Dr. Ellen Weber, Ph.D. is a global leader, internationally published in brainpowered learning and leading, and is president of the MITA International Leadership Center in Rochester, NY. She designed and teaches the MBA course, Lead Innovation with the Brain in Mind, at the Bittner School of Busines, and is Chief Academic Officer for a PBS Bainpowered Learning Series. Ellen writes, consults, and speaks widely on innovative leading approaches with the brain in mind, including invited columns for Forbes. You can read her blog here, or follow her on Twitter at @ellenfweber.
When I was barely a teen, I had the shocking experience of landing out on the streets – completely on my own at 14. When my mother died of cancer I needed desperately a lofty dream to follow – simply for mental survival, in a sea of challenges. Ridiculous as it seems, I asked myself first, How can I stay on the honor roll so I can win a scholarship to college?
Along the way, I was surprised by a lack awareness that many hold about a dream's power. Even as I struggled to make it through endless difficulties as a teen without family, I often wondered what prompts some people to hitch their wagons to a star. Equally riveting was the question, why did others, with more obvious promise than a skinny kid out on the street – fail to spot, chase or engage a compelling dream?
As the head of the MITA International Brain Center in Rochester, NY, I've studied extensively and made a career out of examining brainpowered learning and leading. Here are some of my discoveries:
1) Dreaming is something we can learn to do
Some people believe that dreams are reserved for that lucky few, born with Martin Luther King’s Dream Speech etched into their genes. Not so. Neuroscience teaches us that as we dare to do, we rewire our brain, whether cultivating intrapersonal intelligence, which involves learning to live morally or spiritually, or learning to play tennis.
Here's how it works: We have billions of cell bodies, which fuel the life of each cell and contain our unique DNA. Neurons, which are nerve cells, project extensions called dendrite brain cells – which connect and reconnect daily, based on what you do. Axons, in contrast, like electrical wires, relay information to the dendrites of other cells at speeds of 2 to 200 mph.
Axons don’t quite touch nearby dendrites. They are separated by microscopic space called a synapse. When an electrical signal reaches the end of an axon. Neurons communicate with each other in synapses, and that connection creates chemicals called neurotransmitters. The release of these neurotransmitters opens our brains to optimize learning.
Neurons rewire nightly as you sleep. Act calm under pressure, for instance, and you build new neuron pathways to calmly solve the next calamity that comes along. Either the change strengthens and increases the number of connections or change weakens and decreases the number of connections between the neurons.
2) Be aware of cortisol; learn to access serotonin
When anger, fear, or frustration fuel disappointments or disagreements, dreams get stomped out by dangerous cortisol chemicals that flood the brain. Cortisol is a potent chemical that surges when you slip into stress, and is now recognized as a drug that can literally shrink human brains. Researchers have known for some time, for instance, that cortisol shuts down learning, creates anxiety attacks and can cause depression.
Strange as it may seem, the key is to do the opposite of whatever creates cortisol. To do the opposite of a cortisol response, is to rewire the brain for more serotonin guided behaviours. Luckily, the human brain also comes fine tuned for serotonin success, through doing healthier actions, such as: take a walk, be with upbeat people, give away things, teach from your strengths. When you do so, your brain will rewire dendrite brain cells for serotonin well-being and growth plasticity in areas that had once created cortisol imbalances.
When you learn to rewire your moods, for example, or let frustrations go, genies will seem to appear to help you achieve your novel desires, as if you rubbed their magic jars. Dr. Norman Doidge describes it best, in his bestseller, The Brain that Changes Itself.
3) Tips to get you started
Stretch - don’t shrink your brain. While stress been proven to shrink your brain, research shows that you get further ahead when you hook new possibilities onto something you already do well. The frontal region switches the state of the brain between “learn” and “remember” modes in a brief period of time (ScienceDaily 2009).
Jot down details you envision, or ask for insights from a trusted friend, while avoiding cynics. Pelle Ahlerup, U of Gothenburg showed that when there are high levels of trust lead to great growth and productivity. As you take this first step, you fire your brain’s electrical circuitry, a new neuron pathway strengthens. In other words, you may not be born with ability to dream big, but because plasticity reshapes your brain for growth, you can develop new connections daily, or original pathways that lead you toward a dream.
In my case, when I reached for tools from neuroscience to lead new neuron pathways forward, I embarked on a journey far grander than I could have aspired to. Simply stated, the best assurance that you’ll transform dreams into realities is by daring to dream and then doing it.
As you think about dreaming with the brain in mind, is there something you might do differently?
Certainly, Dr. Weber's work post is helpful as I think about The Optimist Challenge: every day that we approach life as an optimist (or a person who dreams), that night we rewire our brain just a little bit.