Big Friday Finish speaker, Dr Lynda Shaw explains how rewiring your brain benefits your relationships


Your brain influences your behaviour. That may sound like common sense. But did you know your behaviour can also change your brain?

On Friday 1st July, we attended a Big Friday Finish webinar by cognitive neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw on the science of perception and how we can rewire our neural pathways. Lynda Shaw works with organisations to accelerate effective behaviours that lead to business success, and has been in the field for around 25 years. Here are the main topics she discussed:

Perception and empathy

We all have different perceptions that are shaped by our experiences and are constantly shifting. No two people will experience the same situation in the exact same way because we have all been conditioned to process information in our own unique way. According to Lynda, no perception is any more right or wrong than another.

When you hold onto the above points, you improve your capacity for empathy. This is hugely important in developing patience, open-mindedness, and clear communication. People don’t want to be fixed or corrected – they want to be heard. There are a few steps towards honing empathy:

  • Take a moment to suspend judgement.
  • Try to take to heart what the other person is saying about their perspective. You don’t have to agree; you just have to try to understand.
  • Adjust how you interact with them accordingly.
  • Don’t dismiss how they are feeling – listen properly.

Cognitive inertia

Being wary of change is a basic survival mechanism. Using familiar neural pathways is easier than forging new ones, and when it comes to situations we have dealt with before, we instinctively know which ones are safe and pleasurable. There is a downside to this, however. Cognitive inertia occurs when you actively resist change. You may shut down and get stuck in a state of denial about your situation. When you are missing certain pieces of information, you may try to fill in the gaps, thus creating further anxiety.

To be able to handle change, you have to not only accept it, but want to find ways of dealing with it. It is important to practice cognitive flexibility, and to get comfortable with being outside your comfort zone in order to practice thinking on your feet and managing stress. You cannot – and should not – prevent change, but you do have full control over how you respond.

Kindness and pleasure hormones – the knock-on effect

Hormones play a big role in emotions. More pleasurable emotions are largely caused by the following hormones:

  • Dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward system.
  • Serotonin, which helps stave off unpleasant emotions.
  • Endorphins, which are mainly created during exercise.
  • Oxytocin, the bonding hormone.

There is also cortisol, a key stress hormone. Cortisol suppresses happy hormones during difficult situations. In moderation, this is a useful function, as it alerts you when something is wrong. Too much, however, increases the risk of physical and mental health problems.

Lynda’s most important advice on keeping cortisol in check is to practise kindness, generosity and altruism. When you go out of your way to be helpful and compassionate towards others without looking to gain anything in return, you create a burst of a neurogas known as nitric oxide. This permeates the bloodstream and reduces cortisol levels while boosting the happy hormones. The way you treat the people around you will influence the way they treat people around them, potentially leading to a happier, healthier social environment.

If you want to understand how to rewire your thinking to improve your social interactions, you can watch the webinar with Dr Lynda Shaw here

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