A Research Paper By Dana Wu, Career Coach, UNITED STATES
Interview With ICA Alumna and Brain Based Coaching Specialist Candace Brower
Today I am interviewing Candace Brower, who is a graduate of ICA and she specializes in brain based coaching. In her former life, she was a professor at Northwestern, and nowadays she’s working on writing a book called The Mind’s Toolkit. It’s a self-help book that can be used by coaches who are interested in doing brain based coaching.
I’ll start off by asking, what made you decide to become a coach?
Well, it was actually a beginning, the experience of being coached myself and there was a certain time in my life when I felt that there were certain things that were going on in my life myself, that I was struggling with, and felt like I was kind of beating my head against the wall. I felt like it would just help to have some support around that, and I knew I didn’t want therapy, and I wanted something where I was in charge and felt like it was a positive experience of just having somebody kind of help me see where I might be going wrong and get me back on track.
So the coaching model really appealed to me. And I did find it very helpful. And I also felt that I really wanted to help. I’ve always had that sense of really wanting to help people. I’ve been a teacher my whole life in various ways, private teaching and also classroom teaching. And so that’s partly what I saw as coaching.
Coaching is a lot like teaching and I would like to see those two practices be integrated better. So I decided I wanted to become a coach, in part so that I could help people in the way that I was helped, but also because I wanted to get some practical experience with helping people that I could use as sort of beta testing for the ideas that I had been developing for this book, which I actually started writing about 15 years ago if you can believe that. I had to put it aside for many, many years because there were all sorts of other things going on in my life that interfered. But I was finally able to be in a place in my life where I could come back to it. And now I am in that place where I feel very excited about the book and I’m still outlining the whole thing, but I expect to very soon be able to start drafting it.
And so it’s been a long journey – my own coaching practice was part of that and my training at ICA, which I really appreciated. I really enjoyed my time at ICA and felt like I benefited a lot from that. So, that was a very positive experience in my life.
What Is Brain Based Coaching and What Are Its Advantages?
So in terms of your book, it’s all about brain based coaching. Let’s start with what is brain based coaching and what are its advantages.
All right. Well, first of all, I should say that the book isn’t really about coaching at all. It’s really a self-help book. Coaches tend to read a lot of self-help books and then recommend to their client’s self-help books, so it’s would be more that kind of book where it would be could be very useful to a coach but it’s not addressed specifically to coaches it’s really addressed to to individuals who are smart people who still need help because even smart people need help figuring out what to do with their lives. So that’s my target audience.
To get back to your question of what is brain based coaching and what are its advantages? I feel like it’s the kind of coaching that makes the most sense in terms of especially life coaching. Because if you can help a client understand how their brains work, that’s a huge advantage. I feel that’s where the teaching aspect of coaching could come in and when I was doing my own coaching, in my own private practice, that’s very much the way I looked at it.
So I felt like a big part of my job as a coach was to provide information, to provide resources to say here’s an idea, here’s something maybe you didn’t know about this about the amygdala or this part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and, and understanding this could help you with this particular problem or dilemma you’re facing right now. So I saw it as something that could be woven in.
Now, at present, there’s not a lot of brain based coaching going on out there. And I’m not sure why that is. I know David Rock is someone who advertises himself as doing brain based coaching. I consider his style of coaching to be very sort of narrow in that it addresses executives, and business people, and so it’s not really life coaching.
So I would say the advantage of brain based coaching is you’re bringing this added value to the coaching in that you’re not just there to support whatever ideas the client can come up with. If you go back to the metaphor, which I really like- okay, the client is in the driver’s seat and the coach is the navigator, someone who’s sitting in the seat beside and has the map and is helping point out, ‘Oh, wait a minute, you seem to be off track here’ And ‘How are you going to get there,’ but also having a map of the mind and the brain that you can say, ‘Well, here’s what might be going on for you right now.’ So instead of taking over and grabbing the steering wheel, just helping the client understand that getting some insight about what’s going on inside their minds.
What Concrete Example Might That Be for People Who Are Unfamiliar With Brain-Based Coaching?
So for someone who’s maybe new to brain based coaching, maybe you can offer a specific example of what that might look like?
Okay, well, I’m in fact, I was thinking I might talk about that a little bit after the book, but I can offer some ideas right now. About what that might look like. One is to understand one of the things that’s most likely to get in a client’s way, and that is fear and anxiety. And so, you know, helping to bring up that issue and saying ‘It might help you to know, for instance, that it’s the amygdala’ and most people have heard of the amygdala, right? So I would try to tune into that, especially people who are well read, smart people are likely to have heard of that and help them to understand ‘Okay, this is what’s happening to you. Here are some suggestions for what you can do to keep that from getting in your way.’
And in fact, that’s one of the things that I’ve most recently learned about some strategies for how to do that is brain based and that has to do with meditation, which is something neuroscience has really started to investigate a lot. You know, what’s going on in the brain and how is meditation, especially mindfulness, everybody’s heard of mindfulness meditation, and oh, you should do mindfulness meditation, and they’ve done brain scans showing this and that.
What I’ve learned more recently, is as there are actually many different styles of meditation, and it turns out, that the style that is most effective for anxiety is what’s sometimes called transcendental meditation, or automatic self-transcending meditation. And it’s something that I just started doing myself a couple of months ago because of learning about it, by studying neuroscience and realizing ‘Wow, this could be very powerful.’ Because it’s like, when you do this kind of meditation, you put yourself in what’s known as an alpha state. So if you understand anything about brainwaves, you learn that alpha waves are very relaxing. And so when you get yourself in an alpha state it’s kind of like an eraser. It erases those feelings of anxiety so that once you finish that meditation, you’re in a much better place to, at least temporarily, be free of those feelings that could get in the way of thinking about what you want to do. And being blocked by that. So that’s one example.
Another example is what I call time travel. And that is something that neuroscience has shown us is that there is this part of the brain it’s right in the middle right down the middle, but it also connects up with another part of the brain that’s on the sides in the temporal cortex, which stores our personal memories. We use this system, it’s called the default mode network. And it seems to be the center of the self. You know, when we wonder ‘Well, where’s the self in the brain?’ Well, now we know we’ve learned this. And it’s the part of the brain that we use when our minds are wandering when we’re not working. For instance, we’re just lying there at night when we have our eyes closed, maybe we can’t sleep. And one of the things we use it for, which is not very good, is rumination. And that’s when the default mode network gets into this pattern of just like a circle, just thinking the same worrisome thoughts over and over again, which is not very helpful.
But it turns out that that’s the same part of the brain that we use to plan for the future. It’s called autobiographical planning. And we use it in relation to the past. So what I like to call time travel, it’s the part of the brain that’s most useful to us, the prefrontal cortex, and what I call self one or the executive self, the executive part of the brain. That’s the part of the brain that’s capable of what’s called time travel or sometimes it’s called memory for the future. So when in coaching, you could say, ‘Oh, okay, well visualize where you want to be in the future. Okay, so now, what are some examples of things you’ve done in the past that you could draw from? When have you been successful at this in the past?’ And that’s one of the things you can do as a coach, to help a client do that kind of time travel, and to predict the future in a useful way and project into the past in a useful way. So that’s another example.
Another one is using a spotlight a metaphor for attention. And so I like in my own coaching, to present it as a kind of something we can control. Or maybe even use a metaphor of a flashlight so you say, ‘Okay, what happens when you control your flashlight this way or that way and help the client to have a sense of ‘Oh, wait a minute,’ because our attention can be grabbed. It’s constantly being grabbed all the time, right? Because we’re exposed to so many stimuli all the time, whether it’s social media or TV or whatever. We’re bombarded. And so developing some sense of, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to allow my attention to be grabbed by these things. I can be in control. I can take my flashlight. I can say – I want to pay attention to this.
It gives us something that we can use in our minds metaphorically, we can make it a broad beam or a narrow beam. If we want to focus narrowly on something we can shine it toward the future, we can shine it toward the past, we can shine it toward the present. And so it’s something that makes us feel like we have a little bit more control over our lives and over how our brain is functioning. So those are some examples of how, how that could work.
How Did You Acquire All of Your Brain Based Coaching Knowledge?
Thank you, that’s really helpful just to get an idea of what brain based coaching is. So how did you gain all this expertise in brain based coaching?
Well, that’s what I’ve been working very intensively on over the past 15 years when I first got this idea to write this book called The Mind’s Toolkit. And I started to write it and I was all excited and I had what I called the toolkit model. And then I thought, you know, well, I really need to understand a little bit more about the brain and how that works. So I started learning some neuroscience and learning about the brain. And what I discovered is that the human brain is incredibly complex. And so I said, ‘Whoa, I don’t know nearly enough about the brain to write this book, or to really do this kind of brain based coaching.’
So what I did was I just started very intensively studying neuroscience and especially things like emotion and learning how our emotions work. And it turns out that some of it was very surprising and it’s stuff that can be very helpful to clients.
For instance, we are, we are very smart when it comes to knowing what’s actually going to make us happy. You know, we tend to pursue things like making a lot of money or getting a job or all these things. Well, it turns out that studies have shown is once you make like maybe $60,000 a year, it really levels off and your happiness doesn’t keep going up. And if more people understood that they might set their goals a little bit differently.
And to go back to your question of how I developed this. I just got up every morning at about 3 am, which most people think is a little strange. But I sat down at my computer and I started with Google, just like anybody that starts with Google. And I just put my burning questions. Well, how do we do this? How does the brain do this? What’s the relationship between brain and mind I kept asking the questions and what I discovered is, that there’s a lot of information out there. It’s incredible and it’s free. You can access studies in neuroscience very easily.
Now, the hard part, of course, is understanding it. And so I spent a lot of time just learning the terminology. And you know, studying first this part and then that part and then putting the pieces together. And literally, I have spent 15 years doing exactly that. And getting to that place where I feel like yeah, I’m now qualified, I can do this. I can not only do brain based coaching, but I can offer tools to other people who want to do brain based coaching through this knowledge base that I’ve constructed for myself in neuroscience, also psychology, and especially what’s known as positive psychology, which is a new movement in psychology, which focuses on mental health from the positive side of positive emotions and what what is happiness? You know, how can we get that rather than the disease model is ‘Oh my gosh, you know, I’m suffering from depression and anxiety and you go to a doctor and you get a pill or therapy or whatever.’ So, that is another area where I did a lot of work that I think is very useful in terms of doing brain based coaching.
Wow. That’s amazing dedication, reading all those papers and learning the whole field. So, back to your book, what exactly is your book going to be about?
Well, the title tells you a little bit about what it’s about. And that is the metaphor: the mind is a toolkit and tool. And so it starts off with this question. You know, we have this wonderful thing called a brain. We all have one and it’s amazing. It’s the most complicated thing in the world. And yet, we have no user manual. So how can we use it better? How does it work? So that’s one theme of the book.
Another is the theme of metaphor, which is another idea in the book that would be very useful for brain based coaching. I think that’s something that tends to be underutilized by coaches. We’re encouraged to use metaphors. But we’re not really taught how to use metaphors so that’s one of the things my book does, is it talks a lot about metaphor.
It presents a lot of metaphors that can be useful for using our brains better. And so it starts off, in fact, by explaining what metaphor is, how it works, and when we think metaphorically, what does that mean? So, but then there are all these other metaphors that are useful in terms of conceptualizing what the brain does and how to use it better. So I could go back to this idea that I mentioned before of the executive brain or the executive function. What I call self one, is the prefrontal cortex, and it’s the most highly developed part of the brain. And, sometimes neuroscientists talk about it using the metaphor of the executive, a CEO. Our prefrontal cortex is the CEO of our brain. So for instance, that’s a metaphor that I developed in the book.
Okay, well, you’re the CEO of your own brain, your own mind, and imagine yourself, and here are all the parts of your brain and they’re there at the table, you’re in your boardroom, and they’re all making contributions. But you’re the one that’s in charge of making decisions about what you’re going to do with your life, especially the big decisions – setting goals, where do you want to go in life? And, in fact, I think that something that coaches could do a lot more of is learn better how to help clients set goals.
There’s a lot out there in terms of that, for instance, SMART goals, which I’m not very fond of. I feel like we could do a lot better in terms of helping clients to form more ambitious goals or think more about what kinds of goals they could pursue that would actually make them happy.
So the book is organized around this model, what I call the toolkit model.
How Can a Brain Based Coaching Book Help You?
Yes, great! So let’s say I’m a coach who’s interested in doing some big brain based coaching, how might your book be useful?
Well, I think I’ve already touched on some of that with the strategies for brain based coaching, but I think that probably one of the ways that it’s most useful is with these metaphors. For instance, the roles played by self one, there’s the CEO, for example. But another metaphor that is developing a chapter that I’m calling the social self is the metaphor of a scriptwriter. So that part of what we can use our prefrontal cortex for is to deal with human relationships because let’s face it, we are very social creatures and we care a lot about our interactions with other people. And very often, those are the things that we struggle with the most.
In a marriage, for instance, a husband and wife, get stuck in some way and they realize they keep getting angry about the same thing over and over again. So one of the things for instance, in that chapter, I am including what I call mantras. Metaphors to live by, these are mantras to live by and in that chapter, one of them is called ‘if needed, rewrite the script.’ And that’s something I think a coach could use to help guide a client in terms of figuring out how to change something, For example, a relationship where they have conflict, and how to make that better. Because one of the things is we don’t realize how much our actions are determined.
They’re very habitual, a lot of our perceptions, our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions kind of go in this repeating cycle. And we’re not aware that we’re doing the same thing we did because it’s just always been that way. And when we’re interacting with another person, they are caught in the same cycle. And because the way the brain works a lot is on prediction. So when we’re talking in there, we’re already anticipating what the other person is going to say. And we say, Okay, I know what he’s gonna say next. He’s gonna say this.
Instead of ruminating when you’re lying awake at night, you can come up with ways to rewrite those scripts and say, Okay, how can I change the script? How can I change my part of the script, so that suddenly, he’s not able to predict what I’m going to do or say next, because I just changed the script? And so it’s a really useful way to get out of those kinds of ruts. So that’s another example of ways the book could be useful to coaches.
Brain Based Coaching Final Thoughts
Right. So I want to be respectful of your time. In wrapping up, are there any final thoughts you want to add about your book or brain based coaching?
Well, I would like to reflect on my experiences as a coach and my experiences being trained as a coach at ICA. There were parts of the curriculum at that time that I felt were very helpful, some of the power tools for instance. In fact, some of those have affected me in terms of my thinking about the book. One of my favorite classes was called game versus significance. I think it’s still there, but it’s called something else now. And I found that was really powerful because I realized how much I tended to be weighed down by these heavy significant thoughts.
And now from the perspective of learning about the brain, one of the things I’ve learned about is there is this entire circuit that we share with other species, including mice and rats, and it’s called the play circuit. So we have this built-in circuit that is playful, and we can get into this frame of mind where our brains work differently and they work better. And so that’s something for coaches to understand and to bring to a coaching session, to help clients to get into that playful frame of mind and also in a more curious frame of mind and exploratory frame of mind.
These are things that a mouse will do. You put a mouse in a maze, and they’re curious and they want to explore and humans are the same if we are given that invitation. So one of the things I used to do with my clients was to play what I call the ‘what if game. ‘What if you did this or what if you did that, what would that be like?’ And suddenly we overcome the fear, the anxiety because we’re not really doing it. We haven’t decided to do anything. We’re just exploring an idea. And then poof, ideas pop into our heads.
David Roth talks about this insight you have. This is something neuroscientists have actually studied. They’ve located a part of the brain that fires when we have an insight when we have that burst, that eureka moment, and it’s in the right hemisphere. It’s in the temporal cortex. It’s a burst of what’s known as very fast gamma waves on top of alpha waves. Well, the alpha waves I was talking about before with meditation when you do this form of Transcendental Meditation, you’re generating alpha waves. It’s the perfect background for having these kinds of bursts of insight that inspire us. They give us an exciting feeling like, ‘Oh, wow, I just had this idea. Now, what do I need to do to follow this?’
And that’s one of the reasons why I’m not too fond of SMART goals. Because they’re supposed to be timely, they’re realistic, they’re actionable. All these things were okay. It’s just very practical. When a lot of times the goals that are most inspiring to us are where we just suddenly had this ‘Oh my gosh, what if I did this and we get all excited and we get dopamine.
I didn’t even talk about the dopamine system, but that’s a really important thing to understand. It’s called the seeking system because that’s what fuels us. It’s what motivates us to pursue our goals. There are different ways to get the dopamine that will help us and without that, we’re kind of dead in the water. And that’s the problem with smart goals is it relies on okay, you get your reward at the end when you meet your goal. But unfortunately, maybe you’re not going to have enough dopamine fuel to actually get to that point. That’s important to think about. So that’s another big part of the goal of the book that I talk about: How to get the dopamine you need to actually pursue and achieve your goals.
Thanks so much for sharing about brain-based coaching today. You shared a lot of ideas and concepts that I want to research more. I get the sense that brain-based coaching is all about understanding how the brain works so you can make it work for you, be in control of your brain, for example, by realizing you can control the flashlight of where you pay attention to.
It was also interesting to learn about how transcendental meditation can help erase anxiety. The time travel concept of visualizing the future also seems useful in coaching. Looking forward to checking out your book when it’s finished. Thank you again, Candace.