All fired up about the wiring of the human brain
BY SUE GRANT-MARSHALL, SEPTEMBER 10 2015,
Steph’s new book launched in Business Day
STEPH Vermeulen, pioneer in EQ – emotional intelligence – has spent the century so far studying research on brains. Now, in one short book, she’s turning the approach to grey matter upside down.We no longer talk about EQ versus IQ, says Vermeulen, whose book on emotional intelligence, published 15 years ago was a bestseller. “But, we realise now we need both our intelligent and emotional quotients to innovate, to create new technology and carve out new worlds and lives.”
Hence her latest book, Personal Intelligence: Future Fit Now, which she describes as “EQ all grown up”.
It details new research into brain plasticity. Scientists using fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging – can peer into the brain and in the process have “obliterated scientific views held for the past 400 years. This has, in turn, transformed psychological wisdom,” she says.
A major belief that has bitten the dust due to scientific investigation is genetic determinism, she says. Its proponents believe that everything, from our behaviour to our mannerisms and conditions such as depression, are predetermined.
“True scientists no longer debate genes versus environment. They talk about genes multiplied by the environment,” Vermeulen says.
She points out that we now know the human mind is a collection of habits acquired and reinforced over a lifetime. “The good news is that these habits can – and must – change in order for us to be equipped for the future.”
Memes, units of social conditioning, have been soft-wired into all humans since birth and determine their approach to life.
These range from religion to racism and chauvinism. They are imbibed with mothers’ milk and fathers’ attitudes.
Vermeulen illustrates the point by describing how some people enthusiastically welcome the breathtaking pace of change in the world today, while others regard it with trepidation, even fear.
“We’re not born to be fearful; we learn that from our parents. Their approach to the new, the unknown – and I’m not talking about immediate danger here – informs that of their little children,” Vermeulen says.
RESEARCH into human brains, which are so intricate that scientists have only just begun peeking into their workings, reveals that it is thoughts – and not just genes – that create behaviour.
Thoughts lead people to all kinds of conclusions that may not be true. Common misconceptions are that people are not okay, they don’t fit in, they need to be perfect.
“Thoughts that fire together, wire together,” Vermeulen explains.
“Somehow those brain cells, those neurons, have been wired together so we believe that we’re not good enough.”
That process in the brain begins at birth when babies are plunged into the sea of social conditioning that they swim through during childhood. It can affect people throughout their lives unless they reprogramme themselves.
What people hear when they’re growing up about their sex, class, status and intelligence is constantly transferred to children through memes, a term coined by evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins.
They are absorbed unconsciously. “Memes hamper our rational minds and ability to think clearly,” Vermeulen says.
In the rapidly changing world in which one person can make a huge effect, the ability to think rationally and clearly becomes more vital.
“Think of the founders of Uber, of Facebook, Apple,” says Vermeulen. “We need to change our thought processes and we can’t do that if we’re still wired to the programming of generations before us. But their world was totally different from ours.”
Vermeulen, who has now written three books, has filled her new one with fresh information from the hundreds of others that she’s read. She also provides easy-to-follow techniques to help people free their thinking and improve their IQ.
You Are Not Your Brain, by Jeffrey M Schwartz, is one book she cites that aims to end bad habits and unhealthy thinking.
This self-styled “meme buster” runs practical leadership seminars and debunks many beliefs about the brain, including the one that claims humans use only 10% of it.
“We use all of our brain, all 100% of it, to manage our bodies, health, our systems, thoughts – in fact, everything,” she says.
The idea that men and women’s brains are different has also changed. There are two separate parts to the brain. One is the emotional or limbic side, the other is the rational or thinking side.
“We know that certain parts of the brain are concerned with specific functions, but men’s are different only because they’ve been wired differently due to social conditioning,” Vermeulen says.
“So, we no longer talk about left and right brains. It’s not as clear-cut as we’ve been led to believe.”
The EQ baby has, however, not been thrown out with the bath water. Personal Intelligence examines the emotional and the thinking brain.
The emotional brain is not programmed, according to Vermeulen. Instead, it reacts to circumstances around it, flashing red – like the warning lights on a car’s dashboard – when happiness is being threatened.
“Happiness is not a ‘nice to have’. We need to be relatively happy. It’s the default position of the human system and fancy cars, big houses and flashy clothes do not make for happiness,” she says.
YET, figures show that most people are unhappy “because they’re not addressing the issues in their lives”, she says.
There is much research about the importance of happiness in the workplace, “because happy people can think straight”, Vermeulen notes. “When you are fearful, anxious or angry it scuppers your thinking brain and in some cases immobilises people completely.”
She hears all too often about office politics, power games and manipulation in the leadership workshops that she conducts. There are no polite words to describe her feelings about what goes on in poisonous offices.
“It’s absurd to think of all the negative energy engendered there and the consequent misuse of valuable brainpower. People want to be inspired. That is what gives them energy,” Vermeulen says.
She quotes figures from the iOpener Institute that show that happy employees have 65% more energy than unhappy ones, are ill less often, and reduce the cost of staff turnover by 46%.
Vermeulen calls this “the power of loving life”.