The year was 1848. One of the most momentous discoveries about the part of the brain called the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) was about to occur.
1: Phineas Gage was the foreman for a railway crew in central Vermont. He and his team were using gunpowder to blast through a rocky hilltop. As Phineas was loading some gunpowder, he accidentally dropped his tamping iron, initiating an explosion.
“The thirteen-pound, three-a-half-foot tamping iron rocketed out of the hole and through his head,” writes Dr. Daniel Friedland in Leading Well from Within. “The rod entered under the left cheekbone and exited out the top of his skull.”
Dr. John Harlow, who was on the scene, was able to stop the bleeding. Somehow Phineas survived. His Pre-Frontal Cortex, however, was destroyed.
“Previous to his injury, though untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart business man.” recounts Dr. Harlow.
2: Phineas’ story is a case study of what happens when someone operates without their PFC.
After the accident, Phineas was a changed man: “He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was previously not his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times perniciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned,” Dr. Harlow writes.
“His mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Phineas.'”
3: The PFC plays a critical role in our ability to connect and engage with others. It helps to regulate our “basic impulses and desires, show socially appropriate restraint, extend respect to others, and identify and stay focused on what was really important in [our] interactions,” writes Danny.
Imagine we are in a meeting. A colleague raises his hand to speak, which we interpret as an act of defiance. We feel threatened, irritated, and angry. So much so that we react aggressively and say something to shut down our colleague.
Now, envision the same scenario, but this time we catch ourselves. We take a moment to remember our goal for this meeting, and we consciously choose to show restraint. Rather than react strongly, we decide to approach our colleague with openness and curiosity and ask what concerns him.
That scenario highlights our PFC in action.
When we fully leverage the power of our PFC, we “can more effectively regulate [our] more primitive drives, impulses, cravings, and reactions,” Danny writes. We “are able to cooperate more fully with others, which is a major factor in [our] personal success at work and at home and our collective success as a species.”
Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence, calls this capacity “empathic concern.” He writes: “With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them but are spontaneously moved to help if needed.”
Our PFC is a critical part of the system within our brains which enables us to “deeply connect at an emotional level with the feelings of others,” writes Danny. “With emotional empathy [we] say, “I feel his distress.” With cognitive empathy [we] say, “I know he is distressed, and he’s thinking he could blow this deal.”
This week we will explore Danny’s four-part framework, which allows us to be more intentional about capitalizing on the power of our PFC to deepen our relationships and increase our effectiveness. Each step builds upon the prior one.
A) Recognize rather than react to the reactivity of others
B) Understand what triggers stress and self-doubt in ourselves and in others
C) Clarify and appreciate what’s truly important to us and those we care about
D) Stay aligned and reestablish our connection when life goes off track
Reflection: Consider a recent contentious situation where I was distressed and upset. Looking back afterward, was I happy with how I responded?
Action: Journal about the experience.