November 21, 2014

Saving Ourselves From Ourselves (Part One): We Are The Borg

“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated.
Lower your shields and surrender your ships.
We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.
Your culture will adapt to serve us.
Resistance is futile.”

rhodesThe Borg is a mass consciousness, an ethos. I Googled “ethos” and here’s what came on top:

Ethos: the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.

The law profession is a culture and community with its own ethos, manifested in both expressed and unspoken rules of belief and aspiration. From the moment we applied to law school, we’ve been giving our implied consent to being assimilated into this ethos. Little did we know it included its own version of the Borg: as we saw in the Killing Them Softly series, our assimilation can result in cognitive- and performance-impairing brain damage.

I spent last week witnessing the legal profession’s Borg Ethos in action as I conducted my “Beyond Burnout” CLE workshop in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. Some attendees found it within themselves to escape assimilation. As one said in his course evaluation, “Today I moved closer to taking the steps I need to take to rediscover the creativity, vigor, and passion which came so naturally before I learned to think like a lawyer.”

Like him, we can save ourselves… if we want to.

The workshops were prompted by a new Ohio CLE mandate for instruction in “mental health issues.” Ohio also requires instruction in not just the Rules of Professional Conduct but also the Ohio “Lawyer’s Creed” and “Lawyer’s Aspirational Ideals.” Those requirements contain some fascinating anti-assimilation provisions.

Consider for example this excerpt from The Lawyer’s Creed:

To my colleagues in the practice of law, I offer concern for your reputation and well-being.

And this one from The Lawyer’s Aspirational Ideals:

As to my colleagues in the practice of law, I shall aspire . . . to offer you assistance with your personal and professional needs.

Amazing. Ohio lawyers have an ethical duty to be concerned for the well-being of fellow lawyers, and to offer assistance with their personal needs — such as helping each other to not be assimilated by the legal profession’s Borg Ethos.

This goes way beyond Model Rule 8.3, the Colorado version of which says we must report something that “raises a substantial question as to [another] lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.” In my legal ethics class, we called this the “Rat-On Rule,” and we all knew we would never do that. That’s how the Borg Ethos works: it sucks us in, detaches our normal sensibilities — even the evolutionary survival parts of our brains that instinctively want to look out for the safety and well-being of the other members of our tribe. By contrast, Ohio has made this duty to care explicit.

Truly amazing. When we see a duty to care appearing in CLE ethics requirements, we know that the winds of change are truly blowing in our profession. We’re going to hoist our sail to them in this series. To prepare, we do well to follow the advice the shrunken head on the Knight Bus in Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban:

“Fasten your safety belts, clench your buttocks! It’s going be a bumpy ride!”

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

A collection of Kevin’s blog posts, Enlightenment, Apocalypse, and Other States of Mind, is now available as an ebook. Click the link to sample and download it from the distributor’s webpage. (Soon to be available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Scribd.) Includes Forewords from Debra Austin, author of the Killing Them Softly law journal article, and from Ron Sandgrund, author of an article on lawyers exiting the law in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer, in which Kevin was interviewed.

Killing Them Softly (Part Eight): What We Might Be Missing

rhodesThe Abstract to Prof. Austin’s Killing Them Softly states that “This Article provides a groundbreaking synthesis on the neuroscience of achieving optimal cognitive fitness for all law students, law professors, and lawyers.” The article is all that, and more: it’s also a call to action.

Killing Them Softly looks at issues such as legal ethics and the cognitive performance and general wellbeing of law students and lawyers through the lens of neuroscience. What we see through that lens invites us to change — assuming we don’t like the idea that we’re inflicting brain damage on ourselves and each other.

Strange, though, isn’t it, but articles like this are rarely incendiary. They get read and cited, they prompt dialogue, and then the wheels of change roll slowly through institutions, grinding against a powerful ethos of “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Eventually change happens, but it’s not exactly a forest fire.

What we might be missing is that the market for legal products and services isn’t constrained by institutional sluggishness, and is already running ahead, embracing change. The market isn’t hidebound, it can move as fast as it wants. And if it wants something other than lawyers thinking through a cognitive fog, it can get it. Now.

Presumably, there will always be a need for lawyers who can “think like a lawyer” that way the ideal was originally intended, but nowadays that’s a shrinking market segment. A sizeable and burgeoning market segment has already broken off that apparently doesn’t want lawyers who think like lawyers — at least, not in those brain-damaged, cognitively impaired ways we’ve been looking at in this series. That segment has already found a way to buy legal commodities delivered by non-lawyers that used to be delivered as services by lawyers. (This blog catalogued some of these developments earlier this year. See Future Shock and the Business of Law, The New Lawyer Entrepreneurs, and Learning to Think Like a Lawyer an Entrepreneur. )

Saying “but they’re not supposed to do that” is a finger in the dike. Worldwide ecommerce wants what it wants when it wants it, and the fastest market responders are all over mindfulness and wellness as a business growth strategy. If they so choose, those are the people who will develop a new market segment of law schools and law practices operating at “optimal cognitive fitness” and fostering “achievement cultures,” as Prof. Austin advocates.

Now that’s incendiary change. If we want in on it, the resources are out there. Again, from Prof. Austin:

One of the most supportive achievement workplace cultures can be found at Google. The master of ceremonies, and developer of Google’s Search Inside Yourself (SIY) emotional intelligence curriculum, is Chade-Meng Tan. The benefits of developing emotional intelligence competence include strong work performance, excellent leadership skills, and the capacity for sustainable happiness.

For more about SIY, check out the Inside Yourself Leadership Institute website. Here’s their mission statement:

We develop effective, innovative leaders using science-backed mindfulness and emotional intelligence training.

The World of Woo-Woo has taken up residence on Wall Street. The legal profession might want to join them. Prof. Austin issues the invitation:

Neural self-hacking is likely to be the newest fitness movement and law students, law professors, and lawyers should be among the early adopters of a regimen of cognitive wellness.

Early adopters? The legal profession?

It could happen.

The concept of “emotional intelligence” originated in Daniel Coleman’s book by that name. More on that another time.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

A collection of Kevin’s blog posts, Enlightenment, Apocalypse, and Other States of Mind, is now available as an ebook. Click the link to sample and download it from the distributor’s webpage. (Soon to be available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Scribd.) Includes Forewords from Debra Austin, author of the Killing Them Softly law journal article, and from Ron Sandgrund, author of an article on lawyers exiting the law in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer, in which Kevin was interviewed.

Killing Them Softly (Part Seven): The Ethics of Mindfulness And Why it Works

rhodesProf. Austin’s Killing Them Softly article reminds us that not only can we help ourselves to overcome legally-inflicted brain (and heart) damage, we have an ethical duty to do so:

Each law student, law professor, and lawyer has the power to alter brain processes to achieve states more conducive to learning.

Rule 1.1 of the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct requires lawyers to be competent in completing their duties on behalf of their clients. Law students, law professors, and lawyers can benefit from developing a neuroscience-based understanding of how to optimize their own cognition.

If we’re willing, neuroscience can help us take up the challenge to operate at a higher cognitive and ethical level:

Developments in neuroscience identify areas of cognition in the brain and indicate recommendations that enhance cognitive effectiveness, performance, and productivity. Steps taken to increase cognitive fitness can strengthen lawyer creativity and well-being.

Knowledge of these neuroscience findings will empower law students, law professors, and lawyers to enhance their cognitive wellness.

Law schools and law firms, like many cutting-edge companies, can curate a culture of cognitive wellness.

Promoting cognitive wellness is good health, good ethics, and good business. As for the latter:

In addition to bolstering cognitive competence, cognitive wellness initiatives may also provide a lawyer with a competitive advantage.

Many innovative companies promote wellness to provide vibrant workplaces and thriving employees. Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, work/life balance programs, stress management classes, mindfulness training, and nutrition coaching improve the bottom line.

If we’re not doing this already, then where do we start? According to Prof. Austin, with mindfulness training:

The best cognitive approach to dealing with stress is mindfulness. Research on mindfulness indicates that it:

  • strengthens the insula in the thinking brain (the early detection system of well-being);
  • increases gray matter and connections between brain regions;
  • improves immune function;
  • decreases distraction; and
  • equips the brain to notice patterns and events before responses become overly-reactive.

Mindfulness works as an antidote to cognitive impairment because it bypasses our habitual cognitive processes. Mindfulness doesn’t ask us to think, analyze, reason, argue, and high achieve our way into a stress-free mindset. Instead, it shifts our brains to a new state of perception and awareness, where we can make behavioral choices that alter the ethos of stress itself. In fact, mindfulness is not about thinking at all:

{M]indfulness is attention without labels, ideas, thoughts, or opinions. Mindfulness means “being fully aware of something” and paying attention to the moment, with acceptance and without judgment or resistance. It requires “emotion-introspection rather than cognitive self-reflection,” and specifically does not involve the analysis of thoughts or feelings. Mindfulness is a form of self-understanding involving self-awareness rather than thinking.

Practiced with intention and perseverance, mindfulness is just what the brain (and heart) doctor ordered:

Mindfulness improves information processing and decision-making. It provides space between awareness, and judgments and reactions, which may encourage the onset of flow. Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of effortless concentration when humans are so engaged in a task they lose track of time.

Being mindful allows you to have control over your attention so that you can place it where you want and shift it to something else when you want to. When attention is steady, it cannot be appropriated by whatever intrudes on awareness, but remains grounded and stable. Developing greater control over attention is a powerful way for law students and lawyers to sculpt their brains.

And, we might add, it’s not just a powerful way to sculpt our brains, but our careers and our profession as well.

More on that next time, and then this series is over.

A collection of Kevin’s blog posts, Enlightenment, Apocalypse, and Other States of Mind, is now available as an ebook. Click the link to sample and download it from the distributor’s webpage. (Soon to be available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Scribd.) Includes Forewords from Debra Austin, author of the Killing Them Softly law journal article, and from Ron Sandgrund, author of an article on lawyers exiting the law in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer, in which Kevin was interviewed.

Killing Them Softly (Part Six): Bouncing Back

rhodesThe reason not all law students and lawyers are paralyzed with stress-induced brain damage is because our brains are resilient. They bounce back. They successfully resist or unlearn stress conditioning.

Stress is profession-wide, but adaptation to stressful experience, including resistance and recovery, is individual by individual. As Prof. Austin explains in Killing Them Softly:

The brains of all healthy law students are comprised of the triune structure: the primitive, emotional, and thinking brains. The critical unit of communication within each brain is the tree-shaped neuron, which relies on the electrochemical process of transmitting information through the brain and between brain and body. Every law student has a multitude of neuronal networks operating within the brain. But each student’s transit system map of neuron data pathways, referred to as the connectome, is unique.

“You are your synapses,” and your brain is a “work in progress” because your connectome is continuously rewiring itself. The brain is in a constant state of change. It has the capacity to produce new neurons in the hippocampus and the olefactory bulbs (parts of the emotional brain) in a process called neurogenesis. The modification of neural networks in response to experience, such as legal education, is neuroplasticity.

Linda Graham’s book Bouncing Back describes neuroplasticity this way:

Technically, neuroplasticity is the lifelong capacity of the brain to create new neurons (brain cells) and connections among neurons (neural pathways and circuits). . . . When you focus attention on the conditioned pattern you want to rewire, you activate the neural networks of that pattern and cause the neurons to fire again. When you know how to harness the neuroplasticity of your brain in that moment, you can alter the pattern.

In other words, neuroplasticity isn’t just something that happens in the normal course of life inside our skulls, it’s also a skill we can consciously practice to our advantage. As Prof. Austin points out, “The brains of law students and lawyers are continuously being rewired and everything they do, think, and feel is governed by their neural networks.” We can either allow this to happen without our conscious intent, and leave the prospect of suffering brain damage and recovering from it up to chance, or we can engage in the intentional “neural self-hacking” Prof. Austin advocates — a term taken from “a class taught at Google, [that] teaches employees about the power of neuroplasticity.”

Using neuroplasticity to our benefit is a skill we can either use or lose. As Prof. Austin says,

The brain has the power to change itself through the personal effort and choices of its owner. Brain plasticity is competitive; we keep the skills we practice and we lose the ones we do not.

Embracing this skill requires focus and perseverance. As Bouncing Back says:

All mental activity creates neural structure. Using neuroplasticity to strengthen brain structures is like working out at the gym to build up our muscles. (Of course, the structures of the brain aren’t actually muscles; they’re densely networked circuits and pathways of neurons. But strengthening the capacities of these neurons to communicate with one another, and to integrate the information being processed into new responses, is comparable to working out to strengthen our muscles.)

Perseverance in our efforts to harness neuroplasticity is the sine qua non of rewiring our brains. By persevering in the use of new tools and techniques, we are stabilizing the new neural circuitry so that it can serve as a reliable platform of resilient behavior, not easily overridden by the pulls of the past. . . .

Frequent and regular repetition creates steady neural firing and rewiring and accelerates the process. . . . [A] stance of willingness — focusing on possibilities — is more effective than a stance of willpower — focusing on performance. It almost doesn’t matter how small the increment of change is.

What’s important is that we choose practices that catalyze positive change and that we persevere.

We’ll look at one of those catalytic practices next time.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Watch for Enlightenment, Apocalypse, and Other States of Mind, a collection of Kevin’s blog posts from the past three years, soon to be available as an eBook.

Killing Them Softly (Part Five): Rethinking the Holy Grail

rhodesThe Holy Grail of legal education has long been teaching law students to “think like a lawyer.” Most of us have a vague sense of what that means and how it’s accomplished, but turns out it’s an actual brain process known to neuroscientists as conditioning. Linda Graham’s book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain For Maximum Resilience and Well-Being describes conditioning as follows:

Conditioning creates automatic habits of behavior by encoding the neural firing patterns of repeated responses to experience, stabilizing the neural circuitry of that learning, and storing those patterns of response in implicit (unconscious) memory. When you repeat a pattern of behavior often enough, eventually you don’t have to focus your attention on it anymore; the neural circuits underlying that behavior have stabilized in your brain, enabling you to respond to a similar situation automatically.

Creating habits of behavior through conditioning is your brain’s way of being efficient. Without conditioning, you’d have to relearn how to tie your shoes every morning. . . .

[F]ocused attention causes neurons in the brain to fire; focusing on the same object or experience causes repeated neural firings; and repeated neural firings create new and stable neural structure. When we focus our attention on cultivating a particular pattern of behavior, a character trait, or attitude or lens for filtering experience, we incline the mind toward that objective . . . We notice more readily the desired trait or behavior, register it more fully in our consciousness, and direct mental activity toward it,

[W]hen we formulate an intention, . . . the repeated focus on that intention begins to build new brain structure and circuitry that support us. . . . We turn a neural goat path into a freeway.

Thus the Holy Grail is pursued and realized. For three years, we condition law students’ brains, turning their lawyer-like neural goat paths (remember what it was like the first time you read a case or a contract?) into neural freeways (consider how you read them now).

No problem if that’s all that happened, but combine brain conditioning with the brain damage caused by law school stress, and ironically, it appears that too often we accomplish this educational ideal by turning out lawyers who all think in the same brain-damaged way. The Destruction of Young Lawyers describes this outcome as follows:

At the same time that law school breaks students, it also creates them, or rather, molds them in its image. But what does it create? On the positive side it creates people who have good reading and writing skills, who are diligent and hardworking, who can see both sides to an issue. Law students are hard workers, and they are typically very high achievers with above-average intelligence.

But on another level, law school churns out some very scared people. . . . [A]t the same time that [law students] are taught to act empowered, they are truly disempowered. . . . Despite the appearance of professionalism and self-sufficiency, law students are actually helpless and dependent when they graduate.

Thankfully, there is an antidote. Bouncing Back introduces it:

If conditioning is the process that encodes stable patterns in our neural circuitry, neuroplasticity is the mechanism that works to alter them.

As Prof. Austin says in Killing Them Softly:

The modification of neural networks in response to experience, such as legal education, is neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is why some (not all) lawyers’ brains and hearts recover from law school and avoid the impact of law practice stress.

More next time.

Prof. Austin provides another take on this topic with her upcoming law journal article, “Drink Like a Lawyer: The Neuroscience of Substance Use and Its Impact on Cognitive Wellness.” I will provide a link when one is available.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Killing Them Softly (Part Four) — Law School: Legally Inflicted Brain Damage

rhodesLaw professor Douglas Litowitz’s 2005 book The Destruction of Young Lawyers summarizes the law school experience this way:

The one thing that we know with certainty about law school is that it breaks people, that it is experienced as a trauma, an assault. Like other traumas, when it is actually taking place it is overwhelming and very difficult to understand. Only after it is already finished can it be pieced together in retrospect, like a robbery victim who later tries to reconstruct the features of an assailant.

When I say that law school breaks people, I mean that almost nobody comes out of law school feeling better about themselves, although many come out much worse – caustic, paranoid, and overly competitive. From outward appearances, the students churned out by the law school machine are shiny and bright, with a professional no-nonsense attitude, but inside that shell lies a nagging hollowness.

Law school is not transformative because it does not engage the students on an emotional or intellectual level.

Strong words indeed, but nine years after Prof. Litowitz wrote them, Prof. Austin’s “Killing Them Softly” article reveals that we’ve got a lot of new neuroscience to back them up, or in some cases clarify them. For example, Prof. Austin points out that it’s not that law school doesn’t engage the emotions, but that it does so through a filter of stress:

The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition. (Emphasis added.)

Stressed emotions warp neural function, debilitating and even destroying the very brain processes needed to achieve what Prof. Austin calls “optimal cognitive fitness.” She thinks we can do better:

Because the processes of learning, memory storage, and memory retrieval involve both the emotional and thinking brains, law students, legal educators, and lawyers should develop an understanding of the impact of emotion on cognition and the nexus between brain and body.

In other words, if we could get our minds around the idea that promoting law student brain and body wellness would be good for all of us, we would approach legal learning in a way that, instead of traumatizing law students, would enhance their learning and improve their overall health. In fact, we would emphasize helping law students be happy about studying law.

A prior series of this blog spoke about promoting happiness in law practice:

[H]appy lawyers are more likely to deliver the best of the competence, communication, timeliness, and sound judgment we’re ethically obligated to provide. It also means that the best-performing law firms – the firms that will also make the “best places to work” lists – could be founded on a single guiding principle: promote lawyer happiness.

The same could be true of law schools.

Now there’s a concept…

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Killing Them Softly (Part Three): What Stress Does to People

rhodesI’ve been quoting extensively in this series from DU Law professor Debra Austin’s “Killing Them Softly” article and neuroscientist John Medina’s Brain Rules book. Let’s hear more from both of them about what stress does to the people in the law profession.

Prof. Austin describes the impact of stress on cognition as follows:

The impact of stress on law student cognition includes deterioration in memory, concentration, problem-solving, math performance, and language processing. Curiosity is dampened, and creativity is diminished. A paralysis sets in, limiting motivation and the ability to break out of repetitive behavior patterns.

Prof. Medina elaborates:

If the stress is too severe or too prolonged, however, stress begins to harm learning. The influence can be devastating. . . . Stressed people . . . don’t do math very well. They don’t process language very efficiently. They have poorer memories, both short and long forms.

Stressed individuals do not generalize or adapt old pieces of information to new scenarios as well as non-stressed individuals. They can’t concentrate. In almost every way it can be tested, chronic stress hurts our ability to learn.

One study showed that adults with high stress levels performed 50 percent worse on certain cognitive tests than adults with low stress. Specifically, stress hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of thinking that involves problem solving).

Stress affects physiological wellbeing. From Prof. Austin:

Long-term elevated levels of glucocorticoids resulting from chronic stress have been associated with the following physical conditions:

  • Impaired immune response;
  • Increased appetite and food cravings;
  • Increased body fat;
  • Increased symptoms of PMS and menopause;
  • Decreased muscle mass;
  • Decreased bone density; and
  • Decreased libido.

Stress also affects psychological wellbeing. Again from Prof. Austin:

Chronic stress also produces the following emotional conditions:

  • Increased mood swings, irritability, and anger;
  • Increased anxiety; and
  • Increased depression.

Of particular concern to the law profession is the nexus between stress and depression. From Prof. Austin:

Law is a cognitive profession, and the legendary stressors in legal education and the practice of law can take a tremendous toll on cognitive capacity. Lawyers suffer from depression at triple the rate of non-lawyers.

Again, Prof. Medina elaborates:

[Depression] is a disease every bit as organic as diabetes, and often deadlier. Chronic exposure to stress can lead you to depression’s doorstep, then push you through.

[D]epression hobbles the brain’s natural improvisatory instincts the way arthritis hobbles a dancer. Fluid intelligence, problem-solving abilities (including quantitative reasoning), and memory formation are deeply affected by depression. The result is an erosion of innovation and creativity, just as biochemically real as if we were talking about joints and muscles.

Depression is a deregulation of thought processes, including memory, language, quantitative thinking, fluid intelligence, and spatial perception.

Depression not only impairs us in these ways, it creates a perception that things will never get better. From Prof. Medina:

This list [of depression’s effects] is long and familiar. But one of the hallmarks may not be as familiar, unless you are in depression. Many people who feel depressed also feel there is no way out of their depression. They feel life’s shocks are permanent and things will never get better. Even when there is a way out — treatment is often very successful — there is no perception of it. They can no more argue their way out of depression than they could argue their way out of a heart attack.

To be continued.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Killing Them Softly (Part Two): What Stress Does to the Brain

rhodesStress in the law is a given. We know that from personal experience, but if we need more authority on the point, we needn’t look further than the 2013 Colorado Lawyer Satisfaction and Salary Survey, which reported that 94% of respondents said the law is stressful sometimes (48%), often (37%), or always (9%).

Brain scientist John Medina describes the impact of long-term chronic stress on the brain in his book Brain Rules:

Stress hormones can do some truly nasty things to your brain if boatloads of the stuff are given free access to your central nervous system. That’s what’s going on when you experience chronic stress. Stress hormones seem to have a particular liking for cells in the hippocampus, and that’s problem, because the hippocampus is deeply involved in many aspects of human learning. Stress hormones can make cells in the hippocampus more vulnerable to other stresses. Stress hormones can disconnect neural networks, the webbing of brain cells that act like a safety deposit vault, storing your most precious memories. They can stop the hippocampus from giving birth to brand new baby neurons. Under extreme conditions, stress hormones can even kill hippocampus cells. Quite literally, severe stress can cause brain damage in the very tissues most likely to help your children pass their SATs.

The problem begins when too many stress hormones hang around in the brain too long, a situation you find in chronic stress, especially of the learned helplessness variety. . . . Like a fortress overrun by invaders, enough stress hormones will overwhelm the brain’s natural defenses and wreak their havoc. In sufficient quantities, stress hormones are fully capable of turning off the gene that makes [counter-stress hormones] in hippocampus cells. You read that right: Not only can they overwhelm our defenses, they can actually turn them off. The damaging effects can be long-lasting, a fact clearly observed when people experience catastrophic stress.

“Clearly, stress hurts learning,” Prof. Medina concludes. “Most important, however, stress hurts people.”

Some of the people stress hurts are law students and lawyers. Prof. Austin’s Killing Them Softly article talks about the specific stresses of law school:

The stresses of attending law school are legendary. After peppering seventy-five first year law students with questions about their experiences in their 1L year at the University of Memphis law school, Andrew J. McClurg asked students about their dominant feeling at the end of the year. The answers were disproportionately focused on anxiety and stress. Students reported grave concerns over upcoming finals, grades, and failing law school. They described suffering from “sheer, unrelenting exhaustion” and a “level of mental exhaustion I did not know existed.”

Four of the six universally recognized emotions are negative: fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. Stress involves some combination of these adverse emotions. Stress, a concept borrowed from engineering, “can be defined as the amount of resistance a material offers to being reshaped and reformed.” If too great a load is placed on the beam supporting a structure or the law student trying to learn the law, it/he is damaged or collapses.

When stress persists for a few hours or days, a law student may experience a bad mood. Longer-term stress can cause stress-related disorders such as panic attacks, anxiety, or depression; the physical effects include increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, irritability, chest pain, abdominal discomfort, sweating, chills, or increased muscle tension. These symptoms are caused by the stress response originating in the emotional brain.

Next time, we’ll talk more about how stress hurts the people who study and practice law.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Killing Them Softly (Part One): The Attack on Lawyers’ Brains

rhodesI borrowed the title of this series from a Loyola Law Journal article by DU Law professor Debra S. Austin, J.D., Ph.D.: Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress And How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance.

The phrase “neural self-hacking” comes from Google, which runs a class for employees by that name, plus other classes on brain well-being. Yeah, it’s a Silicon Valley thing, but don’t be fooled: the companies offering these classes mean business, and they think mindfulness is good for it. As Prof. Austin says:

Many innovative companies promote wellness to provide vibrant workplaces and thriving employees. Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, work/life balance programs, stress management classes, mindfulness training, and nutrition coaching improve the bottom line.

Killing Them Softly makes the case for why the law profession might want to catch up with that idea, instead of mounting a systematic attack on law students’ and lawyers’ brains. Prof. Austin’s article describes in detail just how we do that, and the implications of this practice. Consider these excerpts:

Neuroscience shows that the aggregate educative effects of training to become a lawyer under chronically stressful conditions may undermine the efforts of legal educators by weakening the learning capacities of law students. Stress in legal education may also set the stage for abnormally high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers.

The stresses facing law students and lawyers result in a significant decline in their well-being, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity. The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition.

Cognition, Latin for “the faculty of knowing,” describes the process by which humans perceive stimuli, extract key information to hold in memory, and generate thoughts and actions to achieve goals.

In other words, the way we initiate lawyers into the profession and how we approach law practice is counterproductive on the most fundamental neurological level. We make it hard for lawyers’ brains to do what we ask of them. We impede their ability to learn, to store knowledge and access memory, and to exercise sound judgment. Most critically, we restrict that essential ability to sort through the facts, discern what’s important, and figure out what to do about it. And while we’re at it, we also heighten susceptibility to the distressing psychological conditions that plague our profession.

And guess what? That’s what happened to all of us. It’s amazing any of us can function as our studies and work require, but our brains are amazingly resilient, and we’ll talk about how they get the job done in the face of all this neurological aggression. Before we get that far, we’ll look into how our brains learn, and how the stresses of the profession damage them. And we’ll take a look at the case for neural self-hacking.

Stay tuned.

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Seven): Life in an Alternate Reality

rhodesThere’s a scene at the start of my running video where my wife and I are walking along, with a voiceover saying I never really wanted to run a marathon, I just wanted to be able to go on walks with her like we used to.

I can’t do that anymore. Walk like that, I mean. We shot that scene about ten months ago, and I can’t do that anymore.

When I saw my neurologist six months ago, I told him I’ve been surprised at how quickly my physical abilities are degenerating. It’s like there’s a timer running. I’m awesome on the machine at the gym, but when I walk it feels like time is running out. And running? Time ran out on that a long time ago.

That’s my reality. Or is it? No it’s not, but you already knew that. I don’t like living with that timer, so I relegate it to an alternate reality. Einstein said, if the facts don’t fit your theory, change the facts. That’s what I do.

The alternate reality with the timer is persistent, though. It wants to know how long I’m going to keep fighting, why I don’t just give it up as a lost cause. The people at MS Fitness Challenge have the fighting spirit. They inspire me, but I’m aware that fighting causes stress, and if what’s going on in your body is degeneration, you don’t need more stress. So instead of fighting, I relegate the timer to its alternate universe, and go on living in the reality I’ve chosen, where working out aggressively on a machine turns into healing.

The alternate reality with the timer also wants to know when I’m going to acknowledge that my experiment has run its course and come up wanting. I can’t answer that. Someone had to invent the light bulb, and we’re all glad he did, never mind how many iterations it took him. How would I ever know if I’ve tried all the possibilities of my experiment, tweaked it in all the ways it might be tweaked?

In the video I say, “I don’t have to get motivated to do this. I run from here [tapping my chest]. That’s what impossible feels like That’s what your impossible would feel like.” All the research in the world won’t give you that.

How long should you try?
Until.

Jim Rohn

I’m in this until. Pretty simple.

In the video, the guy behind the camera asks me if my experiment is working, and I admit it’s not. Because of that, I wondered out loud one of our planning sessions whether doing the video was worth it. He brushed my hesitation aside. “Everybody needs inspiration,” he said. End of discussion.

So the timer ticks away in its alternate reality, while I keep working out in this one. I get a lot of benefits from doing this. Discipline. Perseverance. Amazing overall good health. Not to mention lots of material to blog about and use in my workshops. Plus the joy of trying to hit a training goal that has me sweating buckets and willing my errant foot back into line, then finishing and barely making it to a nearby chair to sit down and massage the feeling back into my feet. If I quit, I’d miss all that. Honest.

But I’d trade it all for a walk around the block with my wife.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Six): Science and Snake Oil

rhodesA friend shared a TED talk with me about how a rat with a severed spinal cord had its nervous system regenerated so it could run again. The researchers used a combination of chemical and electrical stimulation to get the rat’s legs moving involuntarily, but that wasn’t enough. So they created a robotic harness that allowed the rat to move if and when and where it wanted. After that, the rat’s spinal cord grew new connections. The scientists created an opportunity for healing, but the rat’s desire to move took over and made it a reality.

No wonder some scientists built a statue to honor lab rats. God bless that rat. It’s my hero; I want to be just like it. We all know you can’t move again after your spinal cord is severed. The rat proved us wrong. We also know you can’t win a marathon if your MS makes it hard to walk. How about if I be the lab rat who proves us wrong?

The rat needed scientific help, and so do I. Seriously, now: if by any stretch you know someone who is seriously researching MS and exercise, would you please email me with an introduction? Let me be honest: I don’t want ideas, like have I contacted the National MS Society. If you can think of it, I probably have already. What I’m looking for is a real relationship handoff to a real person. If you can do that, then many, many thanks.

Once we’ve got a research lab on board, we need a committed rat. No problem there. The rat introduces the X Factor: how does the desire to move generate healing? The scientists don’t know, and the rat’s not talking. If it could, it would probably sell us snake oil, and we’d probably buy.

Last year I wrote about “the placebo effect”: believing yourself into an altered state in which the healing you want actually happens, even though it’s not supposed to, there’s no rational reason why it should, and you’re actually putting your faith in a sugar pill.

I know one guy who got rid of his MS by visualizing miniature beavers chewing up his brain scarring (“Multiple Sclerosis” means “multiple scarring”). I’m not making that up. If that’s not a placebo I don’t know what is. I’ve haven’t tried his approach, but I’m not above a daily practice that includes mind tricks, even though I honestly believe some of what I do is pure snake oil.

Is it still a placebo if you don’t think it will work? The authors of a book on personal growth called The Tools answer that question by telling this “famous story about Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist and father of quantum physics”:

A young physicist visited him in his home and saw a horseshoe hanging on the wall over the hearth. “Surely, professor, you don’t believe that a horseshoe will bring you good luck,” the young physicist exclaimed. “Of course not!” Bohr replied. “But I’ve heard that you don’t have to believe in it for it to work.”

(If you’re like me and wonder if this story is apocryphal, check this out. Sounds valid to me, both because Niels Bohr was quite a quotable guy, and because the story is in the spirit of quantum physics. Moving right along….)

And so we’ve got science, and we’ve got snake oil. Should work.

The next installment will be the last in this series. We’ll tackle the feeling that time seems to be running out on this experiment, and then we’ll be done.

For this year, at least.

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

Running Past Our Limits Update (Part Five): A Random Idea Gets Scientific

rhodesIn the video I told you about a couple weeks ago, a friend of mine (his name is “Angel Vigil” — no kidding) describes my workout routine as “his own self-invented alternative treatment to keep the nerves and his muscles and everything working as long as he can, and fight the progressive, debilitating nature of MS.”

Angel didn’t know it, but he was summarizing two neurological concepts that underlie what I’m doing. The first is neuroplasticity: our brains rewire themselves when we learn. The second is myelination: if we use those new neural pathways often, our brains coat them with a substance called myelin, which acts as a learning and skill development supercharger.

Developmental molecular biologist John Medina describes neuroplasticity this way in his book Brain Rules:

Eric Kandel is the scientist mostly responsible for figuring out the cellular basis of [the process of how the brain learns]. For it, he shared the Nobel Prize in 2000… Kandel showed that when people learn something, the wiring in their brain changes. He demonstrated that acquiring even simple pieces of information involves the physical alteration of the structure of the neurons participating in the process. Taken broadly, these physical changes result in the functional organization and reorganization of the brain. This is astonishing. The brain is constantly learning things, so the brain is constantly rewiring itself.

Myelination got a huge popular boost from Daniel Coyle’s 2009 book The Talent Code. As the Amazon book blurb says:

Drawing on cutting-edge neurology and firsthand research gathered on journeys to nine of the world’s talent hotbeds—from the baseball fields of the Caribbean to a classical-music academy in upstate New York—Coyle identifies the three key elements that will allow you to develop your gifts and optimize your performance in sports, art, music, math, or just about anything.

These three elements work together within your brain to form myelin, a microscopic neural substance that adds vast amounts of speed and accuracy to your movements and thoughts. Scientists have discovered that myelin might just be the holy grail: the foundation of all forms of greatness, from Michelangelo’s to Michael Jordan’s. The good news about myelin is that it isn’t fixed at birth; to the contrary, it grows, and like anything that grows, it can be cultivated and nourished.

Put neuroplasticity and myelination together, and you’ve got brain flubber. Both are at work in our brains all the time, whether we know it or not. My approach is to harness them consciously and intentionally. Technically, what I’m after is re-myelination — when damaged neural pathways get rebuilt. I need that because MS has a destructive effect on — you guessed it — myelin. Therefore, in neuroscience terms, my exercise routine is an attempt to use neuroplasticity and re-myelination to restore my MS-damaged neuro-pathways.

Just like Angel said.

I didn’t know any of this three years ago when I began my “self-invented alternative treatment.” I just had an idea. Turns out I got the idea about the time neuroscientists were hot on the myelin trail. Apparently I somehow got on somebody’s memo routing list.

Now that I do know about these things, I have a new goal in life: to become a lab rat.

More on that next time. 

Seven years ago, Kevin Rhodes left his law practice to start a creative venture. His reflections on what happened next appear in an article about law career exit strategies in the August issue of The Colorado Lawyer (here’s the introduction, and here’s the article). His new ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned, and is available as a FREE download at iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Scribd, or wherever else you normally get ebooks. Or follow this link to the distributor’s page, where it’s available as a FREE download in all formats — phone, Kindle, as a PDF, etc. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.