When Outside The Box Isn’t Outside Enough: The Problem of Pseudo-creativity

If you are like me, you can surf the net and find many a perspective on how to “build a creative team” in your business; those that think outside the box. Dont you just love this phrase? I mean, we seem so hellbent on getting outside the box all the time that no one knows the “properties of the box” itself.  All we know is we want out 🙂 Such naivete can lead to something I call “pseudo-creativity”, a state of being where the purposeful seeking of contrarian knowledge at all costs can lead to only the feeling of being creative.   Many times this is really the bottom line, functionally speaking, in business while language of bottom line (financial) is verbally noted. Why? We havent linked knowledge of the verbal world with the neuro-level of processing laws that are actually running the show.

So how do we transcend the feeling of being creative in meetings and discussions?

For one, it is critical to understand the role of language/culture and how it influences the free association-type process of ideas.  The brain is highly influenced unconsciously by patterns, things that are known reliably by what it commonly sees in its environment. So even if you consciously set up a brainstorming meeting to get outside this box we have grown so passionately to hate (poor box, eh?) we rarely get what we think we get.

Dr. Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley did some fascinating research on how we can bust through this neurological tendency.  When subjects were shown colors on a slide the people simply had to name them. Easy enough, right? These folks then had to do some free association tasks with the colors. Another group had the same task, but in this condition the lab assistant yelled out wrong names of colors sporadically before the subjects responded. So if a yellow slide was shown, they would hear “Red!”  These folks then had to free associate on the colors shown them.  What was most interesting was in the first group, the free associations were “standard”—-blue would bring up “sky” and green would bring up “grass.”  But in the second group, where flat out wrong answers were given, they actually free associated a standard deviation or two, shall we say, beyond what we call the normal or safe realm of creative responses. Here, we started hearing responses like “Miles Davis” in response to “blue”.

The implications of this experiment on the thought leadership assumptions and strategy of Corporate America is beyond far-reaching.  Neuroscience-oriented beliefs and failure, arguably, merge for a wisdom perspective that is quite rare in Board rooms. Imagine dissenting to the level of wrongness akin to “red” being “yellow” in your meetings with your team?  This makes me think that it is essential not to reinforce the regular use of brainstorming practices, but to be blatantly wrong on a regular basis and as a result rewarded in your culture–or at least share the same reward as the one who says the solution. For as we see in the experiment, the lab assistant was the “wing man” to brilliance.  Both would share the same bonus in my world of corporate regulations.  Wild, eh?  Think about this for a second.  As things are now in the business world—and the world we all live in—-when numbers are thrown up on a screen and a “gross revenue” amount is shown to be the logical result of numbers added together, imagine someone saying the 2 + 2 is not 4?  This implications of this position is staggering, for it calls on radical acceptance of radical denial in a weird merging of something that can only create something more beatiful and brilliant then we could ever imagine—-because it doesnt make sense.  Now, keep in mind I did not just promote emotional invalidation, but rather an acceptance of the reality of invalidation. Perhaps we are now seeing the inadvertent positive consequenes of this understandably undesireable state.

Do we have the courage in this world to be this lab assistant to dissent so radically, to respond with the same love and enthusiasm (not mere intellectual tolerance) as we do to “the right answer,” and to go a step further to create systems, with checks and balances, in commerce that exploit this irrational yet courageous tendency?

I will let you know when I get there.


What Does The Brain Think Of “Research Facts?”: Lessons For Us All

James Hillman once said in his provocative book of the same title, “We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse.”  Though many would take case with this satirical, yet telling title, one does begin to wonder how well we are doing in the grand scheme of things related to reducing pain and suffering in this world.  And when this pain has to do with drug and alcohol addiction, how well do psychotherapeutic providers do in the final analysis of impact on changing behavior for the good? And does our cutting edge research from neuroscience have anything to say about it?

When the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently came out with their report “NIDA InfoFacts: Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction,” they did a helpful synopsis in a meta-analysis sort of way on the key principles of effective treatment. Being the neuroscience-oriented change agent that I am who has seen the practice of psychotherapy enhanced by understanding the secret world of the brain, I thought it would be helpful to view these classic research findings from the lens of your brain— to see if “it” sees things the same way we as outsiders believe behavior change works. Lets take a look at a sample of these points.

1.                          Addiction is a complex but treatable disease that affects brain function and behavior.

Brain’s Response: Neuroscience has shown a less than perfect linear “cause and effect” relationship here, and that the brain is affecting the addictive response and manifestation as well. It’s a fine line between a true addictive disorder and the fundamental “wishing that reality was something else than it is” response that colors most of everyday decision making of us all.

2.                          No single treatment approach is appropriate for everyone


Brain’s Response:  Because the brain is wired to “feel right” and not to necessarily be effective, we all have unique ways of reducing the anxiety and dissonance we feel of the “one approach” coming at us.  Whether it is another approach being more effective or are defenses less effective in rationalizing the benefits away, remains unclear.


3.                          Treatment needs to be readily available


Brain’s Response: Research on neuroplasticity and deliberate practice has shown us that it takes a lot more concerted effort and repetition to change behavior than we think.  Being “readily available” allows the brain to practice at an exponentially higher level counter behaviors so as to rewire neural networks


4.                          Effective treatment attends to multiple needs of the individual, not just his or her drug abuse


Brain’s Response: Research on why the best cognitive rehabilitation strategies work on the brain after a certain traumatic event seem to convey the importance of a ‘cross training” effect on boosting rewiring potentials. That is, working all the lobes and not just where the supposed injury occurred.  Such is the case potentially with why a multidisciplinary approach works with addiction—-from a neuroplasticity angle, you increase the chances of enlisting the support on non-injured, healthy, and addictive-busting neural networks.


5.                          Remaining in treatment for an adequate period of time is critical.


Brain’s Response:  Though time is indeed correlated to treatment success, I am curious what the exact correlation coefficient would be.  Could it be a cognitive bias of ours that makes us think this is literally true but in reality the data could be something else, in much the same way that ? Do we not have examples of people who show insight potential around behavior change across the whole spectrum from one intervention to 10 times in rehab? The brain is an inadequate distinguisher between things that make sense and things that are literally true. My hunch on this one is that in actuality the correlation is mediocre at best;  that time in treatment is a powerful variable when supported by many moderating variables (family support, level of pain experienced per intervention, accountability factors, etc).

6.                          Treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective


Brain’s response:  Sure, on one level this is true. Behavioral compliance can come from both an involuntary or voluntary event.  However, because the brain makes “one size fits all” emotional responses, it gets tricky to discern from words used–and even behavioral evidence– the committed from the compliant individual.  The brain is masterful on reading the environmental needs around it and assessing the patterns to learn what it needs to do to fit. So, arguably from a brain training side, this statement is correct. The brain can learn from the environment thrown on it or co-created. The problem comes when “what gets you here doesn’t get you there” and the tipping point of life kicks in….and more is needed than just “compliance”

 As you can see, when one looks at these common assertions of treatment efficacy with a more discerning light of neuroscience, once can’t help but question one’s thinking about one’s thinking.  And is this troublesome? I think not. Ironically, perhaps it is this meta-cognitive stance that is most beneficial in building humility-based practitioners who use neuroscience as a knowledge helper and not a rule generator.

A Washington D.C. Fairytale: A Psychological Profile of a Supreme Court Justice?

             Once upon a time, in the wake of the impending nomination of Elana Kagan and the slew of email communications being released, townspeople began to wonder: What is the process or criteria of evaluation for assessing the email content?  Is there an “ideal email” that would make one undoubtedly say this is one for the representation of pure reason to guide America’s legal quagmires? If not, what constitutes the type of human “error” we deem uncorrelated to judgment under high stake situations? Or, perhaps we don’t pay much attention to this email stuff outside the obvious psychological projections that are easy to do in these kinds of situations.    

            But in the rare case in Washington that there’s a consistent “mental model” guiding its decision making, I invite my readers to partake in what one would say is a fantasy narrative—a proposed, standardized way of looking at what is becoming an inevitable event in the tech age of a public figure; the release of virtual communication.  Perhaps a Chief Neuroscientist Officer in the White House may not be a bad idea, for we could have an objective (or less arbitrarily subjective and more neurologically based subjective) way of assessing these kinds of things in the hopes of not being more intelligent, but in applying the right kind of intelligence to the situation at hand.

            So, with these 160,000 pages of documents released around Elana Kagan’s communication, what would some of the proposed psychological factors that would be reasonably applied to this scenario to get a sense of whether there was some mental trouble stewing. Some might say looking for evidence

  • Evidence of prejudicial statements
  • Non-rational/emotion-based thinking
  • Integrative reasoning


And assuming you are of the camp that “all data is good data,” than it might interest you to know that these factors are rarer than you think in the “normal” brain population, so much so that using these kinds of lens around an analysis of a potential Supreme Court Justice’s emails would be futile. That it is a fact that:

  • The brain stereotypes endlessly as an efficiency-based organ, trying to pick out which information to attend to and what not to attend to (sorry…no such thing as multitasking, folks)
  • That emotions drive decisions
  • That overcoming the left hemisphere’s “love of reasoning at all costs” is something that loved ones of anosognosiacs know well but is pushed out of our own consciousness in our post-hoc rationalizing ways.


This leaves us wondering then what would a possible model of assessment be of all these emails, one that satisfies more the reality of the brain’s laws and not the whimsical feel-good notions of traditional psychologisms?

Well, I would say that the late strategic therapist Paul Watzlawick gives us a good look at the other side—-what we really should be focusing our attention on if we were to comb these emails for any substantive insight that is correlateable to real life decision making on the Bench:

“…He was standing in the town’s Beethoven Park, in front of a larger flower bed, and there discovered a sign with the inscription “No trespassing.”  This brought back a problem that had been bothering Franzi more and more during recent years. Once again he found himself in a situation that seemed to present only two possibilities, and both were unacceptable. Either he exerted his freedom in the face of this oppressive prohibition and began trampling on the flowers, at the same time risking arrest; or he stayed off the flower bed. But the mere thought of being such a coward, of obeying such a stupid sign, made his blood boil. For a long time he stood there, undecided at his wit’s end, until suddenly, maybe because he never looked at flowers long enough, something totally and completely different came to his mind: THESE FLOWERS ARE BEAUTIFUL” (Watzlawick, 1988).

You see, in this brilliant example one sees a transcendence of thinking power that is not bound by mere claims of sarcasm and foul language, some of the common accusations around the content released in Kagan’s emails. One could easily rewrite this story with these “less sophisticated qualities” and still not rob it from the main point at hand—that there was a significant paradigm shift capacity here. At the end of the day, we need to look for the mother of all traits that is responsible for wisdom potential and not get mired down by the screaming symptoms that tempt us to derail into more comfortable analyses of contempt. But how do we foster this thinking more?

 If Alexander Smith’s quote is correct—“Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition”—perhaps evidence of this is essential for decisions that affect humanity.  Is it too flowery to look at love as the gasoline for this insight potential, and could it be what fuels meta-cognition (thinking about one’s thinking) in the way the Watzlawick story alludes? I argue not at all. The field of neurocardiology has discovered that the two way communication system between the heart and the brain is essential in creating peak performance thinking, and that feelings of love, care and appreciation do indeed foster more powerful transformational thinking.  True, some of the email content is tough sounding and perhaps Kagan could have used a course in neurocardiology and political correctness, but I invite everyone to look behind the symptom—language—and look for evidence of paradigm-shifting thinking.


            Without this we risk writing on June 28th through the annals of her hearings a transcript that is rote with biases, and decisional illusions, and assumptions made without neuroscience in mind. When that happens not sure which is more fantasy-based—the committee’s conclusion or the overly hopeful, fantasy narrative of legitimizing a true neuropsychological profile of wisdom for our Supreme Court

Online Radio Interview yesterday – BlogTalkRadio

Just a quick link to yesterday’s full CoachExchange interview with Blog Talk Radio.

“8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific Dr. Kevin J. Fleming joins Premier Coach Stacey Chadwell for a special hour interview”

Listen in or download:




Vote for My New Show “The Ultimate Brain Coup” on Oprah TV!!!!

Well, gang, just when you thought only academic sounding stuff was going to be found here on The Neurowire blog, I put words down and instead pick up a guitar.

How about a shrink-neuroscientist-coach-muscian combo pitching a show on blowing up the brain for world change. Sound interesting enough? Click below to vote for this cutting edge show of mine. I appreciate your support!


Grey Matters International and Liquic.com join forces to transform the world of virtual “on demand” coaching

June 8, 2010 – Tulsa, USA and Amsterdam, Holland. Coaching on-call, online, virtually and when you need it.  To offer just that, Grey Matters International, Inc., a specialist coaching firm leveraging neuroscience to make personal and corporate behavior change stick, has entered a partnership with Liquic.com, a best in class international change agents directory.

Liquic.com’s founder, John Khoury, invited Former neuro-psychologist, author, speaker and executive coach Dr. Kevin Fleming, CEO of Grey Matters International, Inc. to be a featured specialist, given his extensive background as a sought after expert in business and media.

A featured interview with Dr. Fleming on the Liquic.com homepage introduces clients to this unique and powerful neuroscience-oriented way of viewing personal development. If visitors wish to contact Dr. Fleming or other experts they are able to do so directly.

Visitors to www.liquic.com have the option to search registered and qualified counselors, coaches, psychologists in cities and countries worldwide. After their research onsite, to book virtual coaching, they can purchase online their preferred medium – phone, video coaching, email or chat sessions; to best match their learning styles, pace of life, and personal and engagement preferences.
Liquic.com’s CEO John Khoury said that although phone coaching has been around for well over a decade, no one had yet put a platform together that normalizes all virtual forms of virtual communication, including email, video calls and instant message chat. “We’re excited to be the first not just with this technology, but to bring together all types of change agents into one master database, coaches and practitioners alike.”

“It’s about time we start looking into matching our talents to the real life needs of the people who are seeking them,” said Dr. Fleming. “Many professionals are living off their iPhone or Blackberry, by choice or otherwise; and would love to have a way to communicate ‘with a guru’ as they go through their days. Liquic makes that connection happen like no one else in this field.”

“People want to address work and personal challenges that are right in front of them, in a way that is both practical and in a comfort zone for their individual situation,” he said. “This distinction in “real life” is more theoretical in that people just want what works…period….and most meta-analyses of behavior change show “non specific factors” as being the real driver of change.”

# # # #

About Kevin J. Fleming, Ph.D., President/CEO of Grey Matters International, Inc.

Former neuropsychologist Dr. Fleming (BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame) is a world class coach to a high performance and high profile clientele from Fortune 100 CEOs, to NFL athletes, White House officials and Hollywood personalities.  He is a cited expert in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor and CNN, among others; and a contributor and blogger to The Huffington Post.

Dr. Fleming has contributed to anthologies by Deepak Chopra and Stephen Covey and is the author of ‘The Half-Truth High: Breaking the Illusions of the Most Powerful Drug in Life & Business’.  He has advised cabinet members of the King of Jordan and was invited to contribute his neuroscience knowledge to a eco-conference attended by the President of Mexico.

About Liquic.com:
Liquic.com is a comprehensive online health and wellness resource for individuals seeking a better quality of life, providing access to coaches, psychologists, yoga instructors, dieticians, fitness experts, relationship therapists, counselors and financial advisors; regardless of physical location.

Liquic was founded by now- CEO John Khoury, whose educational background, interests and experiences in psychology, personal development, health and science led him to bring human and information technologies to assist and guide people worldwide. By merging traditional psychology, the practical hands-on touch of coaching and counseling, and the exciting techniques of alternative and holistic wellness, Liquic is a gateway to improved overall wellbeing.

For further information:

Grey Matters International, Inc.:

Kevin J. Fleming

Tel: 1-918-949-1972

Skype ID: Corpshrink




John Khoury, Liquic


Tel: 1-917 675 3010



A Gore Brain in the Balance: Understanding the Tipper Point of Marriage

When I first heard of the 40 year marriage between Al and Tipper Gore coming to the end, a flash of memories came back to me from my psychotherapy days of listening to countless stories of marriages figuring out their emotions of mis-fit.  And like a Hollywood script, there were many character plots that seemed to be on a cosmic rerun of “Human Nature TV”

You had the 18 year old immaturity-reigning story that reeked of impetuousness, great sex, and the longing to fill some unfulfilled need from childhood via marriage. These relationships seemed to combust sooner than later as the physical connection couldn’t quite carry the load beyond the orgasm. And then of course, you had the “7 year itch” type marriages where the train track switch for moving one from what it feels like to be married to what it actually means to be married locks up and nothing changes despite forced smiles, apathy-oriented family dinners, and benign indifference. And finally, you got the “because of this event we are splitting up” type marriage story where a clear and supposedly convincing reason is always given and one partner is hell bent on being right and not being happy again. These events were usually infidelity-based, be it with a lover, a one-night stand, or some boundary-violating escape act into the world of work or some other addiction.

But what always made my shrink brain ache was the story of the 25, 30, or 40 year marriage that called it quits.  My uncle divorced after 38 years and though apparently for very good rational reasons I am amazed by the psychological endurance that stops all of a sudden in the writing of a marriage story. Perhaps these types of marriages are like someone hanging on to a cliff and not enjoying stable ground and then the psychological muscles give out in a free fall to sanity. Or perhaps there is tons of happiness, very little tolerance and drudgery, and a mere mutually amicable change of heart occurs, with a potentially sacramental bond traded in for a low-conflictual handshake. Nonetheless, this I know:  the neuroscience part of transformation is at play here somewhere and the challenge for me as a write is to try to get at that without the defensive button being pressed in my readers here J.  That is, to get at what can be called “closest thing to truth” when one removes assumptions and judgments —which are always thrown out at people like Tipper and Al—from a religious, cultural, societal or spiritual standpoint.  For the question I am hoping to answer here is:  If we could create a regression equation that predicts lasting marriages, what would those variables be, when one “controls for” the variance explained by differing spiritual and/or religious orientations? Or at least, what is the one most elusive yet influential variable that the brain can inform us on?

This hit me as crucial to understand when getting at the comment made in the press that the Gore’s “just grew apart.”  Just grew apart. Hmm.  The trick here is to try to answer this without tripping the judgmental wires of what you think one “should” do. For this is incredibly dangerous, for the brain is a massive projection screen throwing out its inadequacies and failures onto others all the time.  So can there be an objective commentary to the rational discussion of  “just growing apart” that can shed light and not defensiveness onto the question of the promotion of a transformationally-oriented marriage that lasts when everything else around us doesn’t? I believe so.

First, I believe it is critical to understand the presence of a dialectic here, that usually brains don’t like to digest.  A dialectic is just a fancy phrase for a philosophical construct that enjoins two opposites to make a greater whole. Said another way, one gets at the wisdom of growing a dialectic comfortably in a marriage when one hears this: that two people find other for the sole purpose of experiencing the dissonance when it is realized that the thing most needed for your growth is the thing most difficult for the other to give. The brain, in its one size fits all emotional response patterns, makes this dissonance indistinguishable emotionally from the feeling of being an  “objectively poor fit.”  To discern requires something above and beyond just 40 years together.  It is equally challenging at day one for the brain to not get tripped in this as it is on day 14,600.

So growing apart may not be the result of incompatibility, the need to take a break, or the beginning of other more individualistic needs. These may be emotionally-oriented half-truths that will always make sense and be indefensible. Perhaps seeking what doesn’t make sense may take us to the next level of understanding. Growing apart may be exactly what is to be expected at year 40 to invite another layer of radical togetherness at year 41. What did the Gores miss in this decision? Well, apparently in the absence of infidelity and chronic stress which the press is not pointing to here, we are left wondering if the “Gore Brain” itself was in the similar balance point he speaks about in his environmental research—what to do in the absence of catastrophic symptoms of change and yet in the presence of some subtle yet equally clear markers of change? Why could his brain process on another level behind the data for the environment and not on the realm of love? For to me, the planet and a marriage will only be saved if we heed Einstein’s quote and solve it on a different level of thinking that the problem was created on. For the planet, it means not relying on statistics and correlational data only. And for a marriage, it means not relying solely on half-truthed emotions.  Ah, a both/and world…. the prototypical antagonist to the world of a brain.