Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Brain Science of Communicating

Originally, it was believed that the heart was the seat of all intelligence. From the heart came our emotions, our mental power, and our ability to communicate and make decisions.  However, modern science has disproved this theory and we now know that it is the brain that holds our intellect. Scientists have been studying the brain for hundreds of years, in fact, the science of neurology dates back to 4000 BC! As early scientists poked and prodded, they discovered that the brain is the control centre for our body and mind. Perhaps if we can learn to harness power and potential of our brain, we can become more efficient communicators, and better decision-makers. Therefore, through study of the brain, and exercise of the brain, the average human being can improve their communication skills on their own using simple tools.

The first step to increasing our brain power for the purpose of better communication is to define the term communication.

“The act or process of communication…”
“The imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.”
“Something imparted, interchanged or transmitted.”
“A document or message imparting news, views, information, etc.”
“Passage, or an opportunity or means of passage, between places.”

After analyzing these definitions, it is fair to simplify:

Communication – the process of sharing information through various mediums

But what really makes up good communication skills? Let’s analyze a set of steps known as the communication process

Step One: The Source – Planning your Message

Stop! Before you start communicating with anyone, take a moment to think about what you truly want to say. Eliminate unnecessary information and think about the receiver’s personal biases that may come into play. 
  • Why are you communicating
  • Who am I communicating with? What do they need to know?
  • What is the direct point I’m trying to communicate?
Try to create a message that will be received positively and utilize KISS – Keep it Simple and Straightforward.

Step Two: Encoding – Creating a Clear, Well-Crafted Message

Now that you know what you want to say, decide how to say it. Your responsibility is to be clear and concise. To do this, you need to think about not only what you will say, but how it will be received. If our message is delivered without considering alternate perspectives, it’s likely that you will be misunderstood:
  •           Understand what you truly need and want to say.
  •           Anticipate the other person's reaction to your message.
  •           Choose words and body language that allow the other person to really hear what you're saying.
Think about how you can use pictures, graphs and charts to convey your message. Consider cultural background and perspective to prevent misunderstandings.

Step Three: Choosing the Right Channel

As you encode your message, consider the best method of communication to utilize. Be efficient, yet choose the appropriate method to convey your message in the most accurate light. Emails will work for simple requests or standard information, but when it comes to more complicated messages and assignments, it could be more appropriate to meet face-to-face. Face-to-face can set up a desired context and can help to ease misunderstandings. Also, think about how does the receiver want to get the message? Is there a time constraint? Will the receiver need to ask questions?

Step Four: Decoding – Receiving and Interpreting a Message

Good communicators have the ability to step back and listen, but listening isn’t a passive activity. Listening requires focus and attention. The best and highest level of listening is empathetic listening. This technique utilizes a structured listening and questioning process that helps you to develop and enhance relationships. It creates a stronger understanding of what is being conveyed, both intellectually and emotionally. It also includes paying attention to body language:
  •           Avoid distractions.
  •           Nod and smile to acknowledge points.
  •           Most importantly, allow the person to speak, without thinking about what you'll say next.
  •           Don't interrupt.

Step Five: Feedback

When we are sending out a message, we require feedback. Without it, how will we know if we are being understood? Sometimes feedback can be verbal, but sometimes it is not.  A lot of feedback comes from body language. By watching facial expressions, gestures, and posture we can understand a lot more from our listeners. Look for:
  •           Confidence levels.
  •           Agreement.
  •           Comprehension
  •           Level of interest.

As we analyze body language, we can adjust our message to make it more understandable, appealing and interesting to suit the receiver. We can ask questions to make sure we are being understood, and this can help us to avoid miscommunication.
Feedback can also be formal. If you're communicating something of utmost importance, it can often be worth asking questions of the person you're talking to, to make sure that they've understood fully. When you receive feedback, repeat it in your own words to check your own understanding.

When we break the communication process into steps, we can see just how complicated it is to communicate well. If we can’t communicate well, how will we make the most of life’s opportunities?
Ultimately, you are responsible for making sure your message is understood.
The benefits of good communication skills are obvious. So, as an average human being, how do we expand our communication skills on our own? Sure, we can go through the steps to analyze our level of communication, but how do we do it better? The answer lies in the “heart” of our intelligence – the brain.

An Introduction to the Brain

Your brain is a thinking organ. It learns and grows through interactions with the world around you. When we stimulate our brain by learning, exercising or changing our environments and habits, we can improve brain function. This actually can protect against cognitive decline. Even in old-age, the human brain continually adapts and rewires itself. Age related loss in memory or motor skills can simply result from inactivity and lack of mental exercise and stimulation. However, if we begin to stimulate our brain again, we can regain the entire information that was lost. In other words, use it or lose it! 

Only recently have scientists been able to learn how the neural network of the brain forms. Throughout life, the vast network of neurons continues to expand, adapt and learn.  As we receive new stimuli and learning experiences, our neural networks reorganize and reinforce themselves in response. This body-mind interaction is what stimulates brain cells to grow and connect with each other in complex ways. When we learn, brain neurons connect; we can have over 100 trillion connections in our brain. This is the structural basis of your brain’s memory capacity and thinking ability. Your brain is basically an internal map of your external world.

Recent science has shown us that regular people can do simple exercises to become more advanced intellectually and increase our brain-power on our own. As we learn more about how the brain learns and the value of learning to the brain, scientists are developing training programs that build on certain cognitive areas. Lumosity.com is leading the way in brain games. Their accolades are extensive, and millions use their program to develop their own brains.

Lumosity’s primary areas of focus are:
  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Performance
  • Creativity
Many other skills expand from these areas and games have been developed to enhance them. Speed, flexibility, and problem solving, also come into play when exercising these parts of the cognition. When exercised, these areas can drastically enhance your brain’s ability to recall facts, notice details, and process information – all valuable skills when communicating.
 “Susan! Let me introduce.... uh.... what was your name again?”

Has this ever been you? Being forgetful can not only be inconvenient, but it can be embarrassing as well. Forgetting details, small and large, can impact our lives greatly. To help you combat this, there are exercises directed at improving memory functions in the brain. Your ability to remember can be dramatically improved.
Usually when we speak of memory, we are actually referring to memory recall, which is the process we use to bring up stored information. However, we also need to learn about encoding – or translating information to memory, which is the initial step. If something isn’t solidified in the first place, how will you be able to recall it? Many cognitive processes must work together to create an effective long-term memory. Working memory is the most important – this is the function that allows us to work with new information.

For example, if you were to meet several new people at once, your working memory temporarily stores representations of their names and faces and then forms long-term associations between them. To be able to recall these names later, we must effectively encode the scenario into our memory using working memory.
Working memory is exercised by challenging:
  •  The ability to hold onto images and visual patterns
  • The ability to update working memory with new information
  • The ability to discard data that is irrelevant and update with useful information
Everyone can benefit from a strong ability to focus. Attention gets divided up between a vast number of items in our world and it is beneficial to learn how to focus on one single item, or when it is required, to focus on a few, separate, major tasks. This is a critical cognitive area in a digital age - people are no longer able to focus on one subject for an extended period of time.If we can improve attention, we will better retain the information we are focusing on with our working memory.
Focus and Attention are exercised by challenging:
  •  The ability to distribute attention across a visual field
  • The ability to focus on something for an extended period of time
  • The ability to allocate attention to hone memory and processing skills

Performance is about tying together five cognitive areas. The first area of improving performance is speed. If we can analyze information faster, we can solve problems, access memories and adapt to new situations more efficiently.
Performance is also enhanced by exercising flexibility and problem solving to enable you to respond to new and challenging situations. Memory and attention is also included in performance.
The outcome of these exercises are:
  • Sharpened executive function, such as planning, problem solving and verbal reasoning
  • The ability to improvise
  • The ability to think abstractly
  • The ability to more effectively plan logistics
Conventional wisdom dictates that creativity is the fuel for invention, art, sense of humor, and many other abstract parts of life. However, it can be very difficult to say what creativity really is. Cognitive psychology has one perspective: creativity is the ability to solve problems that require flexible thinking. And to create something new, we must first be able to grasp a different perspective.
Ultimately, creativity comes from fluid intelligence, which is the ability to process abstract information. It is the ability to recognize hidden patterns in the world around us and to apply that information to new problems. To work our fluid intelligence, we must consider our working memory. Our working memory helps us to accept new concepts, and our fluid intelligence lets us apply these concepts to new situations. Working memory is basically the space in our brains where fluid intelligence operates. Fluid intelligence is said to decline as we age, so it is very important to exercise this area.

These concepts may seem a little abstract from our everyday lives, but Lumosity.com reports over 14 million users, and has received rave reviews from all over North America. Consider that the previous cognitive operations are occurring in your brain right now, and what would your life be like if they operated a little more efficiently? If 14 million people find it works for them, perhaps it is a valid avenue to be explored for all of us.
Now that we understand what is happening in our brains, let’s take a look at some examples of how we can exercise these areas. 

Multimedia Software

One way of exercising our brains that may surprise you is multimedia software, or videogames. The use of these interactive technologies and games has actually been proven to be an effective way to deliver brain training programs. They include specific cognitive tasks in a way that are concentrated, repeatable, adaptive and highly targeted in a fast-paced method. It has been found that these methods can effectively improve fluid intelligence and performance.


Physical Exercise

The word exercise derives from a Latin root meaning "to maintain, to keep, to ward off." To exercise means to practice, put into action, train, perform, use, improve. Physical exercise has a protective effect on the brain and its mental processes, and may even help prevent Alzheimer's disease. Based on exercise and health data from nearly 5,000 men and women over 65 years of age, those who exercised were less likely to lose their mental abilities or develop dementia, including Alzheimer's. A study at Laval University suggests that the more a person exercises, the greater the protective benefits for the brain. This was observed even more so in women. It was also found that inactive individuals were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's, compared to those with a high level of activity.
All-in-all, there are so many simple ways to exercise your brain daily: switch hands when brushing your teeth, walk a different route to school, or eat supper in a different room. Who knew it was that easy to get smarter?

In conclusion, as we exercise our brains, we can improve many areas of our cognition: memory, performance, attention and focus. And as we improve our understanding of the brain we can learn to analyze our own communication methods, emotional and cultural biases, and understanding of other perspectives, allowing us to get to the point more directly. Overall, it is crucial to always be expanding your intellectual capacity and understanding. Through this process, we can gain a better practical awareness and knowledge of communication skills, and always challenge ourselves to be better in this area.

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Originally from the Prairies, I now live in the mountains...

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