Research Paper By Bogdan Vizitiu
(Leadership & Youth Coach, ROMANIA)
As humans and complex mammals, we have a plethora of needs that circulate in our everyday lives. Two of the most important ones are Attachment and Authenticity. It is particularly challenging to keep those two needs in check. Many of us lose contact with our authenticity (inner self and our gut feelings) to satisfy our other need for attachment. In other words, to stay authentic is to threaten attachment. And if that happens, we give up our authenticity. And then we wonder who we are or whose life is this and who is experiencing all this. And so, that is where the reconnection with oneself has to happen.
This research paper focuses on how emotions affect our brain and our capacity to learn and grow. The questions it answers are:
- How do emotions affect our brain?
- How can we use emotions in coaching?
The LIVES (Lifeline, Introspection, Values, Emotions, Shine) coaching model takes the client through a journey of rediscovering and reconnecting with the true self.
In his trilogy His Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman gives us his view on the matter with the story of Lyra Belacqua, a girl that could interpret the symbols of the alethiometer, a compass-like device that reveals the truth. It is a rare and valuable gift. By the end of the books she no longer possesses that gift, and she must regain it by work – that it will take a lifetime.
As Lyra, when we are children, when we are connected to our internal compass, we know what is right and by the time we grow into adulthood, we are more and more disconnected from it.
The brain needs time to acquire new information and to incorporate it. One of our fundamental needs is to have the space to communicate and this is one of the things that are less and less available in our society. It’s difficult to adjust to the rapidity of change that’s going on technologically and we don’t have time to absorb, process, and integrate what is going on and happening around us and that’s part of the problem we are facing as coaches in our society.
The emotional basis of cognition.
In 1994 – Antonio Damasio in his book: “Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain”, talks about learning and how he used to assume that learning, cognition, intellectualization was a separate entity and a separate process from emotionality. Cognition stands on an edifice of emotion. At the basis of learning is our emotional being, and our emotional being is connected to our internal organs (visceral organs). The brain is like a project manager that brings together information that is coming from the outside as well as from the inside, at the same time. And the messages the brain receives from the inside (visceral, emotions) is how well we can connect with the outside – external world.
Our capacity to pay attention and to learn have a lot to do with what is happening internally on the emotional and visceral level and what our gut feeling is telling us. In a society where people are less and less connected to their gut feelings – there is less and less engagement with the reality of the external world because of this disconnect. We live in a society that cuts us off from our gut feelings. There is something internal that knows and is much stronger than what intellect is telling us.
Damasio says: “The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions necessary for an organism’s survival. In turn, these lower levels maintain direct and mutual relationships with virtually every bodily organ, thus placing the body directly within the chain of operations that generate the highest reaches of reasoning, decision making, and, by extension, social behavior, and creativity. Emotion, feeling, and biological regulation all play a role in human reason.”[p xvii]
When a behavior does not serve us anymore is wise to ask oneself what is happening on the emotional level at that moment.
On another note, the prefrontal cortex has 9 important functions: regulates the body itself, it regulates attuned communication with others, emotional balance, response flexibility (can decide how to respond to stimuli –this is further explored in the responding vs reacting power tool), providing insight, empathy, modulation of fear ( calm down – you have this), intuition and morality. These 9 functions are supported by mindful awareness practice. And all of them are supported and developed by nurturing parenting. What happens when parents are so stressed that they are no longer able to provide this stress-free environment then these 9 functions of the prefrontal cortex are unable to develop properly.
Harvard Centre on the Developing Child says: Growing scientific evidence demonstrates that social and physical environments that threaten human development because of scarcity, stress or instability can lead to short term physiologic and psychological adjustments that are necessary for immediate survival and adaptation but which may come at a significant cost to long term outcomes in learning, behavior, health, and longevity.
The things that young human beings must develop as adaptive mechanisms to survive early stress will help them endure that early stress but in the long term will interfere with health and learning, adaptation, social relationships, and longevity.
In coaching these could be translated to beliefs and how in the past they served us and protected us. The challenge is to probe what is costing us to keep them still.
The architecture of the brain is constructed to an ongoing process that begins before birth, continues to adulthood, and establishes a sturdy or fragile foundation for all the health, learning, and behavior that follow. The interaction of genes and experiences shapes the circuitry of the developing brain and is critically influenced by the mutual responsiveness of adult-child relationships, early childhood years.”
The mechanism we could see here is that the prefrontal cortex regulates the body when it is under stress, so one of the responses of the mind is to “tune out”. The capacity to dissociate is a survival mechanism. If the stress is too much and you cannot escape or fight, then the mind will protect us by tuning out. How our emotional circuits develop depends on our early environment.
Studies show that too much cortisol (stress hormone) interferes with learning and shrinks the hippocampus (our hard drive in the brain where we retain memories).
An all-time saying says that “It takes a tribe to raise a child” and in the past that could happen (grandparents, other relatives, or even friends and neighbors were available to care for the child) but nowadays that option is much scarce. When parents are stressed, they are unable to attune to the child, the more likely the child’s brain will not develop optimally.
What are we up against as coaches? There are the coping mechanisms – emotionally based, or emotional shutdown – not being aware of feelings (gut feeling) – a disconnection from the feelings and emotions because it was too painful to have feelings that are not validated by the environment (the world), so we learn to dissociate our gut feeling from the intellect and so the inner knowing is no longer available to us. That means we are blind from finding our internal compass, sense, meaning, and what is important to us.
When we shut down emotionally, we stop learning. We shut down to protect ourselves but for development, you need vulnerability (our capacity to be wounded). And nothing grows when it’s not vulnerable. (a tree doesn’t grow when it’s hard and thick, it grows when it’s soft and green and vulnerable, a crab cannot grow encased in a hard shell – it has to cast the shell out and become vulnerable). If a child or adult is to shut down emotionally especially from a negative experience, then the learning is much more difficult to happen – they keep repeating the same stuff over and over again and despite the negative consequences they learn nothing from it.
We must find out what is going on for that person. Learning needs curiosity and that is vulnerable, you care about something. When your emotions are shut down – you do not care about anything – it is boring.
We also learn from trial and error. But to learn from that you must have the vulnerability to admit that something does not work and to be sad about it. When you defend against sadness, when nothing matters you’re not going to learn from negative experiences, you’re not going to try something again – you will say I don’t care and you just give up.
Dr. Brene Brown says that” Vulnerability is not about fear and grief and disappointment, it is the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for”. And that includes learning about us.
People learn through attachment, when you are emotionally attached to somebody you want to emulate them, to be like them – learn from them.
What is required for the learning capacity to really express itself. We have 3 fundamental ways to respond to the environment:
- Reptilian brain mode – freeze or conserve energy(defensive mode)
- Mammalian mode – flight or fight – sympathetic nervous symptoms increased levels of cortisol and blood surge. (defensive mode)
- Social Engagement mode – learning mode. (nerves that carry information from our viscera – internal organs and the nerves that regulate our breathing, heart rate).
The human body could be either in defensive mode or learning mode, not both. To be in this mode we must feel emotionally safe. When we do not feel safe, we activate the other 2 ways of respond (defensive states) and we cannot learn.
How can we relate this to coaching?
As coaches, we must create a safe environment for the client with a focus on trust and intimacy that allows our clients to connect with their emotions and facilitate learning about themselves. That means to be fully present. Nothing outside of the interaction exists, thoughts may float through our brain, but they do not stay. The practice of coaching presence is very much like practicing mindfulness – when the coach is aware of what happens inside and outside of the mind and body. To be aware of the sensations and allow them to pass through. When you use mindfulness, you focus on your breathing and the coach can be present, curious, patient, and quiet. The benefit of this open presence is that it creates the psychological safety needed to have an honest exploratory conversation with your client.
Also, that calm attuned parenting environment is what people offer themselves when they practice mindful awareness – they give themselves that attuned quiet attention.
Mindfulness practice could be employed alongside coaching to further develop and create awareness. Mindfulness regulates our internal states and can help us switch faster from the defensive modes.
Dr. Stephen Porges (2013) – “when fear is removed is empowering – if your nervous system is safe you do lots of interesting things, when your nervous system detects risk and fear, you can’t even sit in a room without being hypervigilant.”
If we want our clients to learn or to gain clarity on what is available for them or about themselves, then our job as coaches is to prioritize the absolute emotional security of our clients. As a coach, we must open our hearts, gut, and brain with curiosity, care, and courage, for the client to feel safe and to trust us emotionally – to move forward.
Antonio Damasio (1994): Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
Harvard Centre on the Developing Child (2014): Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain
Responding vs Reacting (2020) – ICA
Dr. Gabor Mate (2019): Gently Dusting off the Mind
Alice Miller (1979) – The drama of the gifted child: The search for the true self
Dr. Stephen Porges (2013)
Dr. Brene Brown – The power of vulnerability
Phillip Pullman (1995) – His Dark Materials: Northern Lights
The great courses – Practicing Mindfulness: An introduction to meditation