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Taylor on the Brain

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Your brain is your greatest resource—use it by design to help you achieve health, happiness, and success!

—Arlene R. Taylor PhD

and That Has Made All the Difference

©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.  —Dale Carnegie

Arlene TaylorYes indeed! I owe a great deal to teachers—two in particular. Most people are impacted by their teachers, negatively or positively. Fewer analyze and identify the impact. With some thought I was able to pinpoint how the influence of these two individuals changed the entire course of my life. Because of them I learned to hope. In fact, I may even be alive today because of them, because back then my life was not working. Being sick frequently with at least one bout of walking pneumonia annually for five years in a row, continual fatigue, experiencing my then-husband run off with my secretary, feeling as if I could never succeed at anything—no, my life was not working. I had taken a new job, hoping it would be less stressful and a better fit with my aptitudes. So far, so good. Until my first performance evaluation at my new job as director of infection control at an acute hospital.

“It’s time to start working on a master’s,” my boss said, smiling encouragingly. I smiled back but doubt that the smile reached my eyes. How could I explain that, as much as I loved to learn, getting a Master’s degree was simply not in the cards? Not for me. I wasn’t very smart. Besides, I would have to take a statistics class. And pass. And my brain didn’t do math. My boss wouldn’t let it go. She kept bringing the topic up and I kept making excuses.

Enter Terrence Roberts PhD, or “Doc T,” as I thought of him.

In a serendipitous coincidence, my boss asked Doc T to provide some lectures, assessment, analysis, and personal feedback to middle-management personnel. As a member of the faculty at a local four-year college and director of Behavioral Health at the acute hospital where I worked, he was eminently qualified to do so. At our first one-to-one meeting, he asked about the stressors in my life and what I planned to do, career-wise, with the rest of my life. I laughed (not a happy laugh), tearing up as I repeated the pressure I felt to enroll in a Master’s program. I detailed the whole litany of reasons this wouldn’t work for my brain and concluded by reiterating the fact that there was no hope of my ever accomplishing something like that. I was lucky to be doing as well as I was (which, by the way, was not doing very well at all, but I didn’t know the difference at that stage of my life¾believing that struggle, illness, and exhaustion were what adulthood was all about). Astutely, Doc T must have seen through my convoluted and constricted thinking.

I have little recollection of anything he explained about my Johari-Window results. I do remember his posing half a dozen questions and suggesting I find time over the next few weeks to arrive at answers. Over time I’ve come to believe there are few accidents in life—just opportunities that we so often miss. Doc T was one of my great opportunities. Fortunately, I didn’t miss that one! I already held him in great professional regard, knowing that he had been one of the Little Rock Nine, one of a group of African-American students who had been enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. I figured that if he could survive that unspeakable hardship and abuse and go on to get a PhD, I could trust that he must know something. Maybe even something that could help me. After all, what did I have to lose?

I took his questions one by one and tried to answer them against the backdrop of my life experiences to date.

  • What made me think I was not smart?

That one was easy. First, I’d always felt “different” from others—in a minority category in so many ways. Second, when I made comments at the dinner table, family members frequently laughed. It had never occurred to me that I might actually have said something rather witty. And third, as I listened to other people talk, my brain’s perception of the topic often differed from theirs. Greatly! In my brain, these and a hundred other examples had come to be equated with not smart.

  • How did I know my brain didn’t do math?

That was one easy, too. At age 16, taking trigonometry by correspondence, I had actually equaled my age on the final-exam grade. 16%. My mother had been horrified. “When I was your age,” she had said more than once, “I scored a perfect 100% on my trig final. How could I have a daughter who flunked? If you didn’t look so much like your father and me I’d think the hospital had given us the wrong newborn…” And so it went between sighs and moans. That 16% score, coupled with my mother’s bewilderment, had translated into, I’m math illiterate. After that I had simply accepted the fact that my brain just didn’t do math. It could do other things: write verse and short stories, sight-read music very well and play several instruments, brainstorm new games, problem solve on the spur of the moment, glide around the ice rink…it didn’t do math.

  • laws triune brainWhat stories had I heard over the years about my abilities?

That one was harder. I had been homeschooled for nine of my K–12 years. My internal explanation for being home schooled was that my parents thought I wouldn’t be successful in a real school setting (although that had never been verbalized). At home I was the only student, and my “home school teacher” (my mother) was a very high-IQ adult. A continual emphasis on missed test questions, versus affirmation for the ones I had gotten correct, contributed to a sense that “I couldn’t get it right.” There was also a big push for me to work on areas of weakness, rather than concentrating on what my brain did energy-efficiently. Current brain function rhetoric strongly suggests that such an antiquated view is not only unhelpful over the long term but also can contribute to multiple problems ranging from an increased risk of illness, to managing one’s weight, to a potential decrease in longevity. But that information—in the era of brain imaging—was half-a-century away. So, concentrating on tasks that were difficult for my brain to accomplish led me to believe that my abilities were few and far between, and the ones I did have were not particularly admired or rewarded.

  • Did I know the stories I was telling myself about my abilities?

No, not until Doc T suggested I identify them. They weren’t pretty, those stories. They related primarily to fears of what I could NOT do successfully. Fears related to what others would think, of not fitting in, that my mother would die of breast cancer, that my father would not recover from “jaundice” (Hepatitis A), that I would forget the music for the piano recital (rote memorization being very energy-exhausting for my brain), and on and on. No wonder I was tired and sick and sick and tired. I had obviously accepted the mantra of fear as my own. That’s a load for any brain to carry!

  • Had I grown up in an optimistic or pessimistic environment?

I grappled with this question. Using the definition that optimism is a conclusion reached through a deliberate thought pattern that leads to a positive attitude, I had to conclude that my childhood environment veered toward the pessimistic side. For as far back as I could recall, the comments and instructions directed toward me had been couched in the negative: don’t, can’t, shouldn’t, oughtn’t, won’t, and so on. Much later in life I would be told by a brain-function specialist that although no family is ever truly functional in all aspects, there are degrees of dysfunctionality. In a mildly dysfunctional family, estimates are that children hear nine or ten negatives for every positive. Double that for a moderately dysfunctional family environment and triple it for an environment considered to be outright dysfunctional. People tend to do what they have experienced and you can only pass on what you know. Therefore it’s no wonder pessimism can be transmitted down the generational corridor.

  • What had happened in my life to deprive me of hope?

That one definitely set me back on my heels. Until then I hadn’t even realized that I had none. According to Erik H. Erikson, the well-known developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who postulated that a human being goes through eight stages from birth to death, hope is both the earliest and the most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive. If life is to be sustained, hope must remain, even where confidence is wounded or trust impaired. Hopefulness is the clear sense that something I wished for might actually occur, that what I wanted might be possible. Somewhere during my childhood I had stopped wishing or wanting—just plodding along, one foot in front of the other, not thinking about anything I didn’t already have. Double ouch!

It was several weeks before Doc T and I chatted about these six questions. It was even longer before I found the courage (at his suggestion) to take an IQ test. Part of me said it was better to wonder how non-smart I was than to have my beliefs confirmed. If Doc T hadn’t kept encouraging me whenever our paths crossed in the hospital cafeteria I might never had screwed up the courage. His premise was that my score would fall within the bell curve of distribution and that, with a good teacher, there was every reason to believe I could pass statistics. Right. The teacher could not be the issue. I’d taken a correspondence course, for heaven’s sake and a teacher must have written the course. The issue was my brain’s inability to do math. That was my story and I stuck to it.

In retrospect, it is amazing how tenaciously we are wont to hang onto our stories and interpret everything that happens in their light. Eventually (about nine months later) I showed up in Doc T’s office to take an IQ test and returned a few weeks later to learn the results. Eyes twinkling, Doc T told me that my score was definitely above 85—that being the lower end of the first deviation from the mean on the Bell Curve of Distribution. This removed all doubt (his words) about whether or not my brain could wrap itself around statistics. “The issue,” he pointed out, “is whether you can alter your perception enough to risk taking a statistics course. I think you’ve given up hope.” He was right. I had. But at his words the dim outline of a door marked hope began to materialize in my mind.

More time went by as I tried to picture my life differently, as I tried to rewrite parts of the script I had been handed at birth. Looking back, I was dragging my feet on the one hand. On the other, it gave me time to consider and reconsider the beliefs and attitudes I had consciously and subconsciously absorbed—many of them no doubt before the age of three. I was struggling to develop new habits of joy in an effort to change my mindset from pessimistic to optimistic. Once again this brilliant teacher came to my rescue. Drawing on a paper napkin during a lunch break, he introduced me to Paul MacClean’s Triune Brain Model.

brain layersBasically, think of the brain as three functional layers: two subconscious and one conscious. The brain thinks in pictures and deals easily with positives—a one-step process. What you see is what you get. The 3rd brain layer can process negatives, but it is a challenge—a two-step process—that involves the reverse of an idea. There’s a huge difference between “Don’t touch the stove” and “Keep your hands away from the stove.” What you think in the conscious third layer filters down to the second and first layers and provides a map for them to follow. (The first and second layers are unable to use language, but they can perceive language.) And here’s the rub. The first and second brain layers may be unable to process negatives at all. That’s the reason affirmation is considered to be the programming language of the brain, the most effective way to communicate with the subconscious layers. It was a slow process to learn to recognize a thought as negative and figure out a way to state it as a positive. Slow but possible!

D-day arrived when, during one of our lunch visits, Doc T tossed a college summer-school bulletin across the table and casually remarked, “Go register for statistics. Keep it a secret, if you want to. When you pass you can enroll next fall in a Master’s program.”

“And if I don’t?” I asked, half seriously and half in jest.

“Get a math tutor and retake the class.” He was nothing if not direct. “Go ahead. Risk it.”

Risk it?

I looked up information on risk. One person defined it as a function of three variables:

  • probability that a threat exists
  • probability that there are significant vulnerabilities
  • potential impact of the vulnerabilities

If any of these three variables approaches zero, the overall risk approaches zero. My conclusions were that there was no real threat—only the possibility that I wouldn’t make a “C grade” and someone else would find out about it. The only vulnerabilities were my abilities and my own perceptions. The impact of those vulnerabilities? Hmm-m-m.

Doc T triggered the first major change in my life.

It changed for the second time when I met Dr. Bill Hoyer. Already teaching at Golden Gate University, he had agreed to teach a Statistics course at the local junior college. Along with 58 other adult learners, I signed up for his class. Believe me, I kept it a secret. The only people who knew were my immediate family members (I would be in Statistics class four nights a week for the next six weeks and spending every available minute studying) and my best friend in San Francisco.

And then it was ground zero. I slipped into the lecture hall. Dr. Hoyer was middle-aged and bearded, with a PhD in mathematics. Wow! What a brain he must have!Filled with apprehension, I snuck over to a desk at the back of the room and did all those nervous little things I would have preferred to avoid: dropping my pen, knocking over my bottle of water, stuttering out my name when the instructor reached my desk creating a roster.

“What is your reason for taking this class?” asked Dr. Hoyer. “You look like you’re headed for the guillotine.” Perceptive man, I thought to myself.The class laughed. Blushing, I explained that my boss was pushing me to get a Master’s degree, that statistics was a pre-requisite, and that my brain did not do math—unfortunately. Looking at me from the corner of one eye, he calmly and deliberately tapped his pen on my desk. “Your brain will do math in my class,” he said, matter-of-factly. It would? A tiny crack appeared in my door marked hope. From then on I thought of him as Doc H, only the H stood for hope.

During the next six weeks my brain worked beyond diligently. It over-learned, but I was still terrified that, when push came to shove, it might not have learned enough to pass. I doubt I’ve ever been as stressed in any other class, before or since. I know that no other class has ever been as impactful!

I still can recall in living color how my brain felt in his presence. He believed that my brain could pass his statistics course and I slowly absorbed some of his certainty. To my amazement, the classes sped by. My brain not only seemed to “get it” at some level but also started looking forward to solving some of the statistical problems, many involving aspects of epidemiology, an area of study that intrigued me due to my background in public health. As each class morphed into the next, terms such as probability, reliability, mean, median, mode, and p-values actually took on some meaning. Gradually my apprehension lessened and my interest in the subject grew. Doc H made it relevant. The crack in the door marked hope opened wider.

Each week there was a quiz. “Think of them,” Doc H explained, “as tools to tell you what you have already learned and what you still need to figure out.” What a concept! “Your final exam will be your grade.” Oh, oh. Everything was riding on the final. Hope plummeted.

One evening toward the end of class, Doc H happened to be near my desk for one of his famous informal chats. He had a habit of wandering around the room and engaging students in conversation. His question to me was whether I knew what had triggered my math phobia. Phobia? Did I have a phobia? Not me. “So many bright women have one,” he said, “and so often it is a figment of their imagination, albeit based on a real experience.” My face must have mirrored puzzlement because he continued. “What they do is take one incident and build any aspect of their self-concept around it.”

In response to his question I told my 16% final-exam story, much as I had with Doc T. When Doc H found out that I had been taking trigonometry by correspondence he fairly howled with mirth. “That is simply rich,” he roared, the hairs in his beard quivering as he went into gales of laughter. “You tried to teach yourself trigonometry and thought your brain did not do math? Oh, the stories we tell ourselves!” Somehow his laughter was infectious and soon we were all laughing as if it was the biggest joke in the world instead of the greatest tragedy in my math life to date.

“A student’s success in math is a function of how well the teacher teaches,” Doc H said decisively, when the laughter had died down. “And my brain’s opinion (that phrase would become a life-time favorite) is that the overwhelming majority of individuals need a teacher. Trig by correspondence?” And he shook his head and burst out laughing all over again.

Years later I would discover that study after study confirmed his opinion:

  • The quality of the classroom teacher is the single most important factor in predicting student success.
  • Teacher quality more heavily influences differences in student performance than does race, class, or school of the student.
  • A teacher’s knowledge of math matters for student learning in math at all school levels, but especially at the secondary level. Teachers who are more math-knowledgeable produce better student math achievement.

I chose to forego the family’s annual 4th of July camping trip on the Mendocino coast. Oh, I went, but rather than lazy days of light reading on a chaise lounge listening to the music of the wind in the trees and the slap of water against the rocks, I studied. Statistics. Only the studying didn’t seem the drudgery I had initially imagined. Images not only flashed onto the screen of my mind when I thought about the bell curve of distribution, probability formulas, and statistical significance, but the pictures made sense. During breaks from study I began to throw around possible topics for a Master’s program. Imagine! Doc H had convinced me I could pass. By the end of the camping trip I had my topics narrowed down to epidemiology and adult education—if I got a “C,” of course. Hey, might as well go for a double major while I was at it!

The final exam was scheduled on the next-to-the-last night of class. Dr. Hoyer planned to score the papers over the weekend and give out grades the following Monday. It was a timed test. As I did a quick scan of the exam I was surprised to note that the questions seemed familiar, and I thought I knew the answers. At least most of them. If it had been almost any subject but math, I would have considered passing a done deal. All I needed was a solid “C” to get accepted to grad school. Finishing well within the time frame, I turned in my paper and went home. To hope. Well, to agonize, if truth be told.

Monday night a large sheet of paper was taped to the blackboard. It was hiding the list of students who achieved a grade of C or higher. When everyone was settled in their seats, Doc H said he had enjoyed the last six weeks and expected we would be as successful in our next educational endeavor. He knew we could be. I heard virtually none of it. Blah, blah, blah, my brain thought. Let’s get to the scores and find out if he really knows what he has been talking about: that a student’s success in math is a function of the teacher’s ability to put the subject across in a way that enables learning.

Doc H removed the paper. A list of names sprang into view, arranged in descending order of the number of points received out of a possible 500, along with the point spread for each letter grade. I looked for my name at the bottom of the list. I only need a C! . . . Not there.

My eyes moved up the list of C’s. My name was not there. That must mean I got a D, I thought. And I really had tried! Oh well. How kind of him NOT to list my name, sparing me some humiliation.

“YES!” The word exploded into the silence. It came from Yan, a young Asian immigrant who was taking one evening class after another in his quest for a degree, all the while working fulltime to support a wife and daughter. “YES!” he shouted again.

Dr. Hoyer smiled and said, “Congratulations, young man! You earned 500 out of a possible 500 points.” We all clapped.

Turning to me, Dr. H continued, “And you, young lady, aren’t you proud of yourself?”

“Yes,” said Yan, “you give me running for my dollars.” No one mentioned he meant a run for my money.

My face must have mirrored total confusion. “My name isn’t on the board,” I managed to squeak out.

“Yes it is,” they chorused in unison.

“Perhaps you didn’t look high enough,” Doc H said, glancing at me from the corner of one eye as he slowly moved his finger inexorably upward beside the list of 58 names. Through the C’s. Past the B’s. Into the A’s. Into the A’s? Up, up, up until it finally stopped at the second name from the top. The second name from the top was my name. It wasn’t possible!

Arlene Rose Taylor: 499 points—A+.

I had never exhibited behaviors even close to the famous vapors, but for a few moments I actually feared I was going to pass out. 499 points? I’d missed a perfect score by 1 point? My mouth gaped open in disbelief. Unbelievable!

In the moment of silence that followed, Yan patted my shoulder awkwardly and repeated a story he had heard in childhood. It seems, eons ago, a famine had struck a remote area of China. A father, seeing that he and his children would not live much longer since all their food was gone, filled some bags with ashes. Tying them with ropes from the ceiling, he told his little children, “There is roasted corn in those bags, but we have to save it for the future.” Time passed and the father died of hunger. The children survived long enough to be rescued. They survived because they believed they had food. Their father died because he had lost hope.

“Your brain can do math, young lady,” Dr. Hoyer said. “In fact, your brain can probably do most anything you need it to do—if you think it can.”

In that instant the course of my adult life altered. Passing the statistics course and enrolling in graduate school was the least of it. Dramatically, albeit slowly, my brain’s perceptions changed. I came to understand the power of my own expectations to either limit or enable. And although I never saw Doc H again, during those six weeks of summer school I had experienced the power of another brain believing in mine, completely and unequivocally. Incontrovertible lessons—that changed my life forever.

A couple of earned doctoral degrees, several published books later, and a rewarding career that has taken me around the world speaking about brain function have conspired to convince me that no one is an island. In the words of John Donne, “Each is surrounded by a continent.”These two teachers, Doc T and Doc H, formed part of the continent around me. Their lessons positively impacted my life in ways too numerous to count. They have my undying gratitude. Oh, I know my brain did the work—no one could do the work for me. But I also know that Doc T and Doc H exemplified the marine saying, Ductus Exemplo (leadership by example). They gave me hope and affirmed me to success.

Inspiring HopeHope. The only blessing that remained in the Babrius jar, all that was left in Pandora’s box.

Hope. The quintessential catalyst, waiting to be chosen, to be embraced.

Christopher Reeve was right: “Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”

Thanks to these two gifted teachers, I chose hope—and that has made all the difference.



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