As humans, we are one of the most adaptable species on this planet. We are not only able to cope with change – whether it’s physical, social or technological – but we can thrive off it. Having a brain that is set up for change, one that can flexibly adjust our thinking and our behavior according to each situation, is undoubtedly fundamental for the global survival of our species.
Having a “plastic” brain is also important at an individual, personal level. It allows each of us to adjust to what life throws at us, to make our own personal success stories out of each challenge that we face. And it is something that lies at the very heart of coaching.
Wired for Change
It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that one of the most commonly cited neuroscience principles in relation to coaching is the fact that the human brain is highly malleable from the moment we are born until we are well into old age.
For example, once our brains reach adulthood, the feat of actually growing new neurons – called neurogenesis – becomes more limited to only one or two specific regions in the brain. However, the connections between our neurons – the brain cells that carry messages from one place to another – continue to be strengthened or weakened, formed or lost, as we come across new experiences and need to update our view on the world, alter the decisions we make or adapt the way we respond in particular situations.
However, although the brain is set up for change, it often resists it. It prefers to stick with what is familiar and has an built-in fear of the unknown, which we must overcome. Therefore, you must look beyond the bounds of synaptic plasticity to discover other guiding neuroscientific principles that can be useful to your role as coach.
Weighing the Pros and Cons
For humans, change is a choice – a decision we make. Decisions, from the brain’s perspective, involve weighing risks and making a comparison of the expected rewards – what we will gain – and the negatives – what we might lose. Only if the perceived rewards are high enough and the risks are low enough (or not ambiguous) are people motivated to change – something that has been well articulated by decision science researchers, such as Paul Glimcher from New York University.
Decisions don’t just operate in a cold-hearted fashion; they are strongly connected with our emotions. And emotions aren’t mere accessories to our thinking; they are integral drivers of why we think, choose and behave as we do. Understanding emotions and the way they guide behavior is, therefore, essential for knowing what fears, regrets or anxieties might be preventing your client from shifting his or her behavior and thinking.
The Making of Emotions
Recently, scientists such as Lisa Feldman Barrett from Northeastern University have suggested that emotions might actually be “made,” or constructed, and their manifestation shaped by each individual’s personal past experiences. This theory is in opposition to the widely held view that emotions are experienced in the same universal fashion across all individuals – an example of how scientists are continually rewriting the textbooks on the brain. This new theory suggests that you can’t simply chunk each emotion together on a macro scale. Instead, you must tackle them an at individual, micro-emotional level where every case, and every situation, is different.
I Feel What You Feel.
To understand how your client is feeling when they’re sitting in front of you and recounting their experiences, you might want to go further than just observing their body language or listening to their choice of words. You might actually want to feel what they feel to help you decide what guidance you will offer. You might want to have empathy.
Fortunately, your brain is also set up for showing empathy – a fact that has been demonstrated by researchers such as Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute. These scientists have revealed that the brain has neural systems in place that can actually mirror the emotional reaction of another person. In other words, the emotion you are observing is actually activating your own brain in a way that creates the same kind of feeling in you.
The Future of Neuroscience
The human brain is undoubtedly the most complex organ in our body, but advancements in high-resolution brain imaging techniques over the past few decades have opened the doors to discovering how it operates at a holistic level to influence our behavior.
Harnessing this knowledge allows you to truly understand what is going on inside your clients’ heads and flexibly adapt, change and adjust your own coaching for their benefit and for their success.