Finding Holiday Harmony and Avoiding Conflict

G. Wayne Miller is an author, filmmaker and Providence Journal staff writer. Top Brain, Bottom Brain coauthor Stephen M. Kosslyn is a cognitive neuroscientist and was professor of psychology at Harvard University for over 30 years; he now serves as the founding dean of the Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute.

HolidayFireplace_300Getting along with others is one of the most important things we can do (no secret there). But harmony can be particularly elusive over the holidays, when tradition brings together relatives and friends who may not have seen each other in months or years—and who bring to the table (literally) their unique stories, prejudices and passions. Time has passed, but not the memories, good and bad. It can be a contentious mix, a potentially unwelcome episode of family drama that leaves you wondering whether all the time and effort was worth it. Have you seen that movie?

But holiday get-togethers don’t have to take that downward turn. The new Theory of Cognitive Modes from our book Top Brain, Bottom Brain may help everyone, at least a little, to enjoy the season–or at least make it more interesting.

The theory is founded on a frequently overlooked anatomical division of the brain into its top and bottom halves. Unlike the familiar left brain/right brain story (“logical” versus “intuitive”), which has little basis in science, decades of neuroscientific research have demonstrated that the top part of the brain formulates and implements plans, and revises plans in response to real-life events; at the same time, the bottom part of the brain categorizes and interprets what we perceive in the world around us.

Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think

Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think

by Stephen Kosslyn

  • Get Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think
  • Get Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think
  • Get Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think
  • Get Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Surprising Insights into How You Think

Four Cognitive Modes can arise, depending on how deeply one utilizes the top or bottom parts of the brain:

• ADAPTOR mode occurs when people do not deeply utilize either the top or bottom of the brain. Although they prefer not to make detailed and complex plans, nor do they like to analyze what they perceive in depth, people operating in this mode tend to be easygoing and cooperative—maybe this is the cousin who is content to help with the holiday meal.

• PERCEIVER mode occurs when people deeply utilize the bottom but not the top part of the brain. When operating in this mode, people prefer not to make detailed and complex plans, but do use the bottom brain extensively—often reflecting in depth on what they perceive. When operating in this mode, people are often a voice of wisdom—perhaps the kindly aunt who is very good at listening and giving advice.

• STIMULATOR mode occurs when people deeply utilize the top but not the bottom part of the brain. In this mode, people are often creative and fun, but may not know when enough is enough. Does this sound like your uncle who keeps going with the slap-stick humor?

• MOVER mode occurs when people deeply utilize both the top and bottom parts of the brain. When people operate in this mode, they are comfortable being in charge. Think of the mother, father, or grandparent who plans, hosts and supervises the family gathering.

So how might the Theory of Cognitive Modes help you during the holidays?

First, identify your own habitual cognitive mode, and think about which mode best characterizes others who will be joining you this holiday season. A scientifically validated 20-question self-assessment test, which can be completed and automatically scored in just a few moments, is available at www.TopBrainBottomBrain.com. It might be enlightening (and mutually enjoyable) for a group all to take the test. The test is useful as a spark for self-examination, and examination of others—and, as such, can lead to interesting insights.

Second, recognize that although it is difficult to change one’s dominant mode—that habitual way of thinking and behaving that generally characterizes an individual— it is possible to shift into another mode, based on circumstances. Having relevant knowledge is key. And merely being aware of the modes can also help: Not typically utilizing deeply part of the brain doesn’t mean that you cannot do so—it only means that you don’t habitually do so.

OK, now some practical suggestions for your best holiday gathering ever. Let’s say that Stimulator mode-inclined uncle won’t let up with those jokes. Funny at first, but when you’re into the third course and he’s still going… maybe not so funny.

Suggested solution: You steer the topic toward someone else at the table—perhaps a relative who seems to be acting in Adaptor mode, assisting with the meal but offering less to the conversation. Drawn out, that relative could not only contribute to the talk, but shift the dynamic of the gathering.

Or say Mom, who typically thinks and behaves in Mover mode, is hosting the holiday. Overall, this a good thing: she has planned the menu and the day, and when plans went a bit awry—the dinner took longer to cook than expected—she reacted appropriately, serving another round of beverages and urging patience. Still, she may come across as controlling, not letting anyone pitch in. Frankly, this can be annoying.

Suggested solution: Thinking in Perceiver mode, you diplomatically offer to help and enlist the help of others.
Or perhaps teenage relative Gwen is in one of her withdrawn moods, and has left the dining table to sulk in a bedroom. She refuses to come out and socialize.

Suggested solution: At first glance, you might think that turning to Mom, who likes to operate in Mover mode, would help solve the problem. But sometimes people operating in Mover mode are almost too reasonable, and stop themselves from thinking too far outside the box. You might be better off getting your Stimulator-inclined uncle to generate ideas with abandon and your Perceiver-inclined aunt to filter them. Before you know it, you might realize that your Adaptor-inclined cousin knows a lot about music, which is Gwen’s passion—and just the thing to draw her into the conversation.

Some of this sounds like common sense—and it is, although as anyone who has attended a holiday event with family and friends, acting and reacting appropriately is not universally common. With a better understanding of the cognitive functioning behind behaviors, holiday harmony—and enjoyment —may be achievable this year.

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