Why Your Brain Is Hardwired for Coaching

Jul 01, 2018

By Jess Hopkins 

Neuroplasticity is perhaps the most ground-breaking and revolutionary finding in modern neuroscience. For many years, the consensus was that once you reached adulthood, the human brain couldn’t generate new cells and you were more or less in a state of neural decline. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the so-called father of neuroscience, made a gloomy prognosis 1928 that would persist throughout the majority of the 20th century: “In adult centres the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated.”

Thanks to modern science, we now know that this notion is false, and it turns out that an old brain can learn new tricks! Everyone has the capacity to change his or her brain for the better by harnessing the power of self-directed neuroplasticity. 

What does neuroplasticity mean, anyway?

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the adult brain to generate and integrate new brain cells (neurons), and remodel pre-existing neural circuits throughout the lifespan. Neuroplasticity facilitates changes in three major domains that are critical to high performance: thinking (beliefs and attitudes), emotions (mindfulness and resilience), behavior (new healthy habits).

So how does it work?

There are four main types of neuroplasticity as described by neuroscience expert Dr. Sarah McKay:

Synaptic Plasticity: The human brain contains over 100 billion neurons (brain cells) interconnected by over a trillion synapses (the points of contact between neurons which transfer and store information). Synaptic neuroplasticity works by adding or removing synapses, or by changing the strength or efficiency of synapses. 

Neurogenesis: The birth and integration of new brain cells into existing neural circuits. Adult neurogenesis occurs in the hippocampus, part of the limbic system which contributes to memory formation and emotional control. 

Cortical Reorganization: Involves rearrangement of the 'maps' in the cortex that represent the body and the external world.

Myelination: The 'white matter' of the brain is white because of myelin. A type of brain cell called an oligodendrocyte wraps electrically-insulating myelin around axons (the 'wires'). Patterns of activity in neural circuits increase myelination and speed up processing. 

How is neuroplasticity relevant to coaching?

Based on observations by Julia Stewart, a positive psychology coach, here are five insights that explain how neuroplasticity both aligns with and supports the powerful change process of coaching:

  1. Your brain is constantly rewiring itself. Not only does it change from one day to the next, it changes from moment to moment. This ongoing change process creates opportunities for coaches to support clients in practicing new ways of thinking, living and being that lead to greater success in virtually every realm: interpersonal, emotional, cognitive, and physiological.

  2. Coaching positively impacts the brain. The brain-states and physical states experienced by clients during coaching, make temporary positive changes in the clients' neural nets (a group of neurons that are wired together). When these changes are generated consistently through coaching, they become sustainable and relatively enduring. Coaching has the capacity to shift clients into the most productive and impactful states, such that clients literally become happier, more successful, and even healthier as a result. 

  3. Insights (AKA "aha" moments) create sudden changes in the brain. When new information is integrated, or old information is finally bridged, feel-good neural chemicals are released. Some insights are powerful enough to create lasting change immediately, while others require ongoing support. Coaching capitalizes on these moments of powerful brain activity by formulating action plans that carry the “aha” moment forward and providing ongoing accountability to drive lasting change.

  4. Neural loops cause psychological paralysis. When we ruminate over a problem without seeking a solution, we are actually strengthening the neural connections around the problem, making it seem increasingly impossible to solve. It's like riding a bicycle on a muddy path each day: eventually a rut will form that is so deep it's almost impossible to ride the bike anywhere but in the ever-deepening rut. Coaching helps generate new neural connections by illuminating alternative pathways and shifting clients into proactive, solution-focused thinking.

  5. The human brain has a negativity bias. As a response to the ancient fight or flight instinct, the brain has a natural tendency to hunt for the negative. Today, this mechanism often does more harm than good, leading to rumination which is highly correlated with anxiety and depression. Coaching supports individuals in cultivating greater mindfulness around this pattern and offers tangible tools for practicing increased optimism.

Through neuroplasticity exercises, coaches can assist clients in using self-directed neuroplasticity in order to help them integrate, grow, and transform their lives.

To shift into a more grateful state of mind, try this positive neuroplasticity exercise now:

  • Close your eyes and focus on your breath coming and going, inhaling for 5 counts and exhaling for 5 counts
  • Release tension from your muscles, working progressively from your forehead down to your toes
  • Call to mind something good that happened in the last 24 hours, no matter how small
  • Allow yourself to feel good about this thing or event. Let it sink in. Savor it.
  • Notice how you felt when this positive occurrence happened—fulfilled, joyful, excited, etc.
  • Next, ask yourself what this event or thing means to you and why does it matter? Do you associate it with any of your values or strengths?
  • Last, how did you contribute to bringing this positive experience to fruition? Take a moment to be grateful to and acknowledge yourself and everyone who was involved.
  • Lastly, let this experience of your positive event wash over you and sink into every cell in your body. Enjoy it. You may even want to revisit it again several times and/or do this exercise with other experiences. Over time, they will help you experience greater joy, pleasure and gratitude.

About the Author

Jess Hopkins is a Positive Psychology coach, speaker and trainer, working to maximize workplace well-being and performance. As a twice-certified Life Purpose and Career Coach, with dual masters degrees in Counseling and Applied Positive Psychology, Jess is committed to affecting positive change within organizations that are driven by passion and purpose. For more information, please visit www.ThrivingWorkforce.com

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