Neuroscience and Coaching

Neuroscience and Coaching

The brain is a remarkably adaptable organ capable of making changes and developing new connections.  This is called neuroplasticity and continues well into our eighties.

Every memory or thought process is made up of a set of interconnecting neurons forming a unique map.  The maps that are accessed more frequently stay with us longer.  This is a good link to learning and practising actions repeatedly. 

Mirror neurons fire in our brain when we see or experience someone else’s behaviour leading to the idea that we are systematically interconnected and why our social interactions are so important.

Mindfulness is a foundation for coaching skills and knowledge using neuroscience.   Mindfulness is all about learning to live in the present moment through controlling thought processes, emotions and body sensations.  Paying attention, on purpose, by slowing down brain chatter and automatic or habitual reactions allows us to experience the present moment as it really is.  Mindfulness strengthens the left prefrontal cortex where thought processes arise and the white matter connects between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which improves focus and memory.

Working memory is limited.  We can only focus on a few things at a given time so small incremental steps are best.  It takes a lot of energy to remain focused and we are easily distracted.

Attitudes, beliefs and values are hard wired.  Once a habit has become hardwired, it is difficult to overwrite.  The best method is to help people focus on something that overrides the bad habit pathway rather than to try to remove it.

Coaching requires that we encourage attention on solutions rather than the problem otherwise ineffective neural pathways get created.  Coachees who are asked to create a journal can generate good quality focus and keep these circuits active and open for longer. 

Due to the interconnectedness of the brain, working out which small changes in thinking processes create big changes in behaviour is a fundamental to coaching.

Self directed neuroplasticity, is when we direct ourselves to focus on new habitual pathways and don’t allow ourselves to get distracted.  Thus, we can change our brains by conscious effort – shining a light on something new creates new neural connections.  The questions that you ask influence the results that you see.

Good coaches don’t give advice to their clients.  The best approach is to ask perceptive, penetrating questions that allow the client to work out solutions for themselves.  Often any advice may not be appropriate as it may not be relevant to them or their circumstances no matter how much it appears to be appropriate.

Human brains work in a way that matches patterns and often notice when something doesn’t quite fit with expectations.  If a blue flashing light is expected but a red flashing light appears, more attention will be paid to it because of the difference around expectations. 

When we experience this difference in our visual, auditory or any other sense occurs a signal is generated.  Activity takes place in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain.  This is just behind the eyes.  Activity occurs in this area when we don’t trust something or someone or when something doesn’t appear to be quite right.  The ambiguity arouses the amygdala, which are responsible for filtering emotion.

The amygdala are central to the flight and fight response.  They are continually on the look out for danger and they work to move us toward what we see as rewarding and to move us away from what we perceive as dangerous. 

These error detection circuits explain a number of well-known phenomena.  The reason why we focus on problems is because this energises us.  The media report bad news most of the time because it gets our attention.  People find it easier to create lists of weaknesses and things that they are not so good than find more than one or two strengths.

How this relates to giving advice as a coach is because the advice is not familiar and so the uncertainty will set off the error detection response.  Even if the idea or concept appears familiar it may still induce this response as it may be perceived as a challenge to their status.

Awareness of these principles from neuroscience in coaching help us to keep focused on those processes that enable us and those we are coaching to make the brain change for the better over the long term.

To access our complimentary Lightbulb Moments cards - Introduction to Coaching - and - Insights into Mindfulness - visit our website

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