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E247 | Understanding Why We Do What We Do with Dr Helena Boschi

Why do we do the things we do? How did COVID truly affect our behaviour? Will our ability to empathise and connect with others ever fully recover? In a world of constant change and uncertainty, Dr Helena Boschi, a psychologist specialised in applied neuroscience, offers insight into how our brains are wired to react and cope, and helps us make some sense of why we do what we do.

In this episode, Dr Helena Boschi discusses why we do what we do, which is also the title of her book. She also talked about feedback, why we are doing it, and what the real impact is. She gives some interesting tips on how to do it, how it works, and how the brain absorbs the feedback we give people. We also learned about the entrepreneur’s brain and what drives them, the effect of COVID on our empathy and much more. 

Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • “Every child is an artist” 
  • Why we do what we do
  • The Impact of COVID on our brains
  • Why it’s so difficult to change our beliefs
  • Something is wrong with feedback

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Why We Do What We Do

Why We Do What We Do

Helena Boschi is a psychologist who focuses on applied neuroscience in the workplace.  She combines scientific discovery into human behaviour with real-world practical application in the organisational context.    

Having worked in business for many years, whilst also researching science, she is uniquely placed to bring the fascinating world of the brain to the business context with relevance and common sense. She works closely with her clients across the globe to develop new and creative initiatives that stimulate thinking and offer practical strategies and solutions.  

Helena is particularly passionate about improving physical and psychological wellbeing in a world that is placing increasing demands on our biological and cognitive resources. She delivers compelling messages that are backed by science, grounded in the real world and communicated in a style that engages all of her audiences. 

As a child, Helena grew up loving the arts and languages. She admits it wasn’t until her late 20s when she started studying psychology and learned about neuroscience and mental illness, that she realised she was actually a scientist. 

“I was a scientist hiding in a body that actually was in a brain that was loving arts as well. I love the fact that I came to science to answer questions about what was going wrong in the workplace. That’s when I started learning about science, because why is this not working? Why are we doing this to people? Why aren’t we looking at how the brain is set up and work with that? Why are we working against the brain’s design? So that and I realise now that I just love the world that science opens up and the rich amount of research and literature and studies that are coming up all the time – because it’s a relatively new science – neuroscience. But I absolutely love it, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else now.”

Everyone is born creative

Everybody’s brain is wired differently, but Helena argues that we are all born creative. As children, we’re not afraid to try new things. The difference for people that are creative as adults, is that they simply have been able to continue tapping into that side. For instance, it took sixteen years for Da Vinci to perfect the Mona Lisa. 

“Creative brains have been shown they can switch off the frontal lobe because that can be our judge and jury, and our critic, so they can switch that off more, allowing the inner child to come out. But Pablo Picasso said ‘every child is an artist’. The challenge is to stay an artist when we grow up”.

What happens in the workplace, says Helena, is that we create environments that crush creativity. We expect everybody to innovate, but the environment they’ve built is deadly. If you look at someone that has been painting for years, for example, you could see their brain is wired differently. Helena argues that we all have that creative spark; we just need to find that child within us. 

Why We Do What We Do

Dr. Helena describes herself as a psychologist that specialises in applied neuroscience, especially in the workplace. She talks about the brain in a way that makes sense to people. 

“We’re all struggling on this planet together. We’re coping with uncertainty. We’re dealing with other people’s whimsies. It’s just a strange and colourful and unpredictable life we’re all leading, and we’re all trying to make sense of it. So I try and bring some science to help make sense of it.”

Her book, Why We Do What We Do is designed to help people understand science in a simplified format so that they can take greater responsibility for their own brain health and that of the people around them. It came out just as COVID erupted, and Helena could see people responding to this rare phenomenon from which we’ve learned much since. But, she realised she had much more to say after the book was released. She reckons she could’ve probably written another book based on what has happened over the last three years. 

The legacy of COVID in our brains

The brain has a remarkable capacity for wiring around what it gets thrown at. If one thing got demonised during the pandemic was touch. In fact, adds Helena, the word ‘contagion’, in Latin means ‘touching; contact’. So, touch becomes something very frightening to people because that’s how we’re spreading the virus to others. When we touch each other, we produce a chemical called oxytocin, which helps us bond, love and trust, especially the people that we’re used to being with. 

When we are removed from this environment, our levels of oxytocin start to lower. In the UK in particular, the successive lockdowns were punishing for people. When we finally got out of one, we found ourselves entering another one. And, every time we went back into lockdown, the chemicals in the brain were affected. People were more anxious that they weren’t able to feel part of any social community.

“We’re very sociable creatures and oxytocin levels were lowering all the time. So scientists have predicted that our ability to empathise will have degraded as a result of all of this isolation. Loneliness is certainly on the rise across the world. It is something we need to pay attention to. I’m hoping that we will get back there, but it’s going to take longer to cope with the effects of COVID than COVID itself because we have to get the brain to rewire again.”

Are we more intolerant after COVID?

When you get used to not being around other people, you lose your sense of social responsibility and awareness. You live in their own little bubble. That’s exactly what happened during COVID. So when you’re faced with anything unpredictable, uncertain, or unusual, a little structure inside the midbrain called the amygdala, sounds the alarm bell. It is sometimes linked to fear. But the thing about the amygdala is that, when damaged, we can’t make a decision. So it’s not just a fear structure, says Helena; it actually starts a chain reaction that goes through the body and sets off our fight or flight response. It’s our threat response. 

The amygdala doesn’t have to have much to activate. And because we have lived with ongoing uncertainty, the amygdala has been switched on repeatedly. So effectively, we’ve switched on a system that’s designed for a sabre-tooth tiger, a lion, or a bear. We have switched this on over and over again, even though we’re not facing those threats anymore. And we can’t do anything with it because that system is designed to get us to fight or run. And we’re not moving. We’re sitting at a desk all day.

“The brain needs the body to move, and the body needs the brain to feel that it’s moving. The body’s not just there to sit in a room all day, it has to move to oxygenate the brain. So the amygdala switching on all the time has meant that it’s probably enlarged because it’s been put on constant action and reaction. And so what’s happening is that we’re reacting and responding to the tiniest thing. It’s made us hypersensitive. It’s made us hyper-intolerant, prone to anger.”

That would explain why we are becoming more easily offended and angry.

How the brain works

Why do we get exhausted after a day of Zoom meetings, but exhilarated after a day of doing it face-to-face? 

For Dr Boschi, it all comes down to how we get and give energy. Back in 2020, people were thinking that we would work from home forever. Leaders were hiring worldwide. Now, some are regretting that decision. You don’t generalise about the future when you’re in the middle of something like COVID, says Helena. 

“And I was saying to people, don’t make big decisions. Don’t make big decisions about the future in the middle of something that’s utterly unusual. You’ve got to roll with the punches. We talk about managing change. You can’t manage something that’s unmanageable. We’ve got to learn to roll with the punches more.”

What actually happens is that when we’re paying attention we’re draining resources from the frontal lobe of our brain. This part of the brain is wiring itself around your culture, your caregivers, and things that you’re receiving all the time in your life. It’s a result of nurture. We need it to pay attention. But even all the way through our lives, it’s drained easily. We suffer from decision fatigue. So if you get to the end of the day, you’ve made decisions all day, you literally won’t be able to decide what you’re eating that evening because you’d have used up your decision-making, Helena explains. 

“If you’ve been paying attention and really concentrating, you start to get very hungry because it’s an energy hog. It just consumes vast amounts of energy, so we must give it regular reboots. And if you’re sitting staring at a screen for hours on end, of course, you’re going to feel fried at the end of the day. So you need to move. Go and look out of the window, move away from that screen; go and grab a cup of coffee; go and walk up and down the stairs. Whatever you need to do, get away from that screen. Let your brain take a bit of a breather and come back.”

Dr Boschi also recommends exercising regularly, because even a 20 minutes walk can pump a lot of oxygen through the brain. We need to look after that part of the brain because it’s what we need for good decision-making and sustained attention, both of which we’re not good at.

Why it’s so difficult to change our beliefs

From a very early age, we develop a set of beliefs about who we are. The brain has to use these mental categories called schemas, which are like filing cabinets in the brain. So we have schemas about ourselves, about other people, about social environments, etc. And every time we receive new information, it gets inserted into the schema. This new information might contradict our schema, so we should update it. But we don’t, says Helena.

“The more experienced we get, the more fixed we become in our thinking. So what we do is we use incoming new information to justify our own beliefs or our own schema. And this is what we call a confirmation bias. We just take in information that conveniently confirms, endorses or reinforces what we believe we already know. If the information we’re receiving is a complete contradiction of what we already know, we discount the new information. We find evidence to discount it.”

When it comes to forming the beliefs that we’ll rely on for the rest of our lives, our early years are the most critical. If something happens to us as a child, we’ll carry that through with us. 

“And when we talk or think about it, we strengthen that memory trace, so we strengthen that memory associated with that original initial belief, and then we just make sure that that’s the belief we carry through. And it takes quite a lot to dislodge that belief.”

The best way to understand someone’s belief system, says Helena, is to ask them questions about it, find out why they think that, what evidence they have to support that and try to see the world through their eyes. Because we might believe that their belief is wrong, but what if it’s ours that’s wrong?

“We all come to everything carrying with us a set of assumptions and a version of reality that is just the result of information that’s not complete. The brain can’t deal with complete information. It’s just taking in bits of information, piecing it together based on what it thinks it knows, and then telling us that’s reality. So we’re all carrying around a different version of reality.”

What’s wrong with giving feedback

Have you ever found evidence that annual appraisals made an improvement in performance? We haven’t. So, we asked Helena what’s the science behind feedback. 

Something that bothers her about feedback is that people don’t ask what purpose it serves. Why are you having that conversation? Is it to make the other person feel better about what they’re doing, or about what they’re going to do? Are you giving them guidance to do a better job in the future? If that’s the case, why is it always looking back? 

“If you want to motivate somebody, focus on what they’re doing well to lock in that behaviour straight away. So wait until they’ve done something. Focus on the specifics. And you need to be specific. Specifics of what went well at that point in time, so that they know what to repeat and they feel good about themselves. If you want to help them in the future, then make sure that they have something in the future to point that guidance at. If they’re not going to repeat that thing ever again, don’t bother, it’s a waste of your time.”

Helena even hates the word ‘feedback’. She argues that if she said to someone ‘Can I give you some feedback?’, she might as well be saying, ‘Can I please punch you in the stomach?’. For her, it has the same effect because it makes us fear what’s coming. We activate all our pain responses and get prepared for the worst. We never bounce out of these discussions feeling happy. 

She’s against the ‘sandwich’ method for feedback in which you give praise first, then explore areas for improvement, and then end with another positive. 

What the brain is designed to do is hook to the negative. It’s designed to keep us alive, to avoid death, to see the threat in our environment. So, even if you’re putting two, five or ten positives against one negative, it wouldn’t work. The brain would still remember the one piece of negative information it’s received and that’s what sticks like glue. 

“So if you’re going to give somebody feedback, have a discussion with them about something, have the conversation, be honest about it, tackle that, but don’t dress it up. Don’t waste your time with the positive stuff because it gets deleted anyway.”

Dr Boschi argues that anger can hit you for many reasons, and each person’s trigger will differ. We label emotions as positive or negative, and we think anger is a negative emotion but, actually anger and fear are both very important protective emotions. We’ve got to be able to know what’s dangerous in our world and be able to respond quickly. Anger mobilises us. 

“Different people will get angry about different things. But the reason we use anger is that we are worried, anxious or fearful about something. We just use anger to give us the strength to deal with the fear.”

But, can we manage those behaviours? Can an angry person become calm? 

When you start to think about emotion you start to use other parts of the brain to make sense of why you might be experiencing that emotion. You rationalise why you might feel that way, and then you can apply a different set of thinking tools to help you deal with it.

“The key thing to this is not to respond straight away. You need to buy yourself some time, pause, take a break, go to sleep on it, and don’t respond immediately. And that way if you don’t react straight away you don’t tend to overreact. And that’s the most important thing. Just to take a breath, go talk to somebody else, get their perspective and write it down, try and put words around it because this helps you think about it.” 

Can we manage change?

Helena argues that you can’t manage something that it’s unmanageable. And change, by its nature is like trying to manage water. For her, the worst is telling people to embrace it. Change and uncertainty are the two worst things you can throw at the human brain, she adds. Our brains will never love either of them. But the most we can do is give ourselves the ability to cope with constantly changing circumstances. We’ve got to be able to ‘roll with it’, to flex and adapt, and develop mental fitness and cognitive agility that help us do this.

“The human brain, although it really doesn’t like change and uncertainty, it’s when we’re faced with those things and we start to learn how to deal with them, that we start to become better at coping. And so what we want and what we need are two different things. And we need to face uncertainty, to be able to deal with uncertainty. We need to face adversity in order to deal with adversity. We don’t love it, we can’t embrace it, we can’t manage it, but we can learn to respond effectively to it.”

Book recommendations 

One of the things that Helena recommends to the listeners is to read as much as they can and talk to everybody, “because everybody has got something to teach us”.

In particular, she truly enjoys the work of these authors: 

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