Research Paper By Payal Rajaratnam
(Executive Coach, INDIA)
Any man could if he were so inclined be the sculptor of his own brain. Santiago Raman y Cajal
Have you tried staying in the present moment? What have you observed? Do your thoughts have little feet that want to run in the playground of your mind?
To me staying present at times, seemed like a hopeless effort due to my overactive thoughts. But currently the bleakness is replaced with renewed energy and hope. I am learning to use my brain!
In the past my sporadic attempts to read about the brain gave me a few insights, which ranged from understanding its functionalities, the conscious and the subconscious mind and how much we underutilise the brain and its real power! This is what led me to researching the role of the brain in coaching. I discovered the theory of neuroplasticity. The concept has given me an understanding of the impact of the coaching process on the brain.
Topic : The principle of neuroplasticity proves that the brain plays a pivotal role in coaching and that coaching has a positive impact on the brain.
In this research paper I have used two key areas of coaching Attention and Insights to explain how the brain is impacted in coaching. In the area of Attention I have referred to Dr Jeffrey Schwartz one of the world‟s leading experts in neuroplasticity and co founder of the Neuroleadership field. His books include “The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and Power of The Mental Force” and his new book is “You Are Not Your Brain”. In the area of Insights David Rock, author of books “Your Brain At work” and “Quiet Leadership” has been used as reference. David conceptualised the Dance of Insight. He coined the word Neuroleadership and is the Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity really means brain change or brain plasticity. Not so long ago many scientists believed that the brain did not change after childhood and it was hardwired by the time we became adults. However scientific advances in the last decade tells us that this is not true – the brain does change through adult life and that It is adaptable like plastic ! So the good news is we can continue changing our brain until our very end!
Just as weightlifting and physical exercise builds your muscles, when you‟re learning the nerve cells in your brain are growing with mental exercise and these neurons are developing greater connectivity. The growth and rewiring of our brain cells is called neuroplasticity. As we learn, our brain literally remodels itself based on our new experiences!
In fact your brain is constantly rewiring itself. Not only does it change from one day to the next, it changes from one moment to next. The brain you go to sleep with tonight will literally be different from the brain you woke up with this morning! (Julia Stewart,coaching with neuroplasticity exercises: 9 fascinating facts)
How does Neuroplasticity work?
Think of your brain as a dynamic connected power grid. There are billions of pathways lighting up every time you feel, think or do something. Some of these pathways are well travelled and these are our habits, established ways of thinking, feeling and doing something. It becomes easy for our brain to travel this pathway since they are strengthened. But when you start thinking of things differently, start a new task or choose a different emotion your brain starts carving out a new pathway and if we start travelling down this road then the brain starts using this pathway more. This new pathway of thinking, doing and feeling becomes second nature and the old pathway starts becoming used less and less. The old pathway weakens even as the new pathway becomes strong. This process of re-wiring your brain to form new connections and weaken old ones is neuroplasticity at work.(Neuroplasticity–Sentis)
Neuroplasticity in coaching
During coaching a client experiences temporary changes in their neural nets. A neural net is a group of neurons that are wired together. These changes, when experienced repeatedly within and without coaching, become sustainable and relatively permanent. So coaches have an opportunity to shift clients to the states most conducive to their well-being and resourcefulness. (Julia Stewart, coaching with neuroplasticity exercises: 9 fascinating facts(School of coaching mastery).
David Rock in his book Quiet Leadership explains that our brain has around 100 billion neurons. The connections between our neurons are the maps that guide our thoughts, behaviours and actions.
David goes on to say that by
linking coaching to brain function we are closer to understanding the active ingredient in coaching. A Vitamin C tablet has fillers and sweeteners, but without the active ingredient, ascorbic acid, it tastes nice but does nothing to increase our Vitamin C levels. In coaching, the active ingredient is self-directed neuroplasticity. Self directed neuroplasticity (a term coined by Dr Jeffrey Schwartz) is that the more you do an activity, the more you choose a certain kind of response, the more it creates a neural pathway that becomes your habit centre.
Attention and Insight: How does the brain function in these two areas of coaching?
Attention: Attention plays a key role in the entire coaching process. As accountability partners, coaches encourage clients to pay attention: to their goals, behaviours, thoughts feeling and habits. Attention nourishes awareness, insights and actions. When a client decides to go into action they are paying attention to the new behaviours.
Dr Jeffrey Schwartz (Coach Mentor Podcast Transcript – Episode 17, Jeffrey Schwartz and Josie Thomson- Neuroplasticity in coaching. You are not your brain) coined an interesting pattern of behaviour called Attention Density which basically is the amount of attention you pay to something: the number of times you pay attention to it and the ways you pay attention to it in a repetitive way.
Dr Schwartz talks about The Quantum Zeno Effect. What it means is that the mental act of focusing attention holds in place brain circuits associated with what is being focused on. If you pay enough attention to a certain set of brain connections, it keeps this relevant circuitry stable, open and dynamically alive, enabling it to eventually becoming a part of the brain‟s hard wiring. So the quality of attention basically calls into play this deep underlying principle called Quantum Zeno effect that stabilises brain circuitry.
Josie Thomson a multi award winning Master certified coach in an interview with Frazer Holmes coaching (Coach Mentor Podcast Transcript – Episode 17, Jeffrey Schwartz and Josie Thomson- Neuroplasticity in coaching. You are not your brain) talks about the setting up an accountability system in coaching. As coaches we are able to bring attention to the adaptive behaviours our clients are engaging in. As per Josie
increasing attention and awareness on that positive change and providing positive feedback and reinforcement where that encouragement enables clients to more likely repeat that pattern of behaviour with what Jeff also coined as Attention Density.
David Rocks article „A Brain-Based Approach to Coaching‟ based on an interview with Jeffrey M. Schwartz, reinforces this concept further. Where you focus your attention, you make connections. Focus your attention on something new, and you make new connections. This has shown to be true through studies of neuro-plasticity, where focused attention plays a critical role in creating physical changes in the brain.
So to sum up when new neural pathways that are created by repeated behaviour get strengthened with attention and focus our client is successful in forming new empowering habits.
Insights: The AHA moment
Watching the lift in the client when they have an AHA moment is a satisfying point in coaching. David Rock tells us that research says you solve about 60% of problems with insight! What is beneficial to us as coaches is to understand what leads to the AHA and how our brains functions when insights occur.
In his book Quiet Leadership, David Rock explains that scientists have discovered that the brain is a connection machine. He goes on to expand on this idea by telling us that the underlying functionality of our brain is one of finding associations, connections and link between bits of information. Our thoughts, memories, skills and attributes are vast set of connections or maps joined together via complex chemical and physical pathways. These pathways are created through a process of the brain making over a million new connections every second between different points.
David explains insight as
a moment when various ideas that were not linked before come together to form a new idea we feel like we have something new. This is the creation of a new map” or an insight or AHA moment. There is a big release of energy when this new map forms.
David Rock goes on to give insight four faces and calls it the Dance of Insight. He calls it a guide to the anatomy of the AHA! (Pg 103 Quiet Leadership, author David Rock)
Awareness of Dilemma: From a neuroscientific perspective a dilemma means we have various mental maps in conflict. For example as a working mother a promotion I want means working longer hours but I also value time with my children. David clarifies this state by telling us that the brain has not yet worked out how to resolve this conflict by creating a new metamap or by re-configuring our existing maps.
Reflection stage: As per David in this stage we are using a part of our brain used for making links across the whole brain. We are thinking in an unusual way, allowing our unconscious brain to work. This is the reason quiet reflection helps us to find ideas and thoughts that are hidden away in our mind.
Illumination stage: My AHA moment comes when my brain has formed a new set of connections, a new mental map. David tells us that at this very moment neurotransmitters such as adrenaline are released into my system. Dopamine and serotonin are possibly given off as well. We feel energised when we have an insight.
Motivation stage: When people are in the motivation stage they are ready to take action. However David brings to notice an important fact related to motivation. An intense motivation we feel passes quickly. An hour after a great idea we have forgotten it. Hence as coaches if we can get clients to commit to actions as soon as possible we can help the ideas becoming a reality.
I experimented with neuroplasticity in the area of attention. I directed my attention to spotting red cars when I travel .The first few days it was an effort to remember to do it, I forgot or remembered halfway through or at the end of my trip! But slowly as I paid more attention, I began remembering my intent until it became an automatic habit. This habit stayed with me for a short while even after my experimental period was over.
So coming back to my endeavour of being mindful if I want to carve a new neural pathway in the area of mindfulness then one idea is that if I focus on enjoying my task on hand I draw my attention away from my thoughts to what I am doing. To explain further if I am eating a piece of chocolate but my mind is full of thoughts, trying to control the thoughts may not serve me as much as pausing and savouring every bite of that chocolate. As I repeat this behaviour with mindful attention I carve a new neural pathway in my brain. Repeated sustained attention stabilizes my brain circuitry thus making it my habit.
Understanding how the brain makes connections helps me to support the client during the reflection phase. This is where giving a quiet space to the client to think without interrupting their thoughts kicks in. After all new mental maps are being created!
In conclusion the findings and research of neuro-scientists, psychologists and psychiatrists in the area of neuroplasticity support the theory that the brain goes through changes that positively impact our clients during coaching.
Paper entitled A brain based approach to coaching (International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2006, 4(2), pp. 32-43)
Coach Mentor Podcast Transcript – Episode 17, Jeffrey Schwartz and Josie Thomson- Neuroplasticity in coaching. You are not your brain.
Quiet Leadership‟author David Rock book
Video on neuroplasticity – Sentis