lot going on in the brain when it comes to bereavement.

Derek – you mention the Elizabeth Kubler Ross work very well, we have talked about that and the relevance to change, shock or denial when somebody passes away, if anyone is interested, they can google Elizabeth Kubler Ross to explain it in some depth, this also applies when people get made redundant and the sort of changes that might come out of the lockdown.

Just another question, why couldn’t my Dad, or most dads, talk about what happened to them in the war. The only time I got him to talk about it was when I’d given him 4 pints down the pub before he passed away. Was that shock?

Lynda – no, I don’t … there would have been a shock in there – my Dad was exactly the same, he wouldn’t talk about WW2 either. It depends on individuals – my father went into World War 2 as a high Church of England lad and came out not believing in anything. He had no time for wish to glorify it or talk about it.

He was totally disillusioned and clearly very upset on many levels at what he had witnessed. I think that maybe there was a feeling that it wasn’t to be glorified, so, therefore, he wasn’t going to talk about it. He didn’t want to be a hero, he wasn’t a hero in the copybook sense of the word. He didn’t want to be seen as having too much of his life associated with such devastating times. This is my opinion about my father.

Derek – my second question is from Ryan who was a student of mine and Paul’s, he said that we told him to carry a notebook and keep it by his bed and that’s presumably to use the alpha state you have talked about.

Paul said, “Have you read Sway about unconscious bias where we make very quick unconscious judgements about things, what’s your view on that?”

Lynda – unconscious biases are part of the heuristic system or systems in the brain basically there is so much for us to do. The brain has to put as much as possible into unconscious processing because our attention is very, very tiny.

What we attend to is our conscious processing, the rest is all unconscious processing. The brain will put information into unconscious processing very quickly that’s a heuristic, there is a trade-off. What the brain will do is categorise and label things, this happens with people. It’s a quick way, it is not an unkind way, if you don’t have unconscious bias, you’re dead. We’ve all got them it does not make us bad people; it just makes us human beings. We have labelled people in these little boxes for speed of processing.

Companies are trying very hard to overcome this, especially the larger ones but it’s really difficult. Whatever your political views are people at the moment, people are pretty cheesed off with Boris Johnson, so they are looking for ways to confirm our thinking and ignoring any information that disagrees with us that’s confirmation bias, seeking evidence to confirm our biases and ignoring the other information. If you are doing that, that can be an issue because, whatever you’re doing, you could be missing really valuable input.

Equally, if you are dealing with people of different colour, different religion, different sexual orientation, then we start showing prejudice and that’s not acceptable either. Biases are really, really difficult to handle.

My advice to companies is when interviewing is that you agree – and everyone has to agree, that if anyone shows any biases, you have to point out to them. This is really important but I must say there is only so much you can do about behaviour, the rest of it is all about processes. Processes and systems need to be put in place as well as working on human behaviour.

At this stage we opened up for questions

Tony – absolutely fascinating Lynda. You started by saying that brain changes behaviour and vice versa and then you went on to say and you may have already given me the answer. You mentioned ‘companies’ and ‘processes’. What went through my mind was psychometric testing. Do you support companies in producing the papers that test their employees to show whether they are fit for higher management?

Lynda – I don’t with psychometric testing a lot when I was working at a University as a supervisor of dissertation students working with HR companies and outsourcing HR companies.

There are some psychometric tests that are very well tried and tested.

If you are asking Lynda the person, I have an issue with labelling people in any shape or form, unless that label is helpful to them, in terms of their own health. e.g. If someone is not very well and they don’t know what’s wrong with them, sometimes giving them a label of what it could be helpful and useful to them.

If however you have half a dozen people who are going for a senior management job and they are being psychometrically tested, is based on that alone, I would not agree with it. It’s better that people are looked at in all sorts of ways, which is where we have to be careful because we are interviewing them which is subjective and then we are subject to our biases, so we need all of the measures together so we can pick the right person.

Tony – so that would have been one of the tools?

Lynda – yes, I would never dismiss gut feel either. The enteric nervous system/gut has over 100 million neurones, serotonin and neurochemicals are in the gut, the gut is a very good source of information.

It’s an extremely good source of information if you are discussing a topic that you are already very familiar with. If you are not so familiar with the area then they got is not so good to rely on it’s better to use some cognitive resources in making decisions and judgements. As part of the toolkit, psychometric testing, with the interview which is subjective, with the gut feel, with looking at the person’s cv, being aware – looking for an exact match with the last person to do the job is wrong. Just because they were a certain type doesn’t mean the next person should be the same type, there are lots of things to come together when we are talking about employing people, recruiting them or giving them a promotion.

Derek – interested to hear about gut feel and that there are 100 million neurones in the gut – I do believe that 2-300 years ago people thought the brain was in the gut because of that, I don’t know if you know if that was true or not, I certainly read that from a good source.

Lynda – I have read that theory, there was a theory that once upon a time a human being was a blob stuck to a rock. It waited for the food to come by in the water, but that wasn’t very efficient so the blob decided to get off the rock to survive and it could actually become more of a predator.

That is one theory about the gut. I don’t know if that theory would hold water, there are plenty of people who would argue either way. I do know that the gut has a lot of connections that are incredible in terms of neuroscience.

Derek – fantastic, Lynda, when I was working in banking I must admit I did go a lot on my gut feel as well as the left-brain logic and the accounts and everything else. The twice I ignored my gut feel, I was wrong and it was wrong to ignore it.

You have a book out – tell us what it’s called?

Lynda – it’s called ‘Your Brain is Boss’ and it’s an easy read with lots of bits of information in neuroscience and how it can be helpful in terms of psychology and living your life.

Derek – thank you very much to Dr Lynda Shaw we look forward to your next visit to the programme.

Nilesh – I have noticed in conversation with an opponent, I’ve become impatient to speak rather than to listen.

Derek – listening is a real skill important to be aware that teach ourselves to listen

Lynda – listening skills are very important – to really listen and look for clues – e.g. if the person is unhappy, agitated or angry. It’s possible to detect micro-expressions, small changes around the eyes, there were 6 emotions, and this is now up to 9.

When Police forces interview terrorists, they are looking for the micro-expressions, the flicker around the eye that shows before the person realises what they are feeling – it’s a real signpost. You can never know what they are thinking but you can use the cues to change the direction of the conversation.

My husband and his two brothers, with their wives, all met together with their mother to hear what she was thinking and feeling about her end-of-life wishes. The three brothers all heard the same thing but had different opinions afterwards about what was said.

Paul – neuroscience is a topic of great interest at the moment but doesn’t seem to have got into the workplace. What aspects of neuroscience should we be aware of in the workplace?

Lynda – when I graduated, I wanted to combine my business experience with my neuroscience understanding. Three years later I was employed by Standard Life to use EEG scan is on the effects of marketing.

We looked at 3 things.

Boring words (i.e. pensions speak)
Positive words
Negative words (like ‘struggling’)

We found that the update on pensions/insurance was better when people received a letter using positive words.

At the moment companies and corporations are concerned about uncertainty and change. If we command our own brain and help our clients to do the same, we will be in a strong position to grow a stronger business.

Derek – more and more we are seeing selling, influencing and disputes. Jane Gunn’s session made it clear how important listening skills were in mediation. Newspapers report the same thing in different ways.

Lynda – it’s all about perception. Yes, newspapers are manipulative and each journalist will report according to their own perception as well as the political view of the newspaper.

Say two women are pregnant and the babies are due at the same time. At the point where the babies develop their taste buds, –
if mother 1 eats cooking apple while mother 2 eats chocolate and then
mother 1 eats chocolate and mother 2 eats apple,
baby 1’s experience is sour then sweet,
baby 2, sweet then sour – same flavours, opposite order.
Then both Mums eat something salty.
The babies’ experience of salty will be different because their first taste experience differed.

Perceptions based on experience so far are unique to you.

Witness reports can be of questionable value because people see different things – take the example of the brothers who heard differently based on their experience so far. All we can do is to know that perceptions are different and be compassionate.

Derek – is it really true that at 4-5 months of pregnancy, a baby’s taste buds have developed?

Lynda – yes – tastes are carried across in the amniotic fluid. One of the earliest ‘real’ tastes is breast milk, which is naturally sweet. Development of perception continues – some cues are picked up form the environment.

Early development is to pick up cues from the mother’s face. Perceptions are transferred from mother to baby as this is the only source of information until the baby learns to pick up cues for other adults.

At the moment, in lockdown, it’s important to manage our stress levels, which can be bubbling underneath

  • Eat well
  • Sleep enough
  • Drink water
  • Exercise
  • Set and follow a routine
  • Maintain a semblance of reality – above all
  • Stay well!