Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Importance of Attitude

New knowledge about brain function supports an old-fashioned idea: Our attitude has a lot to do with our ability to learn from experience.

It turns out that how our brains operate when we make a mistake depends a lot on our attitude about ourselves and our mistakes. If we have the attitude that mistakes are inevitable and we can learn from them, the frontal areas of the cerebral cortex, the seat of executive functions, seem to be doing most of the work. This is the area that underlies sequential and relational thinking, and recognition of new patterns in information, so it’s obviously well suited to learning. But if we have the attitude that we should be right and not make mistakes, if we feel ashamed at having made a mistake and beat up on ourselves, then the more central parts of the brain that are involved in emotion become more active, at the expense of the frontal lobes. Our brains generate a neurochemical flood of negative emotion, and our learning efficiency decreases rather than increases. You can’t learn much when you’re flooded with shame and self-contempt.

This research, which was done on learning tasks like those involved in school, turns out to be very relevant for psychotherapy and coaching also. When I am talking with therapy patients or coaching clients about their decisions and behavior, in situations in which they could have been more realistic, more caring and more effective, their attitude toward their mistakes makes all the difference. Of course, nobody is happy to have made a mistake, but the people whose attitude is, “OK, I’ve made a mistake, I regret it, and now I’ll learn from it, with your help,” tend to learn more and faster. The people whose attitude is, “If I made such a mistake, then I’m such a hopeless loser,” or “I’m so ashamed of myself I can’t stand myself,” basically shut down their learning processes, because we can’t learn anything when we are in that state. Then I have to try to help them get out of that state and into a learning one.

People who have a genuine and deep sense of a higher truth, whether they think of that in spiritual or natural terms, tend to have an easier time of getting into a learning attitude. Maybe that’s because being in relationship with a truth that’s higher than we are tends to make us humble, and it’s easier to learn from a position of genuine humility. So we can see that humility is not an end in itself so much as a means of getting somewhere. If you need to learn, and you’re not too self-important, you will learn.

Paradoxically, self-abasement, which is often confused with real humility, emerges from an elevated sense of self-importance. This is what psychiatrist Arthur Deikman refers to as the arrogance of self-contempt. Both too much self-esteem and too much self-abasement emerge from an overvaluing of the importance of self within the personality, and both interfere with learning.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has written a new book emphasizing the importance of the mostly unconscious attitudes and relational skills to individual and group success: “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.” He talks about it during his book launch at the New York Public Library on a video available through