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.”

And,

“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:

  • mindfulness
  • self-awareness
  • self-motivation
  • resilience
  • optimism
  • self-efficacy.

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.

SIGN UP here for 10-day e-course.

Join over 2700 other health and wellness professionals and coaches who have discovered how to apply neuroscience to their life and work.

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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.

21 Responses to 7 principles of neuroscience every coach should know

  1. Meditation, NLP and hypnosis techniques can assist with processing unconscious brain data, including removing or transforming limiting Belief Systems (BS) and creating empowering new habits. Visualization is a very powerful tool, and not used effectively by so many people. Too many people *Think* and grow poor, when they could possibly *Meditate* and Manifest 🙂

    • Agreed Jeremy …. although I’m still a little hazy on NLP (but have some contacts who are willing to teach me!)> Have you read Napolean Hill – he was a mindset coach if ever there was one!

      • I also like the pun on Napoleon Hill’s book’s title 🙂

        What he teaches is the importance of *determination* to reach a goal – ANY goal. According to him, you have to be willing to reach it strongly enough to be willing as well to devote whatever means are needed for you to reach it, however high the stakes may be. I think that’s the main lesson to draw from his work – determination can conquer just any hurdle if it is strong enough.

        Otherwise, great post – once again so many elements are interconnected… and I am a great believer in natural health, and what could be more natural than working on our brains and on our moods? The perspectives are just immense :-O

  2. Now that brings back memories! Kandel and Schwartz was already the long-standing dominant thome in my undergrad days in the early 80’s too.

    Coaching is of huge import to the mental health of those being coached. A coach’s input carries greatest weight when it is given (or recalled) at crucial times in one’s life. Recent work with brain-injured subjects by Jacques Duff at Swinburne demonstrates the biological underpinnings of depression and anxiety, the knowledge of which is also valuable to those who coach or mentor others. You never know when the guidance you offer may influence someone dealing with some of life’s more insidious problems.

    • It is really important. I admit I was a bit of a skeptic about ‘coaching’ in general…but I think there is a place for health & wellness coaching, and the evidence is certainly in favour. Now to start training up brain health coaches!

  3. Hi Sarah – thank you for posting this authoritative blog. The information is insightful and it lends itself to the belief that out physiology is shaped and can be re shaped by our thoughts.

    I asked one of my clients whether she feels she will ever be well and she responded that she feels that her body will never serve her and she will always be ill. I find this sad as her thoughts and beliefs will keep her unwell and her life is set on this course.

    Anyhow love your writing and for us in the coaching field it validates our efforts to support all on their journey in life.

  4. Hi Sarah,
    What an inspiring post! I am literally on the brink of signing up to study a cert IV in Life Coaching (with a particular interest in health and wellness) and I just decided to do a quick google browse on life coaching principles to gain a little more perspective on the subject. In fact, I am suddenly so excited that I am making a choice to study this and your post and the comments about neuroplasticity, lifestyle design, habit maintenance etc have me buzzing in my seat! It’s also reassuring to see blogs by doctors and neuroscientists discussing the research and the science behind these principles and strategies which can support people to create for themselves a better quality of life. 🙂

  5. very interesting article Sarah, thank you!

    As a certified coach, I can understand how you can be skeptical about coaching in general, in particular when those who call themselves coaches are more like trainers or people who teach others how to follow a path they have walked themselves before (nothing wrong with this per se, just pointing at a lack of regulation in the industry that luckily organisations like the ICF are trying to raise awareness on and actively working on raising the coaching industry’s standards)

    There are some organisations like the Coaches Training Institute that are partnering with organizations like the Harvard Medical Shool to bring the art and practice of coaching together with the science that supports its efficacy.

    There are also some very interesting neuroscience studies that support the efficacity of coaching (read here: http://www.thecoaches.com/pressroom/press-releases/neuroscience-research-supports-co-active-coaching-as-tool-for-change)

    Raising this awareness is very important.

    Thank you for contributing to this working body of people who believe in coaching as a tool for change, and in documenting how it is supported by science.

    Maria

    • Thanks for the link Maria! I’m off to read it now.
      Yes… its a problem for the industry that it is so unregulated. Anyone and everyone can all themselves a coach! I’m sure I could be a brain coach if I decided 🙂

  6. Hi Sarah

    I love your site and your video. I am very interested in enrolling on your course but unfortunately I couldn’t afford it at the moment. I look forward to hearing how it goes and what your plans are for the future.

    I am putting together some resources for new coaches who are supervisors in a government environment and would like to include your 7 principles on neuroscience (fully referenced) and a link to your website. Let me know if this would be ok with you.

    Thanks Sarah
    Denise

  7. Thanks for the article. An easy-to-read format with great points. I know it’s neuroscience, but many of these points remind me of emotion focused therapy.

  8. Number 7 is my domain. Neurofeedback can help re-train those unconscious brain habits that are contrary to best mental, phsyical and spiritual health. Add this modality to your health plan and increase the likelihood of success.

  9. How much of this science is predicated on the brain not being physically damaged? Even negotiating this web page is difficult when interactions don’t meet your expectations, or your level of awaremness is compromised.

    • Good Question! It’s assuming an undamaged brain. Sorry to hear you’ve had trouble finding your way round Ian. The content is intended for a professional audience. x

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