Summer Reading 2 – the Synaptic Self — how our brains really communicate

Synapticself This is an exciting time to be interested in public speaking.  Brain research has accelerated and is providing us with many insights into the nature of perception and communication, both of which are key to understanding why a public speaker succeeds or fails.  Indeed, many of the commonsense understandings we have of the way our minds work turn out not to be true.  In particular, two of our everyday operating theories of the mind are wrong, and have interesting implications for public speaking:  the Little Director Theory, and the Mr. Spock Theory. 

Both of these theories are exploded in Joseph LeDoux’s fascinating work, Synaptic Self.  Like his earlier work, The Emotional Brain, LeDoux discusses both his own work and the research of many other scientists in putting together a best-guess theory of the brain as we know it now. 

The Little Director Theory

Most of us imagine that we have a little person (who looks remarkably like us) sitting in our heads directing our actions.  This little director notices that we’re thirsty, say, and then directs us to reach for a glass of water and drink.  The appeal of this theory is that it puts us in conscious charge of our brain and our actions.  Of course, we realize that we don’t have to consciously will our hearts to beat, but all the other important stuff is something that we consciously control. 

As LeDoux and others have discovered, our minds actually work quite differently than that.  We get an impulse, an emotion, or an intent deep in our unconscious brains.  That intent motivates a gesture – still unconsciously.  After those two events have happened, we get a conscious thought about them, explaining our actions and intents.  What we have is a Little Explainer, not a Little Director.  It’s literally true that we make our decisions unconsciously, before we’re even aware of them.  This finding has important  implications for public speaking, as we’ll see. 

The Mr. Spock Theory

The Mr. Spock Theory works like this:  we have a conscious, logical mind that represents our best self.  Emotions are messy, stupid, and, well, emotional.  It’s better to make decisions by ignoring emotions as much as possible and hewing to logic. 

LeDoux’s work on the brain shows that it is in fact impossible to make decisions without emotion.  Emotions get attached to memories in our minds so that we can distinguish what’s important from what’s unimportant.  Far from squelching them, we need to understand that emotions are essential to the efficient workings of our minds.  Without emotions, we would approach every decision, indeed every act, with paralyzing indifference.  Should I turn left or right?  Who cares?  Should I go or stay?  Doesn’t matter.  Without emotions, you hover in indecision, unable to move forward. 

OK, so what are the implications for public speaking?  There are many, but let’s focus on two.  First, every speech – every communication – needs to have both emotional and intellectual elements if it’s going to be remembered.  Don’t avoid the emotional and appeal only to logic, because you will be instantly forgotten. 

Second, in delivering a speech, don’t try to control your gestures with your conscious mind.  The result will be that the gestures will come too late, and you’ll look stiff, awkward, or unintentionally funny. 

LeDoux’s book will give you a clear understanding of how the brain works – as far as we know now.  It’s great summer reading for those who are passionate about communications and public speaking. 

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