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Your Brain on International Assignments, or: Wired For Connection – Improving Expat Adjustment


Your Brain on International Assignments, or: Wired For Connection – Improving Expat Adjustment

Scientific evidence is piling up that we’re indeed social animals. No matter what your personality type, your brain will light up when you feel like you don’t fit in, or when you’re being excluded. In international settings, this social pain is often called “culture shock”. Those feelings of exclusion and different-ness activate the same neurons that fire when you break your foot and experience physical pain.

What does this mean when you’re in a new country?

You look different, you talk differently, you probably dress differently, too. When a local looks at you, and wonders whether you can be trusted or not, their brain function will change accordingly. The same is true for you. If you like and want to collaborate with someone, your brain will release oxytocin, aka “the love hormone”. If you don’t like someone and see them as a competitor, you’re less likely to empathize with them.(1)

For international teams, that means work may get sabotaged, because crucial information might not be shared. At any rate, your (and their) brain will be flooded with stress hormones like cortisol, which limits your ability for creative problem-solving and optimistic future-planning.

Love is the Answer

(…) being pushed out of social relationships and into isolation has health ramifications. In fact, there was a book done by health advocate Dr. Dean Ornish, called Love and Survival. There has been study after study done on the positive impact of loving relationships. What he had said at the time in that book was that if we had a drug that did for our health what love does, it would far outsell anything that has ever been made. The efficacy is that potent. But we downplay the importance of love and connection in a culture based on the success of “the rugged individual.” People in our culture need to understand that healthy connection can reduce pain on all levels. (2)

No, you don’t have to start romantic relationships with all the locals. But you should try and find things you have in common with your new colleagues and neighbors.

You should try and understand their culture and learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Teach them about your culture without trying to impose it.

Your brain can learn; the more you expose it to the new culture, the more it will get used to it by rewiring existing connections and creating brain-maps (representations of the new terrain) for easy access.

You can teach your brain to recognize strange-looking faces, street signs, or produce labels as something you can handle.

Know someone who could use some help?

If you’re finding yourself a little more depressed than usual, you might be experiencing culture shock.

If the partner you relocated with isn’t sleeping well and has a shorter fuse than usual, they might be experiencing culture shock.

If your team isn’t working effectively together, they might be experiencing uncertainty of how to deal with the different cultures within in the team.

The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response. (3)

You can snap out of social pain or culture shock about as easily as you can mend your broken foot by willing it stop hurting. Healing takes time, and support can help. Contact me to see if working together might help you to come up with strategies of how to re-wire your brain faster.  


[1] Rock, David, SCARF – a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others


[3] Lieberman, Matthew D, Social – Why our Brains are Wired to Connect

Image by pshutterbug, flickr, Creative Commons License



4 Tips to Increase Insights for Problem-Solving

Pic Credit: Typography by Jeff Jarvis on

Pic Credit: Typography by Jeff Jarvis on

How do you solve problems?  

People with different Type preferences may use different means:

  • Do you use logical analysis?  (e.g. introverted Thinking)
  • Discuss it with your friends / colleagues?  (e.g. extraverted Feeling)
  • Go to past experiences?  (e.g. introverted Sensing)
  • Brainstorm multiple alternatives? (e.g. extraverted Intuiting)

But what if your usual way of problem-solving doesn't work? After all, as has been attributed to Einstein: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."  

From David Rock's "Your Brain At Work"

However, with the amount of change today in how business is done, "noncreative" people increasingly run into brand-new problems, problems with no procedures to follow, no obvious answers, and where solutions from similar situations don't work. For example, what's the rule for reducing the production cost of a product you don't understand, one that is manufactured in China, serviced from India, delivered into Europe, and managed by people who have never met? What's needed here is not a logical solution, but one that recombines knowledge (the maps in your brain) in a whole new way. And that's called an insight.

For example, and if you read on the answer will be revealed to you, take a simple word puzzle: What does H I J K L M N O stand for?

Take a moment to figure it out. 

How are you trying to solve this puzzle?

  • Is your brain going straight to possible acronyms?
  • Trying to find explanations you've heard before?
  • Are you googling it (which is another way of asking your friends)? 

Either way - it's hard to break existing thought patterns, isn't it. To allow for more insights to happen, we have to go into our right brain hemisphere, and that has more chances of coming online when we stop or more analytical prefrontal cortex of butting in.

Here are some tips: 

1. Be in a good mood

Happy subjects in Jung-Beeman's research solved more puzzles using insight than unhappy people using logic.  If you're not in a good mood, try smiling or allow yourself a 3-minute video of whatever you find humorous. 

2. Lighten up

Focusing on the details and sinking your teeth deeper into the intricacies of the problem won't help you solve it, on the contrary. Better: think "big picture", or 10,000 foot overview. If you go into the details, you're less able to tap into the holistic goodness of the right anterior temporal lobe that helps pull different ideas together. This don't-sweat-the-small-stuff approach also helps with

3. Avoid distractions

Jung-Beeman's research also showed that your brain sends a signal right before the insight reaches your consciousness. Subjects closed their eyes as if to shut out any distracting input to help let the insight reach them.  

4. Practice mindfulness

From David Rock's Your Brain At Work: 

Here's what Beeman found. People who have more insights don't have better vision, they are not more determined to find a solution, they don't focus harder on the problem, and they are not necessarily geniuses. The "insight machines," those whom Beeman can pick based on brain scans before an experiment, are those who have more awareness of their internal experience. They can observe their own thinking, and thus can change how they think. These people have better cognitive control and can access a quieter mind on demand. 

In other words, if you needed yet another reason why meditation and taking mental breaks from beeping cell phones is good for you, a reason that goes beyond health and wellness that might actually benefit your job - this is it. 

And you know what else is super healthy for you and you've heard it a thousand times? Drinking water. Not sugar-water or poppy sodas - water. Incidentally, that's what the letter in the alphabet from H t(w)o O stand for. Let's pour ourselves a glass and toast to that. 


Split-Brain - Fascinating Fact


Split-Brain - Fascinating Fact

As I'm preparing a presentation on the Neuroscience of Personality, I'm reminded how wonderfully complex and truly amazing our 3 lbs of neuronal tissue are.  

You probably know that the corpus callosum is the information highway between the left and right hemisphere. But did you also know that when it's severed (e.g. to prevent severe epileptic seizures) your left hand may develop a life of its own?

Michael Gazzaniga showed these patients split-screen images, for example a key on the left and a ring on the right. Participants can only name what their left hemisphere sees (a ring), because that’s the thing they can consciously name.

But then their left hands started getting agitated or grabbing nurses, and eventually they figured out that the right hemisphere was trying to say something. When the items were laid out, the left hand would grab the key. When given pen and paper, the left hand would draw it.

Don't believe me? 

See for yourself: 

Image by Birger Hoppe, Flickr, Creative Commons License.



The SCARF® Model for Leadership - 3.0

Hello! Thanks for visiting and please enjoy the free info below! 

Just fyi, you can find me over at from now on, where I'm making custom lettering and calligraphy. 

This archive will be discontinued next month. 

PET scan, public domain, by Jens Langner

PET scan, public domain, by Jens Langner

In SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, David Rock presents findings from various social neuroscience studies. Two emerging themes stand out:

Firstly, that much of our motivation driving social behavior is governed by an overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward (Gordon, 2000). Secondly, that (…) social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food and water. (Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2008)

If you have time to read the whole piece, I recommend it.

In brief, the brain’s threat or “avoid” response results in increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol. When stressed, you are not able to think clearly, because the region of your brain that deals with executive functions like reasoning, linear processing, or even creative problem solving (pre-frontal cortex) doesn’t receive enough oxygen or glucose. Instead, you are more likely to generalize and play it safe (activating the amygdala, part of the older limbic brain structure also handling instinctive fight-or-flight responses).

The brain’s reward or “approach” response results in increased levels of happy hormones like oxytocin and dopamine. When rewarded, you feel engaged and motivated. You feel safe, joyful, and are more likely to see alternative options to problem solving and take risks.

The SCARF® model explains how the following five concepts affect our experiences with other people:

  • Status (how important are you compared to others)
  • Certainty (how well can you predict the future)
  • Autonomy (how much control do you have over certain events)
  • Relatedness (how safe and connected do you feel with others)
  • Fairness (how fair are your social interactions)

Rock explains that leaders can do the following things to reduce threat and increase reward for each aspect:

Adapted from David Rock's paper

Adapted from David Rock's paper

As with many other models or leadership frameworks, the limitation I see is that they were conceived and probably tested from a uniquely Western, if not even limited United States point-of-view.

Dr. David Rock and Christine Cox, Ph.D also published SCARF® in 2012: updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others. They propose using the model to evaluate emotional responses before, during, and after an event and added findings from more recent social neuroscience research. Some suggestions mention a cultural and personality-trait variations, e.g.

  • (…) the importance of status for an individual may be a basic personality trait and can influence social interactions even if he or she is not aware of it.
  • (…) Individual differences in various personality traits can also affect the way that people process and respond to uncertain and ambiguous situations.
  • (…) Across the globe, psychological prosperity (such as a sense of autonomy), as opposed to economic prosperity, better predicts feelings of well-being.
  • (…) It appears that the definition of in-group and out-group members is not limited to racial, ethnic, or political distinctions
  • (…) emotions are integral to judging fairness, and those judgments emerge over time through social experiences with others.

SCARF® "3.0"?

For the past five days, I’ve been blogging about the SCARF® model from a culture and personality Type perspective (note: trait and Type are not the same thing).

I propose to add future research studies to be controlled for – or at least take into consideration - these factors to give us a clearer understanding of how our brains work depending on Type and cultural environments.


Summary of my blog posts from the past 5 days

Summary of my blog posts from the past 5 days


3 Tips to Maintain Your Self-Respect


3 Tips to Maintain Your Self-Respect

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (public domain picture)

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt
(public domain picture)


- Eleanor Roosevelt

Our brains are constantly at work, processing messages and releasing hormones based on often-unconscious cues. These hormones influence our moods and behaviors, and I invite you today to become a little more aware of how your levels of self-respect can trigger them.

Last week, I wrote about how people from different cultures allocate respect – some value achievement and believe personal effort can get you anywhere if you just work hard enough; and that is worthy of admiration. Society can shift and people make their own luck.

Others, probably based on historical socio-political circumstances and stronger class-systems, believe your own personal effort can only get you so far: what matters most is the family you’re born into, or the position you hold. Society is mostly stable and so are its people. 

We also mentioned how different personality types and Temperaments probably pay attention to different key items: for the Theorist™ (NT) that’s expertise, for the Catalyst™ (NF) that’s meaning, for the Stabilizer™ (SJ) that’s responsibility, and for the Improviser™ (SP) that’s freedom.

Now let me ask you:

How much do you respect yourself, and what is that opinion based on?

I think our measure of self-respect depends on at least two scales:

a) How do we compare to others, and
b) How do we compare to our own internal compass of values and morals.

Let’s briefly look at our own internal compass first.

It is probably calibrated during the first few years of our life, as we unconsciously mimic and take on our parents’ (and when in our teens, peers’) demonstrated behaviors as points of reference.

Yes, that’s demonstrated behaviors, not talked-about principles. If your Dad yells at you STOP SHOUTING, what are you going to remember? When it comes to impressionable children that we all once were, actions speak louder than words.

Of course, I don’t necessarily mean children will repeat their parents’ example; I think we all know that children also like to rebel and do the complete opposite of what they see at home. Either way, home sets the first frame of reference.

Your internal compass of values and morals, then, depends not only on the culture and time you grew up in, but also in what you saw demonstrated during your formative years, and how your innate psychological type preferences predisposed you to interpret and act on what you learned.

If you think of yourself as a conscientious person, you’ll feel like you let yourself down when you forget a friend’s birthday, for example. If you think of yourself as an expert, you’ll feel embarrassed when you don’t know the answer to a question, and so on. (If you want to pour yourself a cup of tea now and stroll down memory lane to see where your today’s values and self-respect may be rooted in, be my guest. I’ll wait here til you come back. :-))

Ready to move on? Good! Now then, since we’re social animals, I have to ask:

How do you compare yourself to others?

This scale is equally as interesting, and equally wrought with unconscious processes that some reflection will hopefully help us become more aware of.

Thanks to new technologies like fMRI and EEG scans helping to understand how our brain works, research into social inter-personal neuroscience is a lot easier now than it used to be – and we’re still only scratching the surface.

  • For example, did you know that feeling better about yourself activates the same reward-systems in your brain than if you won the lottery (Izuma et al 2008)?
  • You’ve probably heard about women of all sizes feeling bad after reading the (retouched!) glossy magazines (Hamilton et al 2007).
  • Or how about the one that shows being excluded from a group, aka experiencing ‘social pain’, lights up the same brain regions as actual physical pain (Eisenberger et al 2003)?

As far as I know, neither of these studies controlled for cultural or Type preferences. Still, all show indications that we are wired to co-exist and experience ourselves as part of a social system. Yes, we feel better when we’re aligned with our own values, but it’s also natural to compare ourselves to others. Hey, we even compare us to ourselves – just think of beating your time jogging around the park, or cleaning those candy jellies in 5 moves instead of 7.

Comparison happens. (Tweet this.)

And when it does, your brain sends out either happy-hormones (oxytocin) or stress-hormones (cortisol), depending on whether you see yourself better-than or less-than whatever or whomever you’re comparing yourself to.

Since lower levels of cortisol are linked to living longer and healthier lives, it’s in your best interest to have healthy levels of self-respect. Here’s how you can work on that:

1. Remember that you are valuable, just as you are.

Many of us grow up learning conditional love, like getting an extra hug when we cleaned up our room and being scolded when we traipsed muddy footsteps across the freshly mopped floor. You are no longer a child, you are an adult, and you are worthy of love and belonging. You are enough. Excellent resources I’d like to recommend here in case you need reminders are Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, and the 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living.

2. Remember that it’s the 21st Century

You’re no longer a great ape in a herd who’s not getting fed if you mess up. Basically, that’s when these brain functions were established and where many of those stress levels come from. So, when you’re comparing yourself to someone else and feel like you’re coming up short, your brain will release cortisol, effectively shutting down your pre-frontal cortex (PFC). That’s the region that’s used for reasoning and all sorts of executive decision-making. In other words, every time you’re feeling less-than, you’re actually unable to talk yourself out of it, because that reasonable part of the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen or glucose to function properly. Your IQ literally drops a few points.

Take a deep breath to calm down. You won’t be able to in the very moment, but hopefully this awareness will help you get to that “oh wow, that conversation / person / situation really makes me feel inferior, I need to take a calm breath now”-moment faster. (Some studies also show a sugary drink might help boot up the PFC faster - but you might want to consider your teeth, wallet, and weight before you grab a coke.) You are an adult in the 21st Century, and you will be fine. Your survival is not threatened by an airbrushed size 2 teenager on the cover of a magazine at checkout. (Tweet this.)

3. Remember your power

How many times have you bragged about your achievements or talked down to someone else? It’s one thing to be proud of what you’ve worked for, and yes – you earned that. Celebrate it. Just remember whom you’re talking to. If your friend just got sacked, this may not be the right time to bring up your promotion. If your friend is 8 months pregnant, this may not be the right time to share your latest weight-loss and fitness tricks.

You’re not the only one comparing yourself to others, others also compare themselves to you. And I think we all know what it’s like when we’re just plain happy, share the happiness, and have our friends react defensively. It’s easy to think “gosh, they’re jealous; why can’t they just be happy for me?” and they probably are. But now you know, their brain is sending out stress hormones making them feel less-than-you

To sum up, how we think of ourselves actually influences our hormone-levels and consequently our mental and physical health. Many negative triggers are unconscious and challenging to get a handle on without the proper awareness. Hopefully, this article gave you at least one strategy to get yourself out of the less-than hole faster, namely love yourself, breathe, and have empathy for others.

In case of doubt, what would Eleanor Roosevelt do?  

Image by hehaden, Flickr, Creative Commons License.


Personality Type and Your Brain


Personality Type and Your Brain

Dario Nardi, Ph.D., is an author and award-winning UCLA professor. Since 2005, he has been strapping EEG caps on his willing students to study real-time brain activity. He discovered that people of different personality type use their brains in fundamentally different ways. In particular, he found correlations to the eight Jungian functions. For example, the electrical activity pattern of someone with dominant extraverted Intuiting preferences - at least on his EEG reader - resembles the twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. All modules are firing at the same time, quick connections established, inferences made, new ideas found.

I'm certified to share his program and would be delighted to bring a presentation or workshop to your company or community, but for now, let's hear it from the horse's mouth. Here's a video of Dario at Google:

Image by ngorongoro45, Flickr, Creative Commons License.


Human Connections help us heal faster


Human Connections help us heal faster

Having been an expat for over 15 years now, I have missed countless birthdays, wedding anniversaries, engagements, childbirths, christenings, even the funeral of my grandfather. My husband has strong preferences for introversion, so we don't have any couple-friends to go out and share experiences or rituals with. I admit, it's easy to forget how strong and useful the bonds of social structure can be.

Thankfully, I have found an Ersatz-family in my Toastmasters club and a handful of local friends. Three of whom are pregnant right now, so ask me again in 6 months how I feel about baby showers. Still, with my own preferences for Extraversion and all, I couldn't live without them. The research I'm going to share with you now hasn't included specifics on personality types, yet it is suggesting that human connections indeed provide health benefits to introverts and extraverts alike.

1. Janelle Jones and Jolanda Jetten found that "multiple group memberships promote the resilience in the face of physical challenges".

They found that belonging to multiple groups was associated with faster heart rate recovery for novice bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton athletes (Study 1) and that the salience of a greater number of group memberships led to greater endurance on a cold-pressor task (Study 2). Importantly, these effects were unchanged when controlling for individual differences in responses to the challenge, challenge perceptions, and group membership importance. The authors argue that multiple group memberships reflect an important psychological resource from which individuals draw strength when faced with life challenges and speculate as to the mechanisms underlying this effect.

In other words, next time one of your friends or club members is sick, consider the impact a simple phone call or signed card can have on their get-well-being.

2. Barbara Fredrickson cites research in this New York Times Op Ed piece that also suggests empathic connections positively influence our health.

When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health. If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.

Her studies showed that plasticity extends beyond our brain's neurons. "Lovingkindness", or the art of nurturing supportive and empathic connections, is a skill that can be learned. And as it is learned, it increases your vagal tone (heart-brain connection), allowing your body to better regulate internal processes like glucose levels or even immune system responses. Which in turn feeds back into your capacity for loving kindness.

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa.

found on
found on

The photo above shows Liz Gilbert and Ketut, and she describes her experiences with this medicine man in her book, Eat Pray Love. He encouraged her to meditate, and to learn to smile with her liver. Is that something you think you could do right now? Close your eyes, count to five heartbeats in your next five deep inhalations and exhalations, and smile. You'll feel better, and hey - it's healthy. :-)


Image by Meg Cheng, Flickr, Creative Commons License.


Smile! It helps your brain think.


Smile! It helps your brain think.

Did you know that your brain tends to look for the easiest answer, especially if it's under stress? Since that easiest answer probably isn't the most correct one, you can help it by smiling.

Research* shows that when you frown your brain thinks you're hard at work thinking about something difficult. It doesn't enjoy these states of cognitive dissonance and strain, and the frown is reinforcing the idea that oooooh, this is hard.

Next time you're trying to crack a really hard puzzle, smile. Send good, hey this is easy! vibes to the brain, and let it help you naturally come up with more (and hopefully correct) options.

thinking fast and slow kahnemann
thinking fast and slow kahnemann

Image by Takashi Hososhima, Flickr, Creative Commons License