Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Coaching and the Brain: what we think is true, is sometimes not

We are pleased to share an article entitled  Coaching and the Brain: what we think is true, is sometimes not”  written by Paul McGinniss

When I began my journey as an executive and workplace coach almost 20 years ago, I was fortunate to be introduced to some foundational neuroscience research as part of my initial coach training. I became fascinated by the brain and was surprised by how many of the research findings were counterintuitive—what we think is happening in our brains and what is actually happening are two different things. Over the past several decades, neuroscience research has hit the mainstream. It’s like the science/research equivalent of Starbucks locations—neuroscience seems to be everywhere!

Along with this preponderance of research, citations, mentions and references of “the brain” and neuro-this or neuro-that, there are some warnings to heed and some myths to understand. 

On the warning side, much of what we are learning about the brain is continually evolving. Peer-validated studies and repeatable results across studies and laboratories are critical to our understanding of the brain. Just because one study indicates a certain finding, doesn’t mean it is definitive. Also, many studies raise additional questions beyond the ones they answer. 

Another warning, in the case of this article, is that I am not a neuroscientist, nor do I have a PhD (and be wary of people who claim to be something they are not when it comes to neuroscience or neuroleadership). The opinions I share here are simply that: opinions. They are, however, informed by numerous research studies (I keep a growing list) and almost two decades of applying that research in my work with leaders and in my personal life. I also tend to rely most on what I call the more foundational ideas about our human brain:

  • The brain’s primary organizing principle is to minimize threats and maximize rewards
  • Humans have physical and social needs
  • Physical and social needs are processed in some overlapping regions of the brain
  • When our needs are not met, it can trigger a threat response
  • If we satisfy others’ social needs, we create a safer space that they may move toward

In terms of myths about the brain, there are a number of persistent ones. There are also a few that may be helpful for coaches to understand:

  • Left-brain/Right-brain
  • We only use 10% of our brain
  • We’re born with a fixed number of neurons/We lose neurons as we age
  • “I work better under pressure”

LEFT-BRAIN/RIGHT-BRAIN

This first myth is one I hear often in coaching conversations. Clients will say something like, “Well that’s because I’m right-brained,” or “I’m more of a left-brain person,” or reference it as “I’m not creative,” or “I’m analytical.”

Origins: This myth has been linked to research studies back in the 1960s when the left and right hemispheres of the brain were surgically disconnected (by severing the corpus callosum) to reduce or prevent seizures in epileptic patients. While there seems to be localization of certain functions within each hemisphere, the processing of information happens across both hemispheres. 

Coaching implication: The belief of our clients that they are either right-brain dominant or left-brain dominant is a limiting belief and can get in the way of them recognizing or utilizing all of their cognitive abilities.

Coaching application: Let clients know this is a long-held belief by many AND a neuro-myth. The language used to describe brain processing has evolved from areas to regions to networks. 

To help the client examine this limiting belief/myth, ask questions like:

  • “What if you had full access to both sides of your brain?”
  • “What does the <”non-dominant”> side of your brain have to say about that?”
  • “How might you think/behave if both sides of your brain were contributing equally?”
  • “What would an integrated response to that look/sound like?”

WE ONLY USE 10% OF OUR BRAIN

I hear this every now and then in coaching conversations, nonetheless, it is a popular myth and another limiting belief.

Origins: There doesn’t seem to be any specific consensus on where this myth originated but it seems linked to a few references dating back to the early 1900s (William James, “silent cortex”, Karl Lashley)!

Coaching implication: Thinking that we only use a small percentage of our brain’s processing power can cause clients to believe they are not capable of thinking beyond a certain level. It could increase the tendency to give up easily or develop more of a fixed mindset (“I’m just this way”). It could also lead to some learned helplessness around problem solving or different situations when “additional” brain resources are required/helpful.

What additional research has shown us over the past 1200+ years is that we use our entire brain. Different regions may be more active at different times under different circumstances but there is widespread activity. The brain is even active during sleep!

Coaching application:  As with all of these myths, let the client know this belief dates back to the 1900s (!) and can also create self-imposed (and unnecessary) limits on their thinking.

To help the client examine this limiting belief/myth, ask questions like:

  • “What does the ‘missing’ 90% have to say about that?”
  • “How might you think differently about this with 100% of your total thinking power?”
  • “What are the missing pieces in your thought process about this?”
  • “How might you broaden your thinking here?”

WE’RE BORN WITH A FIXED NUMBER OF NEURONS/WE LOSE NEURONS AS WE AGE

This is another myth I hear often (and am guilty of giving voice to myself at times—hey, I’m human, too). It can sometimes have the feel of fixed mindset to it and can sound like, “I’m set in my ways,” or “People/I can’t change,” or even “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Origins: The presence of this myth seems to be more related to the lack of research discovering or identifying the formation of new neurons (neurogenesis) until 1998 and is still a topic of debate in the field with some more recent research in favor of the possibility. It also seems to be more localized in humans if it does indeed occur.

Coaching implication: This shows up in the form of yet another limiting belief for clients. People who carry this notion may create a self-fulfilling prophecy around their limited cognitive ability and/or decline and anyone familiar with placebo studies knows the power of belief (you might also check out Bruce Lipton’s book “The Biology of Belief”). The brain also likes to automate as much as possible to conserve energy so change is hard won and can feel impossible at times. On an up-note, the reasonably well-known idea of neuroplasticity means we CAN change (despite the effort).

Coaching application:  While this myth has not been totally dispelled, if it shows up, let the client know it is an area of debate in the field of neuroscience with a leaning toward the brain’s ability to create neurons even into our 9th decade.

To help the client examine this limiting belief/myth, ask questions like:

  • “If that <the myth> were not the case, what options would it open up to you?”
  • “How would your <earlier age-self> advise you?” or “What would your <earlier age-self> tell you to consider here?”
  • “What is the change you want to create?” 
  • “What do you want to be doing instead of <current habit>?”

“I WORK BETTER UNDER PRESSURE”

This is a myth I hear somewhat often and seems linked to the presence of deadlines (I mean, what college student ever wrote a paper that had no due date?!). There is some truth to this myth but only to a point (see Origins). Additionally, my thinking is that clients may confuse “working better” (or getting things done) with doing quality work or one’s best thinking.

Origins: This seems to be more related to individuals’ personal experiences versus any research I could find and is supported to a degree by the Yerkes-Dodson Law (1908), which “states that a relationship between arousal and behavioral task performance exists, such that there is an optimal level of arousal for an optimal performance. Over- or under-arousal reduces task performance.” It is also referred to as the Inverted “U” of Performance. 

 

Think of it this way, we may not perform if there is no positive and/or negative incentive/pressure (“arousal” in research terms). As increasing positive and/or negative incentive/pressure is applied, performance increases to an optimal point. But when the incentive/pressure applied becomes too great, performance “tips over” and begins to decline. (This does not apply to peak performance or flow.)

Coaching implication: This myth may cause clients to put off things until the 11th hour, causing them to get it done under duress. In this day and age, there are enough stressors on most of us: the economy, politics, the environment, finances, health… Creating unnecessary stress that propels us to get things done may be doing so at potential (or even great) harm.

Coaching application:  Explain to clients the science behind the Inverted “U” of performance.

To help the client examine this limiting belief/myth, ask questions like:

  • “What are some other ways you can create your own positive incentive (reward) or pressure (threat)?”
  • “How else can you create that pressure/incentive for yourself in a less stressful way?”
  • “How else might you structure your work/deadlines to allow for your best thinking?”
  • “What would it look like to complete this without undue stress?”

These are just a few of the myths about our human brain. Maybe you’ve seen your clients (or yourself) in one or more of these. I hope you found this approach informative and useful. 

Please share stories of your own encounters with neuromyths and how you’ve helped your clients to reimagine or challenge them to move beyond them.

And as always, honor the brain to honor the person.

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