Category Archives: The Higher Brain

The Power of Suggestion is Real (the scientific version of “The Secret”)

You get what you expect to get

Crossing your  fingers, rubbing a rabbit’s foot, knocking on wood, or wishing on a falling star all have one thing in common – the power of suggestion.  The magic you imagine in the bones and fur of the rabbit’s foot makes you feel lucky and hopeful, which invites into your mind the anticipation that canstockphoto3064755an outcome you desire could actually happen.

Expectation is the key.  Science has found that the genie emerges from the bottle when our expectation of success mobilizes vast cognitive and emotional resources and directs those resources toward fulfilling our desire.

In other words, we get what we expect to get. This phenomenon has been called the placebo effect, the power of suggestion, and more recently it’s been touted as The Secret. The evidence of real life outcomes is now so overwhelming that science is taking this phenomenon seriously. Researchers Irving Kirsch of Harvard Medical School and Maryanne Garry of Victoria University found that, “the effects of suggestion are wider and often more surprising than many people might otherwise think … [with] real life implications. They added:  If we can harness the power of suggestion, we can improve people’s lives.”[1]  

The landmark research of Ellen Langer of Harvard showed that the power of suggestion could roll back the biological clock by twenty years for men in their late seventies and early eighties.[2]  She also found it can increase eye sight by 40 percent[3] and allow you to lose weight at a rapid rate.[4]  A study conducted by the Scottish Institute of Sport found that a placebo can improve athletic performance the same as taking steroids.[5] The power of suggestion can improve cognitive function, reduce pain, and even change the outcome in as deadly a disease as Hodgkin lymphoma.  I had a client, who in his mid-20s was diagnosed with stage-2 Adult Hodgkin lymphoma.  The medical prognosis was considered highly unfavorable. Somehow, when his oncologist delivered the bad news he heard the opposite. He left the clinic thinking the doctor had told him that his chances were highly favorable. During the course of his treatment, his mindset was built on the anticipation that every step of his medical care was moving toward the highly favorable outcome of complete remission, which is exactly what happened. It wasn’t until his oncologist presented the case at grand rounds that he learned he’d misunderstood the facts, proving Karl Menninger’s maxim that attitude is more important than facts. He stated that, had he known the verdict that medical statistics predicted, he probably would’ve died. He was absolutely certain that the mindset his misunderstanding produced saved his life.

The proof is there. The power of suggestion can shape your reality. When the power of suggestion is infused with expectation, the odds go up that you’ll get what you’re hoping to get. It modifies the old proverb be careful what you ask for with be careful to ask for it with  impassioned belief.

[1] R. B. Michael, M. Garry and I. Kirsch, Suggestion, Cognition, and Behavior, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol.21(3), pp.151–156, 2012

[2]Ellen J. Langer, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Random House (new York), 2009 p. 5-12


[4] Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science 18, 2007, no. 2:165-171.

[5] McClung, M.; Collins, D. Because I know it will!”: Placebo effects of an ergogenic aid on athletic performance, Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology 2007 Vol. 29 No. 3 pp. 382-394



The Solution to Stress that Not Only Works in the Lab; It Works in High Pressure Corporations

Over the last three years, I’ve presented in my monthly newsletters the research that continues to mount on the neurology and genetics involved in stress. This research has gradually defined a solution to stress that is now well established (see description below the table). In 2006, I co-founded a training firm called ProAttitude that facilitates this solution. In January, 2013, my firm facilitated a live webinar training series with Wells Fargo Bank, involving 1,300 employees nationwide. The results from a randomized evaluation conducted by Wells Fargo indicates that that this “solution to stress” not only works in a science lab; it works with real people in real companies coping with a high level of work stress.



From what I learned in this training, I expect …

My level of stress to decrease


My health and well-being to increase


My quality of work to increase


My productivity to increase


My level of creativity to increase


My life-work balance to improve


My personal relationships to improve


 The “solution” to stress involves a specific change in mindset that literally changes the gene expression and brain structure that produces a hyperactive stress response system. This change not only produces the brain chemistry that extinguishes stress reactions, it also repairs and expands higher brain networks to raise the odds for higher performance, creative insight and emotional intelligence. The technical term for this remarkable shift in brain function is called positive neuroplasticity. Translated into personal terms, it means more joy in your work, more peace in your life, more success in your endeavors, more love in your relationships, and more spring in your step.

Increasing the Intelligence that Predicts Your Success

There are different types of intelligence that human beings possess, but “fluid intelligence” is the one that predicts success in business and academics, when a person tests high in it.

Fluid intelligence is your capacity to solve novel problems, learn from experience, reason things out accurately, detect errors, connect the dots, and to get to the heart of the matter quickly.

Who wouldn’t want to increase their measure of that kind of intelligence?

Well, there is new evidence that suggests you can. Science once believed that fluid intelligence was inherited and couldn’t be increased, but  mounting evidence has caused some in science to reconsider.

The evidence indicates that you can raise your fluid intelligence by playing a specially designed computer game called the N-back game for 15 – 25 minutes a day, five days a week.  It’s found to improve scores on tests of fluid intelligence in as little as four weeks.

One version of the game is accessible for free on the internet at

Here’s how the test works: Every few seconds, a cartoon like image (a cat, a fish, a baseball, etc.) appears on screen and then moves to the next image.  You click on the current image whenever it repeats what you saw 2 picture ago.  If you get to Level 3, you click when the current picture repeats what you saw 3 pictures ago, and so on, up through higher levels of difficulty.  It sounds simple and it is, but deceptively so.

Take note: not everyone agrees that the N-back test works in raising fluid intelligence. Randall Engle, a respected intelligence researcher at Georgia Tech doesn’t think so. He said in a  New York Times article on intelligence, “There have been hundreds of other attempts to increase intelligence over the years, with little or no — just no — success.”  However, Silvia Bunge of the University of California, Berkeley would beg to differ. Using an array of cognitive games with inner city kids, she  reported a 10 point increase on nonverbal I.Q. test scores.  It would seem the evidence is mounting.

The Most Important Breakthrough in Our Understanding of the Brain in Four Hundred Years

One of the great scientific discoveries in the last twenty years is something called neuroplasticity.  Norman Doige of the Research Faculty at Columbia University said: Neuroplasticity is the most important breakthrough in our understanding of the brain in four hundred years.

Neuroplasticity is the discovery that the brain can change itself to expand and reorganize networks that make us smarter, happier, healthier and more successful in life. It’s what Aristotle defined as The Good Life.  These positive results are produced by positive neuroplasticity. Positive neuroplasticity builds the brain that delivers The Good Life. 

Positive neuroplasticity can even be facilitated within a company, taking the company from the proverbial good to great.  It does this by tapping more of the collective brain power that years of stress have eroded. The level of emotional and creative intelligence, individually and collectively, can actually lift from average to exceptional and in a relatively short period of time.  This is why positive neuroplasticity is seen as the new competitive edge.

It Couldn’t Be Simpler

Attaining the Good Life takes a great brain and it turns out that building a great brain is achieved through simple means, constituting a kind of effortless effort.  Initially, the biggest struggle for people is getting free of struggle. Most of us have been trained to put our nose to the grindstone. The new research points us in the opposite direction.

I spent several years in a think tank, investigating proven processes that facilitate positive neuroplasticity and often I was astounded by how simple it is to facilitate this exponential gain in brain power. Below are three examples, all of which I recommend you practice on yourself:

Example#1: Rewiring to End Stress

Rewiring your brain to transcend stress involves practicing a simple skill that requires less than 20 seconds to perform. The skill entails heightening your awareness, day to day, of all the stress-provoking thoughts and feelings your mind generates and indulges. Practice not believing these thoughts and it creates a condition within the brain for stimulating the growth of GABA fibers. These fibers extend down from the prefrontal cortex to the lower brain and they secrete a peptide that extinguishes stress reactions.[1] Through awareness, you direct your brain to modulate intense emotions.  In response, your brain literally mobilizes the prefrontal cortex to stimulate GABA fibers that force the stress response system to stand down.  Fight, flight and freeze are summarily circumvented.  It’s one way of  curing anxiety, stress and aggression. Neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Siegel of UCLA, is using this type of positive neuroplasticity to quell bullying on school playgrounds.[2]

Example#2: Rewiring for Creativity

Science is discovering that the creative power inside the human brain is not only vaster than we can imagine; it’s much easier to access than we used to believe. Creative insight is generated in a region of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus, which is on the surface of the right brain, just above your ear. The research of Mark Beeman at Northwestern found that the sudden onset of creative insight is preceded by a sudden burst of brain activity in this region.[3] This burst sets in motion a steady rhythm of alpha wave activity in the right hemisphere. The peace and quiet alpha waves produce in your brain enables a multitude of networks to communicate with one another. The best and brightest parts of your brain pull together to intuit the right answer to your problem. There are two tell-tale characteristics to a surge of creative insight.

  • The first characteristic is that the insight seems to come from out of the blue.  The truth is, the insight was a result of you getting out of the way so the higher brain could get its best players on the field.
  • The second characteristic is that you know that the answer the insight delivers is the right answer.  People don’t even bother to check the details.  They know to the bottom of their socks that the insight hits the bull’s eyes.

The alpha waves that open the door for the creative brain to step-in occur when you let go and relax. Most people experience a creative insight when they’re taking a warm shower.  Simply taking short breaks two or three times a day will stimulate your anterior superior temporal gyrus to make you the most creative person at work.  For this very reason, breaks are mandatory at the 3M Company.  They claim it’s what made them the most innovative company in the history of capitalism.  Any kind of relaxing break from the grind serves to excite creativity. Dr. Beeman found that getting people to laugh and relax by watching a comic like Robin Williams increased their creative capacity by 25%.[4]

Example#3: Rewiring for Willpower

We all know that it requires will power to achieve long term objectives, be it a strategic plan, losing weight, or learning to play the piano.  Willpower begins in a willingness to do what it takes to reach the summit. Researcher Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois investigated willingness to see how it plays out in our attempt to motivate and direct ourselves to the finish line.[5]  What he found is astounding.

Senay found that the achievements of those whose willpower followed the path of least resistance significantly exceeded the achievements of those who pushed hard. It relates back to the research on creativity.  Less is more.  In terms of willpower and willingness, success boils down to something specific but quite simple: it’s the way self-talk propels or derails the effort.

The people who pushed themselves and underachieved approached their objective by asserting: I will do this! This led to feeling pressured to succeed.  They worried that if they failed, they’d feel ashamed and inept and others would judge them. Their anxiety produced negative self-talk and this affects the brain. It activates the stress response system, which douses the brain with stress hormones. Stress hormones retard higher brain function and positive emotion. As a result, people are more likely to perform poorly. As they ruminate more and more, the steady flow of stress hormones lock the brain into doing the same unsuccessful behavior over and over, rendering them incapable of finding a new, more engaging, and more successful approach. Eventually, they give up.

The people who succeeded took the path of least resistance.  They approached their objective by wondering instead of asserting.   Each time they focused on the challenge, they quietly inquired of  themselves : Will I do this?  Senay defined this way of relating to the challenge as “wondering mode.”  On the surface, the difference between I will! and Will I? may seem subtle but it led to a huge difference in the result.  Senay reported that the people who asked Will I? expressed a much greater commitment to their objective.  The nature of the question – will I do this – circumvented the pressure and anxiety. They were free to choose. As a result, their attitude didn’t become fixed.  Rather, they lived in the possibility of the positive change they wanted, were more able to inspire themselves, and kept a flexible, open mind about how their goal could be achieved.  It made the process intrinsically motivating.

This is a Good Place to Start

There are more examples but this is a good place to start. Begin your neuroplastic journey to the Good Life by practicing all three approaches to brain power and see who you become.

[1] Daniel Seigel, M.D., Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, 2010, Random House, New York pg. 100

[2] Dan Siegel Interview, “The Neurospsychology of the Playground,” Salon, June 24, 2002,

 [3] Bowden, E.M. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2003) Aha! Insight experience correlates with solution activation in the right hemisphere . Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 10, 730-737.

[4] Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Bowden, E.M., Parrish, T.B., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2009).   Positive mood and anxiety modulate anterior cingulate activity and cognitive preparation for insight. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21, 415-432.

[5] Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracín, Kenji Noguchi, Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk, The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense, Apr 8, 2010, Journal of Psychological Science


The Cure to Mental Fatigue

Have you ever felt exhausted in the middle of day and when you got home you were so devoid of energy that all you could do was space out in front of the TV?[i]  It’s a common phenomenon in corporate life.  Yet, if you look at the problem closely the only physically taxing thing you probably did at work was type on your keyboard.  The rest of it was primarily mental.

How can mental exertion make you so tired? Is it possible that the two pound wonder called the brain is able to expend most of your physical energy simply through thinking?

Science says it’s not likely. Sitting at your desk performing cognitive functions doesn’t take much energy.  Your brain is remarkably energy efficient.  It only needs 12 watts of energy to operate smoothly, which is one-fifth the energy it takes to light up your desk lamp.  On top of that, the brain burns only 11 calories an hour, which is the equivalent of one minute of modest exertion on a sationary exercise bike. This is certainly not enough to exhaust a healthy human being.

So, is it the difficulty of a mental task or the amount of time you concentrate on the task that leaves you exhausted?

Science says this explaination is also unlikely.  Mental fatigue is really not about the task.  For example, millions of neurons connecting through a multitude of neural circuits are active when you follow a movie with dialogue and plots as complex as The Matrix or read War and Peace or play a game of mahjong.  Yet you can focus on these complex activities for two hours straight and still have the energy to get up and do something more with your day.  These kinds of intellectual activities can actually be stimulating.

So if the difficulty or duration of mental exertion doesn’t cause mental fatigue, what does?

It’s your mental attitude.  Science has found that if you believe a task is going to be difficult, it will be.  If you expect a meeting to drain your energy, it will. If you think of a task as stressful, it will activate your stress response system. Stress hormones will pour into your bloodstream.  They will drain your energy by elevating heart rate and blood pressure.  These hormones will dull and debilitate the higher brain function that sustains performance, further compounding the problem.  You’ll be more prone to emotional upsets, memory lapses, bad decisions and errors.  This will lead to more stress hormones burning up more energy, causing more emotional upsets and derailing more cognitive functions.  It becomes a pattern that supports the initial belief that the day was going to be difficult.  Here’s the point: The long exhausting day had little or nothing to do with the task and everything to do with your attitude.

So, is it hopeless?  Science says no.  We may not control our to-do list but we do have control over our to-be. Our attitude relates to how we want to be as we do what we have to do.  Attitude is the inner dimension of consciousness that makes you larger than circumstances, instead of an exhausted victim of circumstances.  You can start building this capacity in the boot camp of ordinary life.  Practice shifting your attitude in a situation as innocuous as standing in line.  For the next two couple weeks, whenever you go to the store, choose to stand in the longest line. Allow yourself to be aware of all the unpleasant thoughts you think and how you feel as you watch other people in shorter lines or how annoyed you become with someone who slows-up the check-out process. Then practice consciously shifting your attitude by letting go of the upset and being at peace, enjoying the moment exactly as it is.  Imagine you’re building the muscle in your brain that empowers a positive attitude to face any situation. Then translate what you learn from standing in line into reframing more challenging problems, like doing a budget or attending a boring meeting.

After two weeks of practicing in long lines, you can take the process a step further by using a guided process called PreAttitude.  It reframes your attitude around a task you consider boring, tedious, irritating, stressful or even frightening.


Ferris Jabr, ‘Does Thinking Really Hard Burn More Calories? Scientific American, July 18, 2012, 13


[i] I’m not referring to chronic fatigue syndrome but to the common fatigue of employees in the modern workplace.