The Neuro Edge by Clive Hyland by Clive Hyland - Read Online

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The Neuro Edge - Clive Hyland

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All leaders are tasked with the responsibility of getting the most out of their people. Learning and Development and HR professionals share the same goal, albeit more from a supporting perspective. It is my total conviction that neuroscience offers incredibly powerful insights as to how our understanding of this challenge can be taken to another level.

Ultimately this book, for me, is optimistic; not some groundless optimism based purely on wishful thinking, but one centred on the new levels of human understanding emerging through the development of neuroscience. It is not a science book as such, although scientific principles will be explored throughout. More importantly, it is an attempt to bring the power and relevance of this subject area into everyday life and business practice.

Summarising a subject as deep and wide as neuroscience is like flying over an ocean. You can get some sense of its vast power and expanse but there are always questions about what is going on below the surface. This book starts the journey of exploring some of these depths. Writing the book has been an important experience for me. For some time I have felt the power and importance of the subject and, indeed, when I do public or organisational presentations I get consistently positive feedback about the passion I display. Yet assembling this next stage of the jigsaw puzzle has taken me to a significantly deeper level of understanding and belief. The process of laying out the pieces of my knowledge before me and assembling them into something approaching a coherent whole, combined with finding the required discipline and focus to ensure the work is ready for public scrutiny, has been cathartic and satisfying in its own right. Yet the journey continues.

After studying sociology and psychology in my early career, I have invested considerable time examining neuroscientific literature and research material and networking with highly competent specialists to build my knowledge. I have been using its underlying principles for over 10 years as a leadership coach. This has taken me into business and organisational practice, personal coaching, sporting performance, faith, families and prisons. Now it feels like everything I do is underpinned by the insights I will share with you across these pages. I see its relevance every day and everywhere.

We all see and experience other people’s behaviour but analysis at the behavioural level alone is superficial. This book will explore what drives our behaviour, what is the source rather than just the outcome.

Many of us are familiar with the iceberg model which shows behaviour as something visible above the surface of the water, but most of us would accept that behaviour itself is a product of the human dynamics that are going on below the surface, including thoughts, feelings and instincts. Somebody labelled an introvert may behave in such a way because they feel only minimal need for the company of others or because they are afraid of others and do not know how to express themselves. The former may be entirely happy with their style; the latter may feel lonely and isolated. So, if we are interested in supporting behavioural change or advancement, we need to go below the surface to understand what triggers human behaviour, what makes us behave the way we do.

For me, psychology has offered amazing insights on this, but ultimately it remains vulnerable to the limitations of an observational model, that is it relies on theoretical models built through establishing correlations between observed human behaviour and possible ‘mind-based’ triggers and responses. There was really no alternative for a discipline which flourished in the 20th century and which did not have the advantages of modern technologies to expand its learning further. Meanwhile, neuroscience has undergone a fundamental transition. Much of the research in the 20th century centred on the study of mammals, such as rats and monkeys. The extent to which this was immediately relevant to human behaviour was always to some degree an unknown. This has fundamentally changed in the 21st century, especially through the development of advanced imaging technology, such as functional MRI scanning. Now, neuroscientists are able to watch live human brains in action. We have moved from building ‘theories of mind’ from outside the brain to building knowledge of the brain itself from the inside.

The journey of understanding exactly how our brains work has well and truly begun and, in my opinion, will become an irresistible force in the decades ahead. Meanwhile, whilst the neuroscience profession itself continues to apply its vast talent and growing resources to further this field of highly specialised and rigorous study, we as lay people can afford ourselves the opportunity to start integrating the emerging knowledge with our own experience of life and begin to reap its benefits immediately. Much of the fruit is already ripe for consumption and it’s too good to waste.

I am deeply indebted to all whose research I have studied and to immense books written by people such as Joseph LeDoux, Matt Lieberman, Dan Siegel, Tim Gallwey, Daniel Goldman and Paul Ekman.

The first section will lay down the key scientific principles that I believe everyone should be aware of and will therefore form the basis for the rest of the book. In the second section I will examine these principles in more depth. In Section 3 I will examine how these principles play out in our everyday lives within the human environment we have created. Section 4 will focus more specifically on human performance and leadership. Section 5 is a shorter reflective commentary and will include some ‘bigger picture’ observations.

Occasionally I will be embedding some of the insights I share in my own personal experiences. This is, after all, an attempted explanation of what may be going on inside our heads and our hearts. In this sense, at least, some of it is an explanation from the inside out. Whilst each of our personal stories are different, I hope that sharing some aspects of mine will resonate with you and help you to further understand the lessons of your own life so far. I hope it offers you understanding, enlightenment and a rich platform for the personal choices you will be making in the future.




Key Insights

I would ask you at the outset to consider the fundamental insights highlighted below. They are potentially life-changing. The enormity of their impact might strike you instantly or it may take time. If you connect immediately with their message, this is a great starting place and I hope the rest of the book will give you the opportunity to add depth and clarity to your initial intuitive response. If you read these opening statements with curiosity but still remain ‘on the fence’ I urge you to continue with the remainder of the text as I set out to bring the insights alive through the tapestry of our everyday lives. These are the headlines, the content will follow.

Why is this important? This is because so much of the human brain remains an untapped resource. By exploring the true wonder of the brain we can open our eyes to the fantastic opportunities it offers us both now and in the future to enrich our own lives and the lives of others.


What an amazing ‘machine’ the human brain is: a wonderful bundle of intense electrical circuitry and biochemical activity, weighing approximately three pounds and needing 60 watts of energy to function. It consists of approximately 90 billion neurons (brain cells), each having a capacity to connect with other neurons 10,000 times. Each of these connections will play a role in the vast array of thoughts, feelings and instincts we will experience throughout our lives.

It is quite something to imagine electrical circuitry of this size compressed into such a small space. Yet it is the multiplicity of connection that is key: this is the synaptic potential of the brain. The synapses are the points of electrical connectivity across the neural pathways of the brain enabled by chemical activity. This connection is created by neurotransmitters – the brain’s hormones and chemical messengers facilitating the flow of electrical currents. There are approximately one billion synapses for every cubic centimetre of the brain.

Imagine having built a machine that could turn on and off every one of its 90 billion connections according to need and immediately reconnect to any one of 10,000 other circuits! And all ‘wrapped’ in the most amazing intelligent software which allows it to self-learn, self-direct and self-heal. Each of us carries our own unique brain with us wherever we go, yet we understand so little about how it operates. It’s time to change this.


Most of us are broadly familiar with the distinctions of the left and right-sided brain. There is a more powerful insight: that of the ‘triune brain’. This refers to the three layers of the brain, each of which evolved for distinctly different purposes. These are:

-The basal region: the oldest part of the brain, sitting just above the brain stem and often referred to as the reptilian brain.

-The limbic system: the middle region of the brain, also known as the mammalian brain.

-The cortex: the top layer and the youngest in evolutionary terms. We can loosely call this the human region of the brain.

By understanding the evolutionary purpose of each of these regions we have an opportunity to look again at who we really are, how we function and how we are currently using, or not using, the vast expanse of brain talent that is available to us.


We can broadly think of the human cortex (the top layer of the brain) as the thinking brain. It is the region of the brain which we associate with logical rules and rational data processing and is the basis of our conscious reasoning. Yet it accounts for only about 20% of the total connectivity of the brain. In effect this is 20% of the brain’s intelligence.

So what about the remaining 80%? If it is not conscious and it’s not logical, what is it? This is the largely unconscious world of the limbic and basal regions. Any attempt to restrict our understanding of human nature to approaches which assume conscious logical processing as the primary feature of the operation of the brain will miss significant insights. We need to tap into the deeper worlds of the limbic and basal layers of the brain to reconnect with an inner intelligence that seems to have often evaded acknowledgement over recent centuries.


Emotions are registered in the brain much quicker than thoughts. It takes around 80 milliseconds to register an emotion compared with 250 milliseconds to register a thought. In the world of the amazing processing speeds of the brain this difference is significant. It means that our thoughts are always trying to catch up with our emotions. Our instantaneous experience of life is emotional. Our thoughts then help us to understand what has just happened and aid us to build thought structures and patterns so that we can make ongoing sense of our lives.

The implications of this are enormous. So much traditional science has assumed that our thoughts are the driving force of our behaviour. Emotions were too difficult to explain and were left beneath the radar of scientific enquiry. Now the paradigm is being reversed. Emotions are both the source of our life’s experience and the primary drivers in much of our behaviour. Emotions need to be understood at source.


We experience emotions as an energetic sensation in the body. Within this context, it therefore follows that we need to understand energy and how it impacts us. More precisely it means delving into the world of universal energy and bringing it to the theatre of human understanding with the same degree of reverence as any social science or psychology based discipline. Every living organism, including human beings, is an energy system in its own right and forms part of the vast tapestry of energy we call the universe.

We are all energetic creations which have become manifest at a level of vibration where mass is formed. Equally, the space between us is in fact not space at all (in the sense of implying ‘nothingness’); it is a dynamic universe of constant energetic transactions. We are not individually sealed away from the universe. It is not external to us, it is a central part of our being; each of us was created by a combination of the elements formed by the stars themselves. To fail to understand how energy impacts our life experience is like hiding our heads in the sand.


The deepest and oldest part of the brain is the basal region. It served our evolutionary ancestors long before we developed human or even mammalian form, yet today it is still in many ways the powerhouse of the brain. This is the domain of human instincts. When our instincts are engaged the rest of the brain follows – no fuss, no negotiation. It is a world of speed of response and decisive action and sits at the heart of the survival of our species. Yet it is deep, dark and often inaccessible. It is impressionist rather than precise and big picture rather than detail. It is the boss. If there are perceived issues of survival at stake or, indeed, a fundamental opportunity to thrive, our instincts will take the wheel and guide us in the moment. Any attempt to understand human behaviour without grasping every opportunity to learn about this deeper world of brain activity is inevitably built on dangerously shaky foundations.


Connectivity is the essence of our brain’s intelligence. We have around 90 billion neurons, each capable of connecting 10,000 times. When we are born we have all the connective capacity we will ever need. Our new brains are like a universe of potential. They have the capability to take us well beyond the limitations of our current thinking. Yet the newly born brain is not connected up. It is our experience of life that will determine this connectivity.

From the outset, our brains will react to life experience by creating the neurological connections deemed necessary to survive and thrive. A fixed brain template would be too inflexible and incapable of optimising human response to the huge variation of circumstances that life can present us. So our brains arrive with massive potential; our early life experiences will then lay down the foundation ‘blueprints’ to help us cope with the world we are experiencing. In turn, these highly personalised blueprints will hold strong sway over how we will react throughout life.

Understanding the dynamics of ‘nature versus nurture’ is fundamental to the subject matter of this book.


The brain does not control the heart. It is not a master-slave relationship; rather, they act as partners swapping intelligence to optimise the response and development of the total organism. In many circumstances, the heart sends more instructions to the brain than vice-versa. The heart plays a vital role in the overall human intelligence system and its role is particularly significant in understanding areas such as mindfulness, meaningful human connection and confidence. It is a fundamental player in bringing meaning to our lives.

Similarly, the intelligence system which sits within the gut (our enteric system) plays a key role in our instinctive responses.

Human intelligence needs to be understood well beyond the dynamics of the cranial brain. It is a total brain and body system.


Here we discover a fundamental contradiction. Our emotional experiences and the memories attached to them are fundamental drivers in our experience of life and our behaviour. Yet, important aspects of our emotional history are not accessible by conscious analysis and reflection. This means that to some degree each person’s life is a constant roller coaster between conscious thoughts and unconscious feelings, the only certainty being that they are never entirely reconcilable.

Where does this leave us? Does this mean we are all resigned largely to being victims of our unconscious emotions? And how can we address this moving forward?


The Evolution Of The Triune Brain

Having introduced the concept of the triune brain in the last chapter, we need now to look at this in more depth and especially from an evolutionary perspective. Here we are primarily concerned with insights which help us to understand how the brain directs our behaviour. Of course, it does more than this, from the fundamental operating of our body, such as breathing and heart rate, to the functioning of all five senses, the processing of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. However, for the main focus of this book we will confine our interest largely to understanding what it is that causes us to think, feel and behave the way we do.


Biologically, this is the autopilot of the brain responsible for many of the body’s internal processes, which operate well away from our conscious awareness, such as breathing, blood circulation, digestion and balance.

To understand the essential purpose and role of this region of the brain from a behavioural perspective it is useful to reflect on the basic functioning of reptiles themselves. The basal region is referred to as the reptilian brain for very good reasons. Reptiles represent the first evolutionary phase when mobile life forms roamed the lands of the earth millions of years ago, including the great prehistoric creatures that often take star billing in so many movies. But it is probably more helpful to use a modern example of a reptile to illustrate the relevant points here.

Consider the crocodile, the