Research Paper By Corina Pall
(Transformational Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
I always wondered what it is happening in my brain during a coaching session and how come coaching has such a magical and powerful influence on my brain. I felt intrigued and fascinated to find out more. With this in mind I decided to look more into it and read about it. I found a book called Neurosciences for Coaches by Amy Barnn, which gives you a brief understanding about what is happening in our brain whilst being coached and decided it to write my research paper about it.
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system, including the development of the brain, its anatomy and how it works, how is structured, how it malfunctions and how it can be changed. Neuroscience can explain why and how coaching works; an understanding of what happens when a person is being coached, ways to create best coaching environment for clients, the opportunity to ask better-quality questions and consider what interventions would best serve your client. According to Jeffrey Schwartz (American researcher in the field of neuroplasticity) a coach is “ an expert in facilitating self-direct neuroplasticity” and neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change. About 30 years ago, most scientists would say that the brain was strongly wired and once it hit adulthood couldn’t change and that would be the analogy used. However, in recent years has been a massive body of evidence that says actually the brain does change and it continues to adapt, so a person’s personality is not set for life, a person’s beliefs and values are not set for life and they absolutely can and do change.
Now, you are probably wondering why a coach should have an understanding of neuroscience. Do we need neuroscience to ask powerful questions? How about, if you intend to work with people’s minds and brains and in order for you to be the best coach that you can be, it makes sense to know as much as possible about how things actually work. And what is the point to learn about different brain areas? Well, one of the answers is that our knowledge shapes our filters and our questions.
Let’s briefly take a look at some of the brain areas.
Prefrontal cortex (PFC) – consider the CEO or conductor of the brain responsible for higher – level cognitive functions, including attention and processing. PFC is an area of the brain located at the front of the head, behind your forehead in your frontal lobes. Being the CEO, takes part in all our executive functions i.e. the ability to determine good and bad, same and different and working towards goals. The PFC doesn’t get along with stress, it is mostly like smoke has been injected into a small room and people find it hard to communicate with each other. We have all experienced stressful situations, when we invested a great amount of time by preparing for an exam and still couldn’t remember everything that we’ve learned. Our experiences can change the neurochemistry and neural circuitry of the PFC. Chronic stress for example can change the architecture of PFC. When our PFC is not in good condition we are feeling lazy, lethargic, uninspired, easily distracted, being poor at completing things, fixing attention on repetitive negative thoughts, being disorganized, being forgetful, feeling overly emotional. When you are really tired but you have a deadline on a project at work, which seems like you are never going to see the end of it, it is probably best to allow yourself to have a good rest and start again with a clean plate. On the other hand, when the PFC is in full condition, we are able to focus for longer periods of time, look at different possibilities, being able to plan and stick to the plan.
Basal ganglia – key to storing routines, repetitive behaviours and thoughts – also the home of habits. Along with habits, the basal ganglia are associated with cognitive and emotional functions. The basal ganglia are fundamental to habits and to general automatic responses. One of the neurotransmitters (a neurotransmitter is a chemical in the body that carries a signal from one nerve to the other) named dopamine plays an important role in basal ganglia. Dopamine gives us the drive to be motivated, which obviously that’s what we need in our daily life. Having a healthy diet rich in tyrosine – which can be found in avocados, bananas, meat, sesame seeds and almonds – increases our dopamine levels.
Striatum and Nucleus accumbens (NA) – involved in pleasure, reward, motivation, reinforcement learning, fear and impulsivity. Striatum is the core component of the basal ganglia. Striatum is very important in motivation, reward and salience and is activated by novel, unexpected or intense things. Nucleus accumbens plays an important role in addiction. People who are taking addictive drugs trigger the release of dopamine in NA. When seeing or visualizing something pleasing and emotional NA is activated. NA is the pleasure centre of the brain and is involved in reinforcement learning.
Insular cortex – enables a degree of awareness and is involved in our ability to be “in tune” with ourselves and very well connected to the amygdale (the area important in emotional processes). The structure of the right anterior insula enables us a degree of awareness, from feeling heat to empathizing with others. Increased grey matter in the right anterior insula correlates with an increased accuracy in the ability to be “in tune” with your inner body. An MRI scanner study showed that, people who meditate have significantly thicker right anterior insulae. The insula are involved in a range of things including: emotion, perception, self-awareness, decision making, cognitive functioning, interpersonal experience.
Amygdala – part of the limbic system which is heavily involved in regulating our emotional life. There are two amygdale and these almond-shaped groups of nuclei can be found within the medial temporal lobes. The amygdale are responsible for different aspects of perceiving, learning and regulating emotions. The limbic system (including the amygdale) is developed to manage the fight-or-flight response necessary for survival. The amygdale are activated by environmental stimuli that may be picked up consciously or unconsciously. When we are anxious our amygdale gets activated. However, we must remember that the amygdale detects emotions and processes them in order of significance and fear is very significant.
Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – is primarily responsible for conflict or error detection and self-correction. The ACC controls things such as blood pressure and heart rate regulation, in addition to rational cognitive functions such as decision making, empathy, impulse control, emotion and reward anticipation. The ACC may be involved in linking between the conscious and unconscious. ACC connects different parts of the rest of the brain and can be considered, in simple terms, to connect the thinking and emotional brain. Our ACC is dedicated to drawing our attention to what is different from what we expect.
Hypothalamus – is a small area of the brain and its roles include linking the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland and secreting neurohormones. The part of the hypothalamus called the ventromedical nucleus is responsible for food intake and regulating hunger (when a client would like to lose weight, it is important to pay attention on how the brain responds to hunger and satiety). The hypothalamus is important in aspects of parenting and attachment behaviours, thirst, fatigue and sleep. It is considered part of the limbic system and connected to the amygdala. It responds to olfactory stimuli (including pheromones) and stress. It is also involved in the mediation of emotional responses.
Hippocampus – can be found in the medial temporal lobe of the brain and has roles in the consolidation of information from short to long – term memory. What clients remember and what they forget has great implications on their ability to reach their goals. It looks like a seahorse and its Greek name means “sea horse”. There is some evidence that post-traumatic stress disorder and cortisol levels can affect the size of the hippocampus. Children who are fit performed better on memory tests and had larger hippocampal volumes. Hippocampus has three main functions: inhibition, memory and space.