Some people waiting on line to enter Philadelphia's Magic Gardens (PMG). It's a metaphor for inclusion.

DEI 101: the neuroscience behind diversity, equity & inclusion (part one)

I took a morning workshop on diversity, equity and inclusion recently. It was led by Paloma Medina, Performance Coach and Founder of 11:11 Psychology, Work & Life Supplies. It took place at  the World Domination Summit in Portland, OR. Today, I wrote up my notes and read through the slide deck. Not sure I have ever done that before! I could probably boil it down to one (huge) idea: Inclusion is a core human need. What we do to get it, or when facing the absence of it…that’s where things get interesting hot.

This talk was science-based and unexpectedly profound. I don’t know what I expected actually. I don’t have a team I want to build (yet), or a company diversity-box I want to check off. What drew me to the workshop is that it’s time to break my habits around listening. This seemed like a super-relevant line of inquiry. I don’t usually think about how we’re wired, or consider what is useful from an evolutionary – survival view

We feel things first.

All data/information goes to the amygdala first. The amygdala is part of the limbic system. It’s the older, emotional, fight or flight center. That’s where we register threats and rewards. It’s where we notice patterns of threat.

Next, there’s the prefrontal cortex (PFC), where we handle complex matters, think things through. The PFC is the more recently evolved part of the brain that handles rational and creative thought.

When something threatens a core need, the amygdala shuts downs the PFC. It’s been referred to as amygdala hijacking. There’s no time for the PFC to think through the situation. The amygdala is way faster and has already identified a threat. And it feels threatened by things like exclusion

Belonging, or inclusion, it turns out, is a core human need.

Think of what we do for family, or for love, that puts us at risk. It’s not Maslow’s hierarchy of needs working here. We care about belonging, about our people, first.

Experiences of social pain, like exclusion, are akin to physical pain. They feel the same to our brains, and we do what we need to do to avoid them.

Emotions rule and our reactions are all signs of our nervous system moving energy and focus to where it can best protect us.

There are culturally accepted (and rejected) expressions of emotion (like no crying in baseball—is that still the case?), but no one is actually less emotional than anyone else. We just deal with it differently. Some withdraw, some shout, for example. Most of us, when threatened, experience  tunnel vision, increased heart rate and tensed muscles. We are all emotional beings. About a third of our experiences are PFC-based, while two-thirds are our emotional life, ruled by a more primitive part of our brains. Think about that…

This helps to make sense out of (way too many) experiences I’ve had losing my cool, to put it mildly. It also helps to explain why so many conversations where we have not been able to connect and just talk things over. One or several of us was, no doubt, in a completely different emotional state than the others. Whether you could tell or not. I don’t mean just the hot-headed outbursts, tears, or storming off. I mean, we’re all endlessly dealing with feelings that I don’t think we’re trained to identify, understand and handle.

We have evolved. We do have the PFC. Just, all things being equal, the amygdala will run right over it every time. 

Unless—we rewire our brains. 

This can be done. 

The workshop ended with homework.

Looking forward to hearing what you think!

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