Strengths and neuroscience: developing a strengths focused habit

This is a copy of a guest blog we did recently for Strengths Partnership.

There is a wide range of evidence that for all of us humans there are a huge range of benefits to be had from adopting a positive outlook and focusing on our strengths. Here are a few things we would all like to have on our CV and on those around us: People who think more positively and who use their strengths more: live longer (Levy et al 2002.Giltay 2004 ), achieve a higher income (Neve 2012) and are more likely to flourish as individuals and teams (Losado & Fredrickson 2005)

What amazing effects can be gained then from being more positive and focusing on our strengths!  This is great if we already do this, but if not, such words and studies can become a source of frustration if we are struggling to adopt a positive mindset. A key message to hold on to is that we can all change and enhance our habits. Knowing what to do and how to do it can help speed up the process. Before we turn to the all-important ‘how to’ guide, let’s get under the ‘hood of the head’ and gain a better understanding of how our brains can help us create new positive habits.

Neuroscience and Psychology offer  powerful insights to what is happening in the brain. Let’s start by highlighting that our brains have limited capacity to process information and the world provides way more than our brains can handle, which is why we need mental short cuts/habits to function. Estimates range from 40-80%+ of what we humans do is driven and controlled by habit. This highlights the effects of a fundamental process our brain carries out in order to ‘help’ us function in the world we live in. This process is called neuroplasticity and describes the brain’s ability to re-wire itself to help us carry out activities we regularly do more efficiently, often without needing to tap into our very limited conscious processing reserves.

So our goal should be to work out which habits are more or less helpful and then put together a plan to ensure the helpful habits are cultivated and the less helpful ones are weeded out. If we want to enhance or develop our positivity or focus on strengths, we are going to need to work up a plan and then stick with it. We can’t avoid the fact it will take sustained focus and effort but we can turn knowledge about habits into a recipe for habit change. This can help increase the speed and efficiency of habit change. We can also look to enjoy the journey and not be trying to get to the destination through gritted teeth!

At Think Change, we talk a lot about a ‘habit change’ recipe. If the key elements are followed we have a very good chance of convincing the brain to put precious cognitive resources into creating new neural pathways and enhancing existing ones. This is how we can create new default ways to perceive, think and behave.

Self-generated insight. Our brains react very differently in situations where 1. we are told something or 2. we work it out for ourselves.  When we have our own insights, this builds far greater levels of motivation and commitment for change. Once we are convinced about a change, a useful activity is to break down our wanted and perhaps unwanted habits into three elements of Cue (the trigger) – Routine (what do we then do) – Reward (what do we get out of the routine). We can then look at altering these elements to help us think and behave in line with the habit we are trying to create.

Vision/Visualise. Our brains have been shown to react in a very similar way if we think about doing something or if we actually do it. Neurons will connect up to help the activity take place. Having a very clear vision of what we want to achieve will help us conceptualise what we need to focus on and then help us to place ourselves in that mental context. This is a simple but effective way of getting our brains to practice a new way of being and encourage the process of neuroplasticity to occur. Visualising what success will look like and feel like will also give a positive boost to your motivation for the journey and end point.

You cannot have a conscious thought without it being routed first through the brain centres associated with emotion. So your emotional state at a given point in time will have a big impact on how you think. If you are in a positive emotional state, you will be more likely to think broadly and see connections between seemingly unconnected elements (Fredrickson, 2004). You are also more likely to be creative, innovative and sociable (Lyubomirsky et al 2005), many of the things that could help on your change or learning journey.

Attention Density. People love to ask how long it takes to change a habit and the answer is probably anywhere between 1-10,000 times. It will depend in part on how ingrained the habit is as well as our motivation to change. What we can say is it will depend on three key factors relating to how we focus our attention on our emerging habit. Frequency (how often) – Duration (how long each time) – Quality (in what level of depth). We need to plan in ways that without thinking we will be reminded to think about/practice our new habit. Alarms in our calendar, post-it notes on our lap top, wearing a watch or a ring on the other arm/finger can be useful physical reminders to remind us of our desired new habit. We will then need to ensure we are focussing on this new habit for enough time and at the right level of depth – it really will be up to you to work out the finer details.

Reward brings with it a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine serves a wide range of purposes in the brain and one is to act like a SAVE button. When things go well, the brain will seek to ensure that it can be repeated and will strengthen the neural connections that brought about that positive outcome/reward. We can tap into this by noticing when things go well, take time to reflect on our actions and successes, notice our progress which will mean mapping out where we started and any mini milestones along the way. Essentially, we are talking about feedback and positive reinforcement – we can set this up with others so that they can provide it and we can also choose to find it and give those rewards/reinforcement to ourselves.

In summary, key steps we will need to take if we are going to change our habits and embed learning effectively will be to develop: Personal motivation for a change, Belief in our ability to change, A plan – covering both destination and journey, Focus and sustained activity (create reminders), Feedback and Rewards

Joosr – book summaries you’ll love

We are delighted to be starting work with Joosr to help them add neuroscience to the already wide range of topics covered by their book summaries.  Rather than summarising other books, in this instance we will be creating original content for some of the most pertinent aspects of using neuroscience in the workplace.  Joosr summaries are a great way of acquiring new knowledge, or staying up to date with what is going on and the learning is delivered in a very ‘brain-friendly’ way.

Have you a male or female brain?

It would be nice to think that this succinct but informative BBC article would put an end to this question for once and for all but that is probably too much to ask.  As it alludes to in the item, as far as the brain is concerned, there is more difference within gender than there is between gender and we may never get to the root of what is ‘nature’ and what is ‘nurture’ – maybe we should settle on ‘nurtured nature’?


Neuroscience of this, that and the other

It is obviously true that you ‘notice what you notice’ but neuroscience does seem to be getting more and more prevalent in the mainstream media and many domains of life.  For example if you were to ask your search engine of choice about neuroscience stories in the news this month the thousands of results would include topics as diverse as:

Using neuroscience to run more effective meetings

The growth of the neuroscience market – and neuroinformatics in particular

How neuroscience is starting to change the criminal justice system

Neuroscience driving sales productivity

The variety of applicatins of neuroscience is likely to continue to increase but at Think Change we remain focused – for now at any rate – on allying the useful aspects of NS to Change, Leadership and Learning & development.  There is plenty of new material emerging in these domains to keep us busy for the foreseeable future.

Odd one out?

We recently spoke at a psychology careers day for Sixth Form students where students had presentations from speakers using psychology in a range of different environments such as new driver coaching based on ‘black box’ data, clinical trials management and educational psychology.  Our contribution was based on using psychology within the workplace and as part of it we asked participants if they could identify which of these four models was the ‘Odd one out’.

  • Change curve (Kubler Ross)
  • Dimensions of national culture (Hofstede)
  • Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow)
  • Team development (Tuckman)

The answer – or one answer – is Tuckman’s Team development model as it is based on robust research whereas the other three all have significant weaknesses or flaws in terms of their empirical validity.  However, what all four have in common is high ‘face validity’ and a track record of being very useful models to help introduce people to the topic and start to explore how they may be at work in their own context and domain.

Brain friendly learning

Neuroscience makes it clear that ‘old dogs can learn new tricks’ and we have been exemplifying this recently by creating a lot of digital material for clients, for example we have made a number of contributions to the CIPD Future of Learning hub.  Whether we call it ‘e-learning’ or ‘m-learning’ or ‘flipped classroom’ or whatever is neither here nor there; what matters is that it offers ‘brain-friendly’ opportunities for learners to engage with relevant material.  What makes it ‘brain-friendly’ includes factors such as:

  • the learner being in control of where and when they engage with the material
  • bite-size chunks making it easy to focus on the ‘vital few’ rather than being distracted by the ‘trivial many’;
  • good support for repetition through automated reminders etc.
  • in-sync dual channel processing i.e. the audio and visual messages are fully aligned
  • ready gamification by points, badges etc.

Combined, these features can significantly increase engagement and retention levels but given the extent to which learning is a social experience it is unlikely that they will ever totally replace the value of face-to-face interactions.  The material will be available on our website later this year.

A New Year’s resolution for learning and development?

Short, sweet and accurate!

Yap with Dr Yap | Neuroscience & Training –'s Britt Andreatta [TEASE] from The Institute on Vimeo.


Given the time of year there should be an abundance of happiness about already but just to add to it here is a link to a radio station focused on providing “Purpose-driven and consciously prepared brain food from the beaches of Malibu, California”.  What makes it worth listening to is the conversation between Dr’s Alex Korb and  Dan Siegel  about happiness.

It is best to skip about two minutes in to avoid some of the less interesting introductory patter.  Enjoy, and have a Happy Christmas and New Year.

Using neuroscience to support change management

We have been working with a global electronics company for several years helping them apply neuroscience in a range of contexts and our most recent collaboration pushed us to deliver the learning from neuroscience on change management in a particularly accessible and practical way.

The client wanted a bespoke change programme that would be as applicable to large, complex change as to small, simple change – an important consideration as scale and complexity is obviously very subjective and in the eye of each individual beholder.  To meet their needs we combined neuroscience, psychology and change management expertise  to create a programme that comprises pre-learning, a bespoke change process, an on-line toolkit, a facilitated workshop and a comprehensive change simulation exercise.

The pre-learning consists of on-line videos to prime participants with fundamentals about the brain and how it typically perceives and processes external.  It also introduces them to the bespoke change process and tool kit created for the programme so they can start to explore and consider how to apply these.  The pre-learning also includes an assessment based on the material to support participant’s engagement and retention.

The on-line toolkit – and additional learning materials – are a permanent ‘go-to’ resource available to participants after they have completed the formal training programme.

Having completed the pre-learning at their own convenience, participants come together for a one-day facilitated session to explore their current and future change scenarios and how they can apply the knowledge and tools they have been introduced to so as to support positive, lasting change.

The final part of the programme is a one-day change simulation where participants are immersed in a large change scenario – which includes several ‘spin-off’ smaller changes – where they must complete tasks, ‘win’ artefacts and apply the knowledge tools and techniques covered previously.  A comprehensive review and action planning session concludes the programme.

To date we have delivered three programmes across Europe, to participants from a variety of business units, functions, seniority etc. and it has met with universal approval for its relevance, engagement and usefulness – so much so that in 2016 the programme will be rolled out across Europe and made available to all managers.

The programme is an excellent example of collaborative working to create a product that successfully applies neuroscience and psychology to a perennially challenging problem i.e. how to manage change better.  If you would like to know more about our approach to change management then please do get in touch.

Another month, another 20,000+ articles

Another month passes and there is another 20,000+ news articles on the internet about neuroscience and given the ‘allure of neuroscience’ this number is unlikely to reduce any time soon.  As you would expect many of the articles have a clinical or academic provenance but within these there are many nuggets that are absolutely applicable to the world of work; unsurprising really, as whatever our colleagues may say, most of us do bring our brain to work each day.  For example this article on treating anorexia offers evidence of the power of habit and how it will, more often than not, trump good intentions or will-power.  Many people are shocked to learn that unconscious habit accounts for up to 80% of our behaviour in a typical day do if we want to change our behaviour we really need to understand how to change habits – and how challenging this can be.

Similarly these five new neuroscience books from Elsevier may not be everyone’s ideal bedtime reading but understanding more about the Pre-frontal Cortex and the Reticular Activating System allows us, for example, to design learning and development activities in a way that will be much more ‘brain friendly’ and likely to lead to greater engagement and retention.

Articles about using magnetic energy to change people’s belief in God or using fMRI to assess and predict abstract reasoning ability point towards some of the public policy challenges neuroscience will present us with in the coming years; but for now we can relax and let neuroscience choose our t shirt.

At Think Change we make a point of staying up to date with the very latest, and most valid, neuroscience findings so we can turn this into practical knowledge and tools that can be applied in the workplace.  If you would like to know more about how we do this please get in touch.