Captain's Log Issue #83 - Neuroscience
Julian Stodd, August 2019

This week has been predominantly a time for family, after my father died on Sunday. We go through the mechanisms of bureaucracy whilst sharing small stories of his life with each other, and coming to terms with the new shape of our family.

I wrote recently about the Organisation as a belief system, essentially a view that we are all (individually, Organisationally, nationally) a collection of stories, some of which we craft, shape, and broadcast from within, and many of which are imposed upon us from other locations.

The idea is important, because it shines a spotlight on our challenge in dealing with any kind of change: be it that change in personal circumstance, or change in the context of an Organisation itself. Change is a rewriting of the story, involving loss, and evolution. A new story, a new space, is unfamiliar, and potentially uncertain in terms of involvement or consequence. Our old stories though, by contrast, are much loved, and invested in: because we invest ourselves within our stories. This is the nature of belief systems: we do not simply observe them, we are part of them.

Perhaps that is the way we form our communities, and societies, as well as our individual relationships: we see each other, we find our stories, we invest in each other. We believe in each other.

My Writing

I’ve written very little this week: just two pieces, one in memory of my father, and the other an attempt to get back into the writing on Learning Science.

My Father

This piece was, as I am sure you will understand, difficult to write: not that I could not find the intent or the content, but rather because one feels the need to make something complete. The story of a person is the way we represent them, and in telling the story of a life, we represent what that life became.


My concentration has been poor, combined with a backlog of writing that leaves me feeling under pressure, combined to leave me prevaricating: I started this piece of work, the writing for the Modern Learning Capabilities Programme, with vigour, and a few very productive days, but an eventful two weeks later, I felt unable to find the flow of it easily again. Still, I am pleased enough with this piece, and I also, behind the scenes, have completed the full draft structure for the rest of it.

What I’m Reading

I am just finishing ‘Stonewall’ by Martin Duberman: it’s a ‘definitive account of the LGBTQ rights uprising that changed America', and makes for a fascinating read.

I’ve been using the story of the riots in my work on the New York Dereliction Walk for the last year or so, as a means to understand the evolution of Dominant Narratives, as well as the social component of change, but this book provides a neat underlay to the story, tracking (through six personal stories, researched in great detail) the movement back to the fifties, and the foundations of radical action.

It’s a powerful book in two ways: firstly, to starkly outline the state violence against LGBTQ people, barely fifty years ago, and, secondly, to realise how fragile the current uneasy truce could be. The fight for equality is not one that has yet been won, and judging by the history of the movement, may have some decades or more left to run.

My writing on the riots is towards the end of this piece, here:

In The News

Finding Trust

This piece typifies much of the writing about ‘trust’, in that it circles the thing like an antique vase on a plinth.

Our preferred method seems to be to describe feelings of trust, to search for a taxonomy of trust, and to indicate the fine brushes and tools that we can use to manipulate it.

In my own writing about trust, both in The Trust Sketchbook, and The Trust Guidebook, I have tried to take a different approach, rather more vernacular, and somewhat less tidy: to understand trust, you need space and opportunity to kick it around and to discover for yourself what your personal truth is.

For this reason, I find much of the published literature anodyne, aspirational, or just plain watery. Trust may be complex and valuable, but it’s not actually that difficult: the striving to find it is surely part of the process of having it, so the best we can do is to create the space, provocation, and safety, to make that journey.

Paying Back Profits

This piece describes how Glasgow University, one of the oldest in the world, is making efforts to understand how slavery funded it’s rebuild, and how it may make reparations for the past.

It relates again to stories: what story do we want to tell about ourselves, what responsibility do we have for those stories of the past that people impose upon us? Can you ‘write away’ the guilt, or is the whole thing a rather cynical form of self flagellation where nobody actually feels the pain, but everyone collectively feels better?

Reparations, or possibly simply recognition, is a powerful story on both sides of the Atlantic: I read this book, ‘Policing the Black Man’, edited by Angela Davis, earlier this year, and it powerfully illustrates how historic injustice very firmly and directly leads to contemporary inequality and injustice.

In terms of my own work on Storytelling, I talk about Dominant Narratives: perhaps what reparations, and public discussion do, is set the foundations for a rewriting of that narrative.

#WorkingOutLoud on the Certifications

Whilst work on the Modern Learning Capability Programme has been slow for the last two weeks, my current cohorts exploring the ‘Landscape of Stories’ have been making grand progress, and are starting to consider the experiments that they will run within their own Organisations.

My aim is to complete the modules on Learning Science, and Data and Analytics in September, as well as to launch the ‘Community Builder’ Certification, so a busy month. I also hope to be launching a substantial Communities of Practice research project in September, which will allow me to publish some new findings later this year.

What I'm Thinking About

The appeal of good ideas has been on my mind this week, as I write about neuroscience: our increasingly granular imagery and understanding of how the brain works can lead us to make bold and compelling assumptions about our own knowledge, and ability to understand the magic. Whilst we scorn the Victorians for their belief in phrenology (the notion that we can study the bumps and shape of the head to determine personality and intelligence), we fall victim to a rather more digital version of that ourselves.

Can we see how the brain works? Absolutely: modern imaging and understanding provides a clear view of how at least some aspects of cognition arise. But just one view: because the brain is not like your car. We cannot deconstruct it to understand every joint and rivet, then use that understanding to determine or predict exact function, or even replicate action, because the brain is plastic in nature. Your brain, and my brain, are structurally similar, but we have done very different things with them along the journey.

Neuroscience’ is totemic today: almost every field, from leadership, to learning, and change, batters it around to indicate our enhanced ability to balance the levers of behaviour, to achieve mechanistic effect. And much of this work seems like good ideas.

This is the balance: we have a propensity to follow a good idea, but not always to understand it’s validity. Take emotional intelligence: a mainstay of management development, presented as fact, but in truth pure speculation. It’s a wonderful tool for understanding, but simply a tool, a theory, not a fact.

Of course, I feel this weakness in much of my own work: we do not simply write, or work, to state facts, we build out narratives, stories, frames of understanding, to help achieve change. So we draw our conclusions, and assert our beliefs.

There is no harm in visioning and belief: these are the ways that we progress knowledge and understanding. But we must always remain anchored in the evidence, and willing to undo a good story when it’s time is done.

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Copyright © 2019 Julian Stodd, All rights reserved.

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