Coaching the brain with neuroscience in mind
Back in the mid-1990s when I was an undergrad, the core text of my neuroscience curriculum was ‘Principles of Neural Science’ by Eric Kandel, James Schwartz and Thomas Jessell. Kandel won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on memory storage in neurons.
A few years before his Nobel, Kandel wrote a paper ‘A new intellectual framework for psychiatry’. The paper explained how neuroscience can provide new view of mental health and wellbeing.
Following on from Kandel’s paper, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine proposed seven principles of brain-based therapy for psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. The principles have been translated into practical applications for health & wellness, business, and life coaches.
The most fundamental principle is,
“All mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from the operation of the brain.”
“Insofar as psychotherapy or counseling is effective . . . it presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections.”
That is, experience and environment influence brain development and functioning. This concept is now established in neuroscience and is often referred to as neuroplasticity. Plenty of neuroscience research supports the idea that our brains remain adaptable (or plastic) throughout our lifespan.
What does neuroscience have to do with health, life or business coaching?
Short answer: EVERYTHING!
If you’re a coach you can facilitate change in:
- thinking (beliefs and attitudes)
- emotions (more mindfulness and resilience)
- behaviour (new healthy habits).
Coaching builds the psychological skills needed to support lasting change such as:
Health and wellness coaching, in particular, are emerging as powerful interventions to help people initiate and maintain sustainable change (and yes, there is research to back this up! Check out a list of RCTs in table 2 of this paper).
Here is a summary of Kandel, Cappas and colleagues thoughts on how neuroscience can be applied to therapy and coaching…
Seven principles of neuroscience every coach should know.
1. Both nature and nurture win.
Both genetics and the environment interact in the brain to shape our brains and influence behaviour.
Therapy or coaching can be thought of as a strategic and purposeful ‘environmental tool’ to facilitate change and may be an effective means of shaping neural pathways.
2. Experience transforms the brain.
The areas of our brain associated with emotions and memories such as the pre-frontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus are not hard-wired (they are ‘plastic’). Circuits in our brain change in response to experiences, not just during development, after injury, or during learning and memory formation.
3. Memories are imperfect.
Our memories are not a perfect account of what happened. Memories can be reconstructed at the time when we recall them depending on how we retrieve the memory. For example, a question, photograph or a particular scent can interact with a memory resulting in it being modified as it is recalled.
With increasing life experience we weave narratives into their memories. Autobiographical memories that tell the story of our lives are always undergoing revision precisely because our sense of self is too.
Consciously or not, we use imagination to reinvent our past, and with it, our present and future.
4. Emotion underlies memory formation.
Memories, emotions, and feelings are interconnected neural processes. The amygdala, which plays a role in emotional arousal, mediate neurotransmitters essential for memory consolidation. Emotional arousal has the capacity to activate the amygdala, which in turn modulates the storage of memory.
5. Relationships are the foundation for change
The therapeutic relationship has the capacity to help clients modify neural systems and enhance emotional regulation.
Relationships in adulthood have the power to elicit positive change.
6. Imagining and doing are the same (to the brain).
Mental imagery or visualisation not only activates the same brain regions as the actual behaviour but also can speed up the learning of a new skill. Envisioning a different life may as successfully invoke change as the actual experience.
7. We don’t always know what our brain is ‘thinking’.
Unconscious processes exert great influence on our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
The brain can process nonverbal and unconscious information, and information processed unconsciously can still influence therapeutic and other relationships. It’s possible to react to unconscious perceptions without consciously understanding the reaction.
If you want to explore these ideas in more detail, they form the basis of my FREE 10-day ecourse:
Neuroscience for Coaches and Wellness Professionals.
Join over 2700 other health and wellness professionals and coaches who have discovered how to apply neuroscience to their life and work.
As Cappas et al note that this list is not exhaustive. This blog post should serve as a jumping-off point for considering coaching through a neuroscience lens. Psychologists, therapists and coaches face the challenge of understanding and treating the whole person with biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. Its possible knowledge of the brain and mind can enhance this practice, and begin to inform new strategies consistent with neuroscience principles.