What does neuroscience have to do with coaching and therapy?
Short answer: EVERYTHING!
If you’re a coach or therapist, your job is to facilitate change in your client’s
- thinking (beliefs and attitudes)
- emotions (more mindfulness and resilience)
- behaviour (new healthy habits).
Coaching builds the mental skills needed to support lasting change. Skills such as:
- critical thinking
- stress management
Health and wellness coaching, in particular, are emerging as powerful interventions to help people initiate and maintain sustainable change.
And we have academic research to support this claim: check out a list of RCTs in table 2 of this paper).
How can neuroscience more deeply inform coaching and therapy?
Back in the mid-1990s when I was an undergrad, the core text of my neuroscience curriculum was ‘Principles of Neural Science’ by Eric Kandel, James Schwartz and Thomas Jessell. Kandel won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on memory storage in neurons.
A few years before his Nobel, Kandel wrote a paper ‘A new intellectual framework for psychiatry’. The paper explained how neuroscience can provide a new view of mental health and wellbeing.
Based on Kandel’s paper, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine proposed seven principles of brain-based therapy for psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. The principles have been translated intopractical applications for health & wellness, business, and life coaches.
One fundamental principle is,
“All mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from the operation of the brain.”
And another is:
“Insofar as psychotherapy or counseling is effective . . . it presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections.”
That is, human interactions and experience influence how the brain works.
This concept of brain change is now well established in neuroscience and is often referred to as neuroplasticity. Ample neuroscience research supports the idea that our brains remain adaptable (or plastic) throughout our lifespan.
Here is a summary of Kandel, Cappas and colleagues thoughts on how neuroscience can be applied to therapy and coaching…
Seven principles of neuroscience every coach should know.
1. Both nature and nurture win.
Both genetics and the environment interact in the brain to shape our brains and influence behaviour.
Therapy or coaching can be thought of as a strategic and purposeful ‘environmental tool’ to facilitate change and may be an effective means of shaping neural pathways.
2. Experiences transform the brain.
The areas of our brain associated with emotions and memories such as the pre-frontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus are not hard-wired (they are ‘plastic’).
Research suggests each of us constructs emotions from a diversity of sources: our physiological state, by our reactions to the ‘outside’ environment, experiences and learning, and our culture and upbringing.
3. Memories are imperfect.
Our memories are never a perfect account of what happened. Memories are re-written each time when we recall them depending on how, when and where we retrieve the memory.
For example, a question, photograph or a particular scent can interact with a memory resulting in it being modified as it is recalled.
With increasing life experience we weave narratives into their memories. Autobiographical memories that tell the story of our lives are always undergoing revision precisely because our sense of self is too.
Consciously or not, we use imagination to reinvent our past, and with it, our present and future.
4. Emotion underlies memory formation.
Memories and emotions are interconnected neural processes.
The amygdala, which plays a role in emotional arousal, mediate neurotransmitters essential for memory consolidation. Emotional arousal has the capacity to activate the amygdala, which in turn modulates the storage of memory.
5. Relationships are the foundation for change
Relationships in childhood AND adulthood have the power to elicit positive change.
Sometimes it takes the love, care or attention of just one person to help another change for the better.
The therapeutic relationship has the capacity to help clients modify neural systems and enhance emotional regulation.
6. Imagining and doing are the same to the brain.
Mental imagery or visualisation not only activates the same brain regions as the actual behaviour but also can speed up the learning of a new skill.
Envisioning a different life may as successfully invoke change as the actual experience.
7. We don’t always know what our brain is ‘thinking’.
Unconscious processes exert great influence on our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
The brain can process nonverbal and unconscious information, and information processed unconsciously can still influence therapeutic and other relationships. It’s possible to react to unconscious perceptions without consciously understanding the reaction.