Sunday, June 22, 2014

Neuroinfluence

I have been overwhelmed by the extremely positive response to my book Intelligent Influence: The 4 Steps of Highly Successful Leaders and Organizations. This publication is built around the belief that “we do what we do, think the way we think and accomplish what we accomplish because of influence.” People from around the world tell me that this book has changed the way that they view themselves and the world. My research for this book has also changed my view of the world by teaching me that there are two very distinct types of influence.
 
The first type is “Social Influence” where a person is influenced to do or think things because of other people or situations. This type of influence, depending on its intensity, is often temporary. The second type of influence is a term I created called “NeuroinfluenceTM” which is defined as “influence that is powerful enough to cause neurological changes in an individual.” These changes to the brain frequently make this type of influence more permanent because the only way to change it is to expose a person to counter-influences capable of causing neurological changes.

I am frequently asked the question: What types of influences are strong enough to change the brain? The traumatic experiences that many individuals face on a regular basis can directly affect the parts of the brain that control emotions and memory. Studies, such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research on 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients, clearly indicate that traumatic childhood experiences are a fundamental reason why individuals do poorly in school and suffer later in life. Additional research has indicated that the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing and storing, and the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions such as anger, fear and pleasure, are extremely sensitive to stress and trauma.

If a person is exposed to prolonged or extreme trauma (which is called “Negative NeuroinfluenceTM” or “NNI”) the amygdala and hippocampus change in a way that negatively affects an individual’s stability, sensitivity to others, memory and ability to learn. However, the good news is that “Positive NeuroinfluenceTM” or “PNI” can reverse the changes to the brain caused by the trauma generated by NNI.

The recognition of the widespread impact of negative and positive neuroinfluence has the potential to drastically change public policy in areas as diverse as healthcare, law enforcement and public education. The right public policy will influence physicians to use MRI’s more frequently to examine the impact of trauma on the brain. These policies would enable law enforcement to identify potential violent criminals before they commit a crime.  

The chronic academic achievement gap between urban and suburban and black and white students exists because current special education programs are inadequate in addressing the neurological problems of many urban and black students. These students, therefore, continue to do poorly in class and often distract other students from learning. Unfortunately, these classroom distractions, and their root causes, are one of the main reasons that there is a 30 point academic achievement gap on standardized tests between black and white students. The right public policy will lead to the creation of PNI programs that can transform students struggling from NNI into outstanding students.

Violence, suffering and abuse has become an unfortunate way of life for far too many students living in cities like Atlanta, Camden, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York and Trenton where the school that I lead is located. Many students hear gunshots on a regular basis in their neighborhoods. Sometimes they are threatened at gun point or deal with the brutal murder of a family member or friend. To make matters worse, many of these students are forced to skip dinner or have to move from house to house or car to car for shelter at night. Some of these students experience unthinkable abuse that causes even greater trauma to their young lives.

There are many programs treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (negative neuroinfluence) in war veterans. Society is starting to realize how significant a problem this is for people who have fought for their country. Unfortunately, there are not enough programs effectively treating this ailment in public school students and their parents. Educational leaders ignore the sad reality that many urban students have great difficulty learning because they are suffering from a form of NNI caused by violence, hunger, homelessness and abuse in the communities where they live.

Studies have shown that positive neuroinfluence programs designed to help students improve their self-esteem can help students significantly increase their academic proficiency. Programs like Northwestern University’s Project Harmony music program (where students learn to play instruments) change the brain in a way that makes it easier for students experiencing NNI to learn. According to Hugh Knowles, professor of neurobiology and physiology and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern, “musical training has a positive effect on biological processes important for auditory learning, memory and hearing speech … which appear to translate into better language learning results.”

PNI programs can help war veterans, victims of violence and traumatized students improve their social and emotional response mechanisms so that they can succeed in school, work and life. Unfortunately, violent crime will increase and the academic achievement gap will likely widen unless policy makers support the expansion of PNI programs designed to address the social, emotional and learning needs of children, youth and adults who have experienced significant trauma in their daily lives.