Life's Messy. Train Your Brain to Adapt.

Margaret Moore, co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital/ Harvard Medical School, answers all our burning questions about how to sift through the chaos of the digital age and organize our lives and minds. (Hint: it starts with the brain.)

What's the Big Idea?


Margaret Moore is the founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. Paul Hammerness, MD, is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Together, they hope to get at the physical and psychological roots of chaos. In a recent interview, Moore told Big Think that there is a cognitive basis for chronic disorganization.

Organization, she says, is not just about a cluttered desk. It’s about self-regulation, a skill that is developed by the pre-frontal cortex--the seat of executive function in the brain. The left pre-frontal cortex regulates your attention: it evaluates, judges, makes decisions. Modern life, with its barrage of incoming emails and phone calls and texts, taxes the pre-frontal cortex, inhibiting the brain’s ability to focus. Those who have naturally strong self-regulation can handle the overload—and those who don’t are left feeling guilty and out of control.

But the plasticity of the brain means we can all learn to be better focused and more organized. “When you can focus all of your brain on one thing, that’s when you’re at your best, she says. "You’re integrating all your brain. But it also consumes a huge amount of resources. You get tired. That’s really how the brain learns—when the brain is learning, it’s laying down new networks. The brain is changing when we focus. It takes a lot of energy, and when it’s depleted it isn’t able to manage the emotional brain. When your pre frontal cortex is depleted, your emotions rule all day. ”

Q: Can we actually reshape our habits just by thinking?

A: I did a coaching demonstration yesterday with a young woman who is really suffering from clutter at home—really suffering. If you look at the genetic wiring around organization, there’s a good amount of the population who have competent executive function. The other part of the population has better access to their emotions. That’s generalizing a lot, but those folks, like the woman I was coaching yesterday, are very good at living the moment, very good at connecting, they’ve got great emotional intelligence, they can pick up other people’s emotions—but they can’t find their keys. Those folks are really struggling. Privately they feel despair, because their emotional expression is turned high. It’s a strength, in terms of their ability to connect with people, but it’s a weakness when it comes to organizing.

Q: How do you take control, even when you're feeling overwhelmed?

A: Negativity is a very important part of life. When you have negative emotions, they have a message to give you—and they’re very good at getting it through. They overtake the good. They’re like crying babies demanding your attention. And so the first thing to say is, don’t permanently suppress them. Listen to them and figure out, ‘is this an error message? Or is this something I really need to pay attention to?’ The limbic system is an old part of the brain. It takes in a lot of input from a lot of places faster than they get to the thinking brain. So there’s often something important in the negative. Stress is the trigger for learning and growth. Stress is what makes us accomplish things. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s part of life. It’s not that you want to wipe it off the board. It’s more about what your relationship is with the negative.

Stress is designed biologically to be powerful; it takes over your brain much more than positive emotion. Your heart rate goes up, you breathe faster; your blood pressure goes up. It makes you ready to respond. It’s got a purpose, but it doesn’t help when it’s time to sit down and work on something for thirty minutes. Naming the emotion, giving it a language, in an empathetic caring way—just a little self-empathy instead of ‘I’m an idiot for feeling like this’—that in itself can shift it.

Q: How do we form these cognitive habits?

A: You have to train yourself. When you encounter the situation, you have to reappraise it. You do this by talking to your irrational emotions. Then practice changing the negative self-talk.

What's the Significance?

The quickest way to deal with stress, says Moore, is to summon a positive emotion. In her experience as a counselor, the most successful people are able to cultivate a three to one balance between positive and negative thoughts: “What we’re really talking about is using your brain’s most precious resource, which is your attention, in the way that it allows you to accomplish the most and make the biggest impact on the world.”

So why do we so often fail to stick to our organizational goals? "Perhaps you’ve got the motivation, you’ve got the willpower, but the confidence is crap," she says. "The motivation goes to sleep when you don’t think you can do it. You can only build confidence by doing it, by actually experiencing it." Organization is achieved through future-oriented thinking: the ability to monitor one's emotional response (i.e. "I want to watch TV now!") and redirect attention towards the activities that will help us achieve our goals (i.e. "if I spend 30 minutes doing the dishes now, I will wake up to a clean home tomorrow").

If you learn how your brain works and work with it, you can start to exercise more cognitive control over your own functioning. The first step is to figure out what is it that you really want that being organized will give you. "That’s the fuel that will keep you going when you’re struggling to change your brain," says Moore. "Every time you make a change that lasts, you’re changing your brain."

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.