Research Paper By Claire Hornsby
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
How Coaching Changes the Brain to Enable Clients to Change Their Lives: insights from neuroscience which deepen our understanding of why coaching is effective in supporting long-term change.
Every interaction and experience we have changes our brain (Huberman 2020). These changes are designed to occur outside of our awareness and are therefore not consciously planned; unless we are attempting to actively learn or practice a new skill. In coaching, however, we aim to facilitate intentional change within our client’s brains so that it serves them better in moving towards their goals. Developments in Neuroscience are helping to explain how and why this approach is effective. These insights have the potential to both add to the credibility of the coaching profession and inform the work of its practitioners to enrich the client experience.
Wikipedia defines Neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary scientific study of the nervous system; combining physiology, anatomy, molecular biology, developmental biology, cytology, mathematical modeling, and psychology to understand the fundamental and emergent properties of neurons and neural circuits to develop our understanding of the biological basis of learning, memory, behavior, perception, and consciousness”. It is an exciting, broad, and constantly evolving field and has gained traction in recent years with the loosening hold of primarily behaviorist thinking and removal of the taboo of scientific research into consciousness (Baars & Edelman, 2020).
This paper considers some of the findings and thinking evolving from the field of Neuroscience, with emphasis on the concept of Neuroplasticity and its relevance to the practice of coaching. This term refers to the ability of the brain to create new neural pathways and networks moment by moment to adapt to environmental stimuli, social and cultural influences, and personal experience. The paper aims to provide some insight into what may be happening in the brain during a coaching session and how this can inform and deepen our practice.
The speed with which new scientific discoveries are made and new theories evolve is rapid and is both fueled by and limited by advances in technology. Therefore, at best this paper will capture what we think we know today and I remain open to continually learning as research continues, our knowledge grows and theories evolve as we move ever forward toward better understanding our minds.
As a student with ICA, I get to see and experience frequently how effective coaching can be. As a psychotherapist, I also have direct experience of the incredible power and healing potential of the therapeutic relationship. I, therefore, have a firm belief that creating a safe, non-judgmental space in which our clients can reflect, learn and grow enables them to move towards their goals. Having a lifelong interest in human biology and the workings of the mind I wanted to understand what was actually happening in the brain during the work that made it so effective. My hope was this insight would support my own practice and ensure I was incorporating the best intervention at the optimum time to facilitate the changes my clients desired.
Being mindful of cognitive bias and the danger of coming to this project from a strong belief in the efficacy of coaching I endeavored to make the distinction between inference and evidence. In my research, I came across several instances where theories were proposed based on limited findings which were then repeated by others as fact. To compound this over-reach, some practitioners are simplifying research findings to incorporate scientific “evidence” into their marketing claims.
I have set out this paper firstly consider what we are working with – a brain that has developed and grown over time to address whatever challenges it faced throughout our long and varied existence as a species. In doing so I hope to give a sense of some of the issues this presents us within our present socially complex, relatively abundant, and richly cultural lives. I then look at what happens physically in the brain when we think, feel and learn and consider the importance of neuroplasticity in our survival and ability to thrive. Finally, I consider how the coaching process enables clients to use this neuroplastic ability to intentionally change their brains so they can move more effectively towards their goals.
Part 1 – The brain we have been gifted
To understand what happens to the brain during coaching it will be helpful to first consider how the brain evolved and how it functions.
The brain is an integral part of the nervous system, which connects the whole body as a single harmonious organism. It evolved to support the body with two primary functions to preserve life: to move us toward sustenance and away from danger. It is encased for protection in a hard bony dark skull with no direct access to the world. To achieve its objectives it relies on inputs from specially designed data gathering organs and converts these inputs into our experience of sight, sound, touch, etc. To make sense of the inputs the brain looks for patterns, based on previous experience, to make predictions and take appropriate action. It continues this process updating continually as predictions are either reinforced as correct or adjusted if there is a detected mismatch.
In response to these stimuli, the brain initiates changes (in pursuit of its primary goal) by sending electrical and chemical signals throughout the nervous system to bring about actions such as movement, sweating, and breathing. The subsequent feedback to the brain from our limbs and organs and its constant signals of adjustment are designed to take place without our need to think about them. These signals are triggered by the release or inhibition of neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin (Cherry, 2020). These signals are passed through specialized cells called neurons which are connected via a network of cell projections, called dendrites to create neural pathways. It is these pathways that are continually being connected and reconnected, activated, and deactivated our entire lives. Within the brain, there are around 86 billion neurons creating hundreds of trillions of neural connections (Eagleman 2020). It is worth making the distinction here that the effects the neurochemicals have on us are designed to promote behavior that makes us feel good but given our current lifestyles and a steady supply of food this may not always be good for us!
Despite its relatively small size, approximately 3% of our body mass, the brain accounts for 20% of our total energy consumption. Having evolved in a time when food supplies were not constantly available the brain developed strategies for minimizing its energy consumption (Barrett, 2018) such as automatic responses, and the creation of mental models to facilitate prediction and limit surprise (Friston, 2020). The focused thoughtful effort is much more energy-intensive than automatic unconscious action therefore the brain is designed to carry out as much of its activity as possible outside of our awareness. Think about a time when you were learning a new skill, such as driving a car. At the start, this takes incredible focus as you learn to coordinate new cognitive processes, visual input, and motor skills. Using your body and mind in a novel way, was most likely very tiring. Eventually, over time and with practice, driving becomes so automatic that we don’t have to consciously think about it and indeed it can be difficult to recall the individual actions required (Rock, 2006).
Part 2 – ThEver-Changing Brain
Given the diversity of environments and social and cultural settings in which human babies arrive in the world, evolution has gifted us a dynamic brain with the ability to learn and rewrite its circuitry as a key design feature (Eagleman 2020). This gives us the optimum ability to adapt to a somewhat chaotic and unpredictable world but it comes at a price. We have to learn everything from walking to feeding ourselves to talking and we do this through iterative action, feedback and adjustment; each time making new neural connections or reinforcing existing ones. Learning to adapt to its very specific environment the brain is influenced by every interaction and experience and the intensity with which this is occurring in young children ahead of memory development is “ …one of the reasons why early learning has such a powerful influence on us throughout our lives” (Cozolino, 2016.)
Through this experiential process the brain, as part of the nervous system, encodes the learning into its structure. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe this lifelong ability of the brain to change and “rewire” itself through the creation, and growth of neurons and new neural networks which integrate to perform increasingly complex tasks, (Cozolino, 2016).
There are two main types of neuroplasticity (Cherry, 2020): functional plasticity relating to the brain’s ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas (eg following a stroke) and structural plasticity, which describes the brain’s ability to actually change its physical structure in response to our thoughts, lifestyle, and environment (Meisenheimer, 2019). It is the latter that is most relevant to our work as coaches. This “rewiring” happens on 3 levels: chemical (involving neurotransmitters such as serotonin), functional (growth of new neurons and connection between them), and structural (repeated use of new connections making areas more accessible and weakening lesser activated pathways) (Meisenheimer, 2019).
The challenge this incredible and highly adaptive feature of neuroplasticity brings is its reliance on the input from other humans which means we are hugely influenced by caregivers, community, and cultural influences. These literally co-construct our brains and can activate certain genes (Atlantic, 2018) to respond in ways that affect our mental and physical health.
Neurons work together communicating electrically across large widely distributed networks that are constantly reforming themselves. This is especially true for conscious activities (Doidge, 2016). Their flexibility also means that networks can be used for different purposes at different times – there is not necessarily a one-to-one ratio of function to network. This makes optimal use of the space we have within the brain.
Here is where we start to reach the current limits of our understanding. Existing research into brain activity demonstrates that as learning occurs new connections are formed between neurons and when thoughts occur neurons fire and form links with one another. This describes what we can observe but we still do not know where the thought actually resides – in the neuron, in the connection between the neuron, or maybe throughout the brain (Doidge, 2016).
This current limitation in neuroscience in some way reflects our work as coaches. We share with the client what we observe about what they say and maybe don’t say, along with changes we observe in their body and demeanor, however, we don’t make assumptions about what we see and we don’t attempt to fill in the gaps. The work of neuroscience researchers can show us where activity is taking place and the structures and neurochemicals involved (which may give rise to theories of mind and consciousness) but as yet it cannot fully tell us what is going on in the brain and for now, some of its workings at least, will remain a mystery.
Part 3 – Changing the Brain with Intention
Putting this insight together and considering it against the key elements of the coaching process we can see how and why coaching may be effective in supporting change. We can also be mindful of the challenges that the same brain design may present coaches in our work with clients.
The Philosophy of Coaching
The “ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (ICF, 2021). The underlying philosophy recognizes and respects the uniqueness of each individual and values their ability to access the insight, creativity, and energy required to move forward towards their goals. In co-creating, the coaching relationship with the client the coach aims to provide the ideal environment for the client to gain awareness, identify and consolidate learning and turn this into effective action. As we look at each stage of the coaching process, that takes place within this relationship, we can see how together they support the client to utilize the neuroplasticity of their brain to challenge underlying beliefs, create new thoughts, and generate new neural connections. During the process, they may also free up energy previously engaged in holding the tension of inner conflict which can then be used more productively in forwarding momentum towards their goals.
Before considering each stage of the process I want to draw attention to the fact this is not a linear process and that throughout and across sessions there can be much back and forth in the work and each interaction has the capacity to strengthen and deepen the relationship as trust builds.
The Coaching Relationship
A positive emotional connection stimulates metabolic processes that activate [neuro]plasticity whilst inhibiting stress. Thus safe and attuned connections create the possibility for both short-term and long-lasting modification of the brain. (Cozolino, 2016).
To understand the importance this sense of safety has in creating the optimum environment for coaching to take place it will be helpful to consider what happens when we are stressed or feel threatened. When our natural defense mechanisms are triggered they inhibit the executive functions of our brain and our ability to solve problems and regulate emotions.
Interpreting input signals as a potential threat, part of the brain called the amygdala sends signals to the autonomic nervous system, where the sympathetic branch prepares for a fight/flight/freeze response, and a half-second later we experience feelings such as a faster heartbeat and sweating. We may describe this group of feelings using emotional concepts such as panic or anxiety (our choice of the label being influenced by cultural norms for both description and interpretation). These sensations/emotions bring into conscious awareness the need to take action. This is a useful response in the face of real danger, but the amygdala has the same undifferentiated response for real vs imagined threat. It is ironic therefore that the executive part of the brain that can categorize and distinguish between real and imagined threats is effectively impaired by the action of the signals from the amygdala (Cozolino, 2016). Once the sense of threat has passed, signals will be sent to activate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system to lower arousal.
We can see therefore that for a client to be open to learning and able to access the full resources available to them they need to have a sense of safety with accompanying low levels of arousal. Through the coaching relationship therefore we are seeking to enable the client to activate their parasympathetic nervous system so they feel safe, relaxed, and sufficiently calm to explore their thoughts and feelings (Doidge, 2016).
Turning on the parasympathetic nervous system triggers chemical reactions that promote growth, including recharging and re-energizing the mitochondria, which are the power sources inside our cells. This may be a contributory factor when clients experience surges in energy as their thinking and feeling change during a coaching session. It also turns on our social engagement systems which enrich the relationship and allows effective coaching to take place.
To create such a relationship demands much of the coach and requires as a minimum they hold the following key values to facilitate effective and lasting change in the client’s brain.
- Compassion – keeping in mind that regardless of our cultural and familial background, our life experience, and genetic disposition we are all as humans operating with the same basic biology and are all in our own way being the best version of ourselves that we can be at this moment in time. Reminding ourselves of this will help us recognize and address the inevitable judgments and opinions we have that may otherwise get in the way of serving our clients. A client who feels judged unfavorably may feel threatened which will be counterproductive.
- Humility – our brain evolved to seek patterns and to make predictions to reduce surprises and the energy-intense responses that this demand, coupled with our sense of what we know as experts in our field (connected to our sense of self and ego) leaves us prone to making assumptions about our clients, their lives and what is best for them. Leaving our expertise outside the coaching relationship and learning to be comfortable with not knowing will enable us to stay open to truly hear the client and build a shared understanding of their meaning and trust they will find the way forward that is right for them.
- Curiosity – remaining curious about the client’s meaning behind their words is essential to creating a shared understanding of their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Our use of shared concept labels, such as anxiety, fear, or joy can cover a spectrum of experience, thought and bodily sensations, and exploring what the word actually means to the client can reveal critical differences whether they are subtle or considerable.
Each of these values opens us up to continual learning ourselves and to the creativity and resources that will not only serve our clients but change our own brains in the process. We can also see how experiencing high levels of arousal ourselves, such as being anxious about our coaching abilities, will get in the way of working effectively.
Let us now consider key elements of the coaching process that take place within this relationship.
This is where the coach partners with the client to identify what they would like to accomplish in the session (ICA, 2020). Through active listening, reflection, observation, and questioning, designed to invite the client to engage their inner resources, the coach helps the client identify what needs to be addressed or resolved for them to accomplish their desired outcome. If appropriate at this stage there may also be some exploration of those influences or factors that could get in the way of success.
What is often presented by the client is some form of the paradox between their desires and conscious thought and their underlying beliefs often manifesting as a sense of stuckness or confusion. In other words, this could represent a mismatch between different cultural messages that have been encoded into neural pathways through years of reinforcement and repetition, e.g. “you should follow your dreams” could compete with “to be a good person you stay home and take care of aging relatives”. Working towards defining a goal for the session starts to bring these conflicts into the client’s awareness for consideration and challenge and, if appropriate, rewriting or re-wiring.
As we facilitate the client’s exploration through questions that invite thought and encourage creativity, neural circuits within the client’s brain are stimulated and blood flow increases to these to replenish their energy. This neurostimulation prepares the brain to build new circuits to support lasting learning and overcome learned nonuse (Doidge 2016).
The key to effective exploration is to remain neutral – avoiding judgment or praise. This allows equal space for consideration of thoughts and feelings that may in a clients’ day-to-day life be suppressed. For example, it is common in Western cultures for rational logical thinking to be favored over creative and less structured thinking (McGilchrist, 2010). A client who has internalized a belief that emotions are embarrassing and have no place in decision making may be reluctant to consider the impact suppressed emotions are having on their ability to decide between several options. Within coaching we can support the client in acknowledging, connecting with, and valuing both approaches so they can access the full range of their resources.
Understanding how the brain created its trillions of neural pathways over a lifetime of experience we can appreciate the time and space clients need to access and consider old patterns of thinking and behaving to intentionally create new pathways. We can also see how any attempt to influence this and insert our own thoughts and ideas (however well-intentioned) would not be serving the client and could in fact be detrimental to their ability to create the connections they need.
One technique used in coaching is visualization, which employs both imagination and memory. Visualizing an experience activates many of the same sensory, motor, emotional, and cognitive neural circuits that fire during an experience and will, with repetition reinforce those circuits (Doidge, 2016). We can see therefore that inviting a client to visualize a positive outcome can be beneficial in creating and reinforcing new intentional thoughts that will, over time, lessen the hold of negative thoughts that may have been keeping them stuck.
Through exploration, we can lift for client consideration observations we make of apparent conflicts, eg between what they say, their body movements, or the results they have from their actions. Inviting the client to become aware of the anomalies can start the process of making intentional choices which will again change the neural pathways in the brain. Sometimes our intervention is not even required and just hearing themselves give voice to the conflicting thoughts is sufficient to create awareness.
As we noted above much of our brain’s activity is designed to take place outside our conscious awareness and it can take considerable effort to overcome resistance to bring long-held beliefs and models of the world into consciousness. This can be particularly true when those beliefs were previously instrumental in creating a sense of safety (whether this was real or imagined). This process invites the client to look at patterns that may no longer serve their purpose and intentionally update these with more appropriate thoughts and beliefs and in so doing create new neural pathways to replace them, opening up new opportunities and possibilities.
Here we invite the client to take their insight and new perspectives and, maintaining momentum from this, move into more practical action planning. Recognizing that awareness alone is insufficient to change circumstances the client can continue to access their full resources and creativity to address concerns and barriers to their success. This activity maximizes the benefit of the energy generated in the session and further consolidates the learning that has taken place and the new neural networks that have been created. The more these can be reinforced the more likely they are to be retained.
Finally considering how repetition reinforces newly formed neural networks making success more likely we can see how important inviting the client to reflect on their learning will be. These new thoughts and fresh pathways are competing with old, deeply embedded beliefs and networks. When the client reflects on their learning they are enabling the new thought to be fully conscious and can set a clear intention to use this to move them forward. Each time it is brought back into consciousness it is strengthened. “Neurons that fire together wire together” (Doidge, 2016).
When a client is fired up with new energy and eager to take immediate action the coach may experience a tension between following the client and inviting them to take a few moments to reflect and ensure the learning is consolidated and effective. Hopefully understanding how the brain is actively rewiring itself at this stage will encourage coaches not to miss this important opportunity.
We can see therefore how the coaching relationship and the coaching process are instrumental in facilitating change within the client’s brain. Through the coaching relationship, we create a safe and non-judgemental space for our clients to connect to their thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs, and values to consider new perspectives and behaviors and choose how to move forward with more intention. This exploration and learning create new neural connections and pathways within the brain that can override outdated habitual ways of thinking that will enable the client to move forward with energy, confidence, and commitment towards their goals.
Neuroscience is such an exciting field of study and research and brings new insights all the time in our search for understanding consciousness and the human mind. Staying informed as these scientific endeavors move us ever forward to unlocking these mysteries can contribute to collective confidence in the practice of coaching. At the same time, it calls on us to approach our work with humility and continual reflection as we acknowledge just how much power we potentially have to shape the minds of others. It is important to continue with our own personal development to ensure we are fully able to be present, accepting, and trusting of our clients and their abilities to change their own brains (re: ICF Competency 2.3). Just as we invite our clients to access all their resources we can be both guided by the coaching process and informed by current neuroscience research on what is happening inside our brains as we work in the service of our clients.
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