Hair, Oil Spills and the Science of Irrational Compassion

Hair, Oil Spills, and the Science of Irrational Compassion

Like most of America, I have had my stomach turn watching the ungodly effects of the massive oil spill in the Gulf.  And just when you thought you couldn’t take the political and corporate games anymore, the selfless American spirit surfaced and has taken the air of hopelessness that has choked us all and replaced it with a breath of fresh altruism. We have heeded the call to help and have sent hundreds of thousands of pounds of hair to the Gulf to assist in creatively soaking up all the oil.

Or so we thought we did.

Well, I mean, we did send all the hair and we did have a motivating spirit to help, but the missing part of the equation is that it doesn’t work. Apparently, commercial boom absorbs more oil and less water than hair boom.

Nonetheless, I was quite amazed by the responsiveness of hair sent down to the Gulf in what seemed a record amount of time to a layman like me “on the outside.” As a neuroscientist and trained shrink, I was thinking of this spark of human compassion at a party the other night when I heard another story that moved me actually even more.  Not because of it being any better, per se; just that it appeared more effective and more disconcerting to me at the same time. I always like flagging those dialectical moments as they always hold learning for my brain.  Knowing a bit about how the brain is wired, I started thinking that this wasn’t just an accident, this apparent correlation. That maybe effectiveness and the dis-ease emotionally of giving substantially THE thing most needed may go hand in hand.

As I downed my hamburger and macaroni salad on a warm Friday night, I met this wonderfully kind older gentleman who made a presence walking into the backyard where the party was going on and said, “I need a pump for an air mattress. Anyone have one?” Not the typical request like a daiquiri or a beer that you would hear at a barbeque, and so my ears perked up on this one.   After hearing in the distance that this gentleman was requesting this air pump to blow up a mattress so a homeless war vet could have a place to stay in his house, I couldn’t help but meander over there. Suddenly the country club talks around me paled in comparison to this man’s story.

I suppose I was mostly fascinated with this gentleman for the following reason: his decision to open his house to a complete stranger appeared to represent everything I am not—-that is, having the ability to love so radically all the while transcending the brain’s sense of control around its preference of how it wants to sell you on what is calling “love.” Sure, I can hear all the “wise” folks out there now who are “right” in their rebuttals when they talk about fear of safety with kids around, not taking chances with a possible mental illness in the family environment, substance use questions, etc.  But where is the fine line between a compassionate gesture that busts through self-protection in a good way and one that breaks one’s inherent boundaries that protect our treasures within?

To me this is the heart of the matter around matters of the heart—-busting our brains open to not just reactively give but give what is needed most.  For most of the time our reactive giving has a self-interest component attached to it and we can be left loving ourselves love a cause or someone. I am not saying that the hair that was sent down to the Gulf was in vain, for what matters is that we cared enough in an action to want to do something about it.  What I am saying is that perhaps that is just half of the equation of making a difference—-being moved to do something.   The other half, seems to me, to be about confronting the uncomfortableness within us to engage what lies behind our first-order response to give.  This to me takes a bit of self-confrontative thinking, as the brain is wired to be a defaulter, bringing solutions to consciousness that have the least amount of effort attached to it. Something may be deemed helpful merely because it makes sense not because it is fully true.  Thinking about one’s thinking and seeing a bit more if our decision is not just “not bad” but most optimal for a situation seems to be key to solve complex problems in humanity, be it colossal oil spills or homelessness.  And so, it requires the heart to not just give but to listen and to inquire deeply. This can be actually the most painful part of giving. For the more we do this, the less it is about us and our convenience

Reading this blog, I am sure there will be some taking case with my “functional or effective compassion” angle, for they will hear that I am taking case with giving itself and isn’t that better than sitting on your butt and doing nothing. Perhaps. But tell that to a spouse who receives thoughtful acts from the other spouse but not what was requested and how that still feels like a swing and a miss. We all know that feeling, right?  The problem in life becomes when what we request may not be what was needed—i.e., the tons of hair sent down to the Gulf. Though we all will have these hits and misses with our attempts to give, it is not about getting it right or perfect. It may just be about learning to be more effective and many times that may be the opposite of what we think.  Certainly that homeless man is quite thankful to the gentleman at the party who was quite contrarian to culture and listened well beyond one’s automatic response.


To Self-Destruct in Public View, Or Use Celebrity Fire-Power for Public Good?

Media Release

Grey Matters International and A’Dunte’ & Associates Announce

Strategic Alliance to Support High Profile Professionals, Athletes and Entertainers

MAY 30, 2010 – TULSA, OK. and DENVER, CO. – Grey Matters International, Inc. an innovator in decision-making technology and assessments for high performers, and A’Dunte’ & Associates, a sports and entertainment engagement marketing firm building socially conscious professionals, today announced a strategic alliance.

With an escalation in media and public attention on famous personalities displaying what can only be described as ‘questionable behavioral choices’, Grey Matters International and A’Dunte’ & Associates have created highly specialized solutions to prevent, then all-importantly sustain, positive choices in elite professionals’ decision-making.

Both companies work with high profile individuals such as politicians, Hollywood entertainers and industry insiders, sports stars; and corporate high achievers. In a world where high profile decisions can make or break a high profile career, the new alliance will provide cutting-edge character and performance reformation platforms that “overhaul” the traditional paradigm of what it means to be a successful public figure in society.

Some of the following recent headlines will be familiar:

  • New York Post Welcomes Tiger Woods Back with “Urgent Public Safety Message:  Warning: Tiger Woods on the loose.  Lock Up The Waitresses.”
  • Lindsay Lohan just walked out of the L.A. County Courthouse sporting a brand new fashion accessory — her court-ordered SCRAM alcohol monitoring bracelet.”
  • “A Ben-ace to society: Here’s hoping Goodell lowers boom on Roethlisberger.”

And these are just the stories we hear about. In creating a “full systems” solution to this widespread trend, Grey Matters’ CEO Dr. Kevin Fleming and A’Dunte’ & Associates head Darius Walker believe that such poor decisions are made by high profile individuals in a deliberate manner, practiced consistently over time.

“There are teams of minders and publicists working furiously behind the scenes to keep their celebrity clients’ escapades and misfortunes out of the public eye; let alone family and friends who are often futilely trying to ‘reach’ that person. But ultimately, only that individual can change their behavior and destructive patterns” said Dr. Fleming.


Former Denver Bronco’s and Houston Texans player Walker comments that the media exacerbate these negative incidences at the cost of “good athletes” who serve society through acts of generosity and charity. “There are many high profile positive role models, who rarely get the air time and yet are equally influential to the world.”

“Wider afield, as the world’s top athletes compete over summer in sporting contests on the scale of the imminent FIFA World Cup, Wimbledon’s tennis and the annual scandal-tainted Tour De France, we are reminded just how little we know about the person underneath the physical force shown on TV screens around the globe” said Dr. Fleming. What are their wishes for using their gifts beyond both winning and financial rewards? Is there someone, some cause, somewhere they are playing for that no one knows about, let alone themselves?”

The preventative work of A’Dunte’ & Associates, which concentrates on working with high profile figures interested in investing in their “PR capital” earlier in their career, is a key component to begin this change process.  Once public figures grow in popularity through deliberately making this decision, it is essential to make that decision transformational and not merely transactional – if indeed their interest is character-based and not all about pure image, said Walker.

By partnering with elite clientele interested in branding their careers in this positive light, Grey Matters International provides decision making testing and “philanthropy thinking”, profiling that assists firms like A’Dunte’ & Associates to better serve elite professionals’ unconscious motivators, matching and marketing them more effectively.

– ends –

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 has recently been asked to be a contributor 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 Darius Walker, Owner of A’Dunte’ & Associates

Darius Walker, former NFL player with the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos, is the founder of A’Dunte’ & Associates and its “Sports + Entertainment Innovation” corporate vision. Leveraging his extensive background in sports and entertainment to develop innovative client solutions, Darius is a graduate from the University of Notre Dame, with a Bachelors of Administration degree in marketing.

As an athlete he holds records for the state of Georgia to the University of Notre Dame with honors such as: Georgia Player of the Year, Gatorade Player of the Year, Running Back of the Year and Parade All-American, Most Receptions by a Running Back (Notre Dame), 4th all time in rushing yards (Notre Dame), 3rd in average yards per game (Notre Dame).

In entertainment, Darius hosted the online show “Wednesdays With Walker”, with the Houston Texans, getting up close and personal with professional athletes, team administrators, community leaders, cheerleaders and media; and has been an acclaimed sports commentator for Denver’s CBS 4. His marketing and branding expertise brings broad-based leadership to A’Dunte’s diverse service offerings.

For further information:

Grey Matters International, Inc.:

Kevin J. Fleming


Skype ID: Corpshrink

A’Dunte’ & Associates:

Darius Walker


Sex on a Tiger’s Brain: A Neuroscientist’s View of Tiger Woods

I am sure by now, we have all had our fill of commentaries about Tiger Woods’ infidelity.  However, I promise that this blog is not of the jabbing sort. Picture what follows as a “Neuroscience Meets The Enquirer” segment—-where sensationalism is filtered out by truth of brain science.  For when one reruns the unfortunate events of this story, there are actually more questions than answers; and I am not talking about the car accident, drug allegations, and the mistress scenarios. I am referring to the unknowns of Tiger’s brain that most likely won’t get adequately addressed in “sex addiction” treatment centers or other traditional psychological settings. Why? Group therapy doesn’t make the brain slices that follow. And “I am sorry” does not adequately tell a researcher which brain process in self-deception malfunctioned.

What do I mean? 

Most commentaries one will read on the “diagnostic” analysis of Tiger are all around athlete entitlement and the narcissism that develops from the high profile life. Though I am not saying that this personality typology isn’t at play here in some capacity, I am saying that it may not account for the best description neuro-wise for the breakdown of reality testing. Arguably, neuroscientists will tell you that self-preservation is alot more at play in our decision making everyday than we think. Although most traditional therapists will tell you that that egocentrism becomes a problem when life functioning is severely compromised and extreme manipulation and exploitation of others is at play, I am not sure if we can tell the difference between the objectivity of that and the story we tell ourselves about that. The brain is always commenting on itself and by virtue of that can we all not be narcissistic neurologically speaking? And what about the brain of therapist? Is he or she somehow magically able to rise above the neuro-illusions humanity is plagued with? I think not. So, I am not sure that diagnosis avenue “gets much done” in promoting the necessary behavior change desired.

You see, the brain is a narrative making machine, not a truth-seeking machine—for all of us, not just the “narcissists” if one still disagrees with my universal narcissism theory. If one agrees with my assertion, however, then where we go from here with the analysis of Tiger’s brain takes some wild turns.   Hang on.

Rationalizations are inherent in our daily decision making, with each one carrying potentially different cost/benefit ratios, shall we say, on the larger “virtue-making output”  scale of life. The kicker is that there are different levels or ontologies of “self-deception” from a clinical angle that can mess with our output.  Ultimately, me getting out of bed and living as if I won’t get hit by a car this morning is a delusion where I flooded my brain with some post-hoc confidence that prevented me from staying in a prenatal position in bed fretting about the possibilities of what will happen today.

And so, take a look at the ranking below of different psychological typologies or states of being, arranged by the level of anxiety experienced while rationalizing.  The top level represents people who have no anxiety or tension at all, gradually increasing, moving on down to the bottom of the list where the experience is representative of the maximum level of anxiety or tension:

– people who have a brain trauma who develop a neurological condition called confabulation (ie, they can’t move their left arm and yet they will tell you they can when confronted; strong confidence that they are right in the face of real data)




-normal person with neuro-based self-deception (as described above)


 -a person making a conscious lie


   -full blown obsessive compulsive disorder


So where would a Tiger Woods rest in this typology? Good question. It depends on which of the two factors of self-deception he was arguably impaired on:

– the formation of an ill-grounded belief


– the checking system of the frontal lobe areas that sounds the alarm when one can’t confirm it with reality

 Given that I don’t know —nor does media know—if he was self-deluding WITH or WITHOUT internal anxiety/tension, it is hard to say. But that is what you would use as an indicator on diagnosis.  However, most traditional psychological assessments have a hard time discerning the “secondary anxiety rating” which is picked up if any on most tests, vs. the primary level experienced by the brain in the moment So not sure what type of meaningful information comes from this archaic way of doing assessment and treatment if behavior change is the ultimate goal. Otherwise, don’t we risk merely describing the water while people drown and calling that success?

My company gets around these “chicken and egg” neurological illusions by utilizing cutting edge technology that cleans the slate up on the primal brain side of things, where most of this trouble is stirred up—regardless of the diagnosis. We are currently launching a venture with relationships with the world’s top sports agents to prevent the “Tiger Effect” from being a brain burden on the management of these types of the individuals.  For it’s not sex on the brain that derailed the image of Tiger Woods; it is the image of the brain that we all have on our own brain that derails us in finding truth.

What’s So Bad About Bad Thoughts?

So, what constitutes an unhealthy brain? 

Certainly there are indicators that guide professional inquiries around this exact question, be it psychological interviewing, assessments, biological markers, etc. But when we dig deeper and look more “moment by moment” at a normal brain that may pass the traditional psychopathology test, some more unsettling questions arise:

What”s really intrusive about an intrusive thought?

Is redirecting, ignoring, or changing the thought the best option?

What’s irrational about a thought if the brain uses irrational means to act on that supposed rational input anyways?

These are the late night musings of a brain geek, but stick with me here folks, as I promise it gets better.

And so, as I pondered this quagmire on the plane this morning up to St. Louis, a flood of memories came back around for me about how I was trained, most specifically the cognitive-behavioral camp that preached that our thoughts caused our feelings and behaviors.  And when you discovered the “faulty” thought you changed it. Phew. Thank God that’s all I have to do, eh? 🙂

Well, not only is it now in question that the cognitive part of our brain drives behavior (vs. the limbic system), I am not so sure that even if we changed our thoughts to more positive ones we would have a better world. As James Hillman once said, “We’ve had a hundred years of therapy and the world’s getting worse.”   To me, it appears that change agents missed a huge nuance to the whole thought/feeling/behavior mess. That is, could it be more about the conviction level of an emotion or a thought? Did psychotherapy and other means of counseling others have a way to uncover the limbic level of conviction behind a “loosely organized” process of the brain and a “hard-wired” one? I never felt convinced that we did. It was the words used not the implicit framework around the words that we gave most airtime to.

Perhaps we all stop “getting hooked” around who is winning the “what causes what” battle and instead start with performing a knowledge angioplasty on our brains, cleaning out the levels of conviction about knowing itself. It is in this certainty addiction around things that really messes life up. And ironically, fixing the bad thoughts will ironically do more to delude yourself that you have a leg up on your brain. And then that’s when things really get ugly. And you will know so, because you will feel fine.

What Lies Beyond Prevention?

As someone trained in the healthcare world initially, we were always taught that there were mainly two ways to “be” with someone seeking some health change:

Treatment or prevention.

From the shrink side of the fence where I came from, treatment meant symptom reduction mainly, utilizing a wide array of techniques, strategies, and–at times–medications.  For those more inclined to take the preventative path, we worked on behaviors that would ward off future stressors or illnesses. When you say the word prevention nowadays in a word association test I bet immediately people think “exercise” or “eating right” as it addresses some feared health condition we hope to stave off.

But the other day I was talking to a colleague about this question: What lies beyond prevention?  For it hit me that the brain needs to have a mental representation at the bare minimum (if not fear) of this “thing” it, you, etc would like to avoid.  Sure, there are ambivalences, value trade offs, conflicts, and other real life factors that get in the way of the attainment of the goal, but nonetheless—there’s an apriori image of some state of being guiding on some level the nonlinear journey of ups and downs. In selling the thinking I sell in my company, I am not even sure the “preventative” construct works for the brain, for as a perpetual pattern-matcher, it can not match up something it doesnt know it doesnt know.

Yet it is in this “space” where we change ourselves paradigmatically. Guiding people beyond prevention of “something” into the uncomfortable place of questioning feeling good and content…. Now how’s that for a neuromarketing pickle.

CSO: Chief Songwriter Officer

Now that is a corporate title eh? Sign me up….  But how the heck could this be an actual position in a company? Well, read on, for the brain has many things to teach us.

As some of my readers may know, I have another life as a singer/songwriter ( What has always struck me about music is how difficult it is to write a melody that will make the whole world stand up and sing. Certainly the theory can be taught, but how is it that “Rocky Mountain High” or “Brown-Eyed Girl” gets made from our brains? Especially when upon listening it seems very simple and yet moving.

Got me thinking that songwriting courses should be taught to executives. Not to create masterpieces, but to teach them that a melody is akin to the knowledge they are resisting underneath all their “data” and “theories”.

What is this resistance we have to courting simplicity or dare I say, common sense? The brain is powerful,but if we let it run wild too long, like a rolling snow ball, it will pick up extraneous variables down the hill, like ego, fear, and being right.

Before you know it when you want to contribute to something creatively you are focusing on you or the act of contributing.

Perhaps Thomas Merton was right when he said there was a difference between loving the beloved and loving ourself loving the beloved. The latter is like thinking too much when writing a piece of music…you will never allowed it to be what it should be—greater than you.

Success: A Brain Skill of Distinction

As I was sitting in my office today, it hit me that something I used to pathologize patients about when I did psychotherapy may actually be a trait of success.  And given the years of Catholic guilt lying deep within me, I am not so sure how well that bode for me in having a good day. But I digress…

Specifically, what hit me as a guy immersed in the world of emotions and feelings was this:
How well did I proactively discern for my clients the difference between denying a feeling and rising above one? Where does one experience end and the other begin?  Are they one and the same?

If they are different, what is the difference? And how can we teach the meta-cognitive skills to denote the distinction? Perhaps a happier, healthier life doesnt come from “being happy”, but from the mastery of discerning pseudo-happiness from the real thing.

In my training, I was taught that denial was a defense mechanism. And in the realm of rising above neuroses, I would wholeheartedly agree. But isn’t one denying an original emotion to simultaneously “see beyond the emotion”?

To me, in a sense, this is denial of an experience that is so viscerally real. To be a success, one has to push back on the signals from the brain and be stronger. The problem is, usually it takes exponentially more than we initially think in terms of energy and commitment, while  simultaneously giving us messages that our minimal effort is enough to make it die down. Uggh. A double whammy of illusion, eh?

Now, in my coaching practice, I teach “healthy denial” and discern for my clients the difference between something unpleasant, needing to be felt for a greater good, and something needed to be “skipped over” for a greater good.

William James noted this when he coined the essence of pragmatism, although our modern society has twisted this immensely.  It never was meant to be merely “do whatever works.” It was more about doing what works for the common good.

This lens of visioning the common good of a decision, the totality of effects, is anti to the egocentrisism of the brain. And given our “psychological immune system” (a la Dan Gilbert’s research), we succumb strangely to being happier in contexts where we have no choice (for the brain retroactively tells us a self-protecting story to say we are/were better off). If this is indeed the case, can we ever see beyond the denial?

To me, it is this aspect of the successful person that is all the more amazing to me—-not the trials and tribulations that Hollywood makes us believe are extraordinary. But the extraordinary response above and beyond an ordinary neurological wiring that beffuddles us all everyday.