Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Intuitive Dualism: How the disconnect between neuroscience and coaching leads to neuro-hype

We are pleased to share an article entitled  “Intuitive Dualism: How the disconnect between neuroscience and coaching leads to neuro-hype written by Anthony Jack.

What’s the most important thing to know about neuroscience and coaching? 

There is a disconnect between the two ways that neuroscience can help coaches. First, neuroscience is a powerful tool coaches can use to motivate and engage clients. Second, neuroscience can inform coaching practice. Both uses are valid and important. However, they target very different levels of understanding. Confusing them has generated controversy.

Humans naturally tend to think of the mind as fundamentally distinct from the physical body – including the brain. This is known as intuitive dualism. It arises because of a division in the brain’s network architecture, discussed in the next section. Intuitive dualism makes more hard-minded or analytic thinkers — such as many executives and technical experts — dismiss “soft” skills as hokey, touchy-feely, and/or unimportant. Neuroscience can help overcome their psychological resistance by showing these skills play a real and essential role in brain function.

Intuitive dualism creates the naïve impression that harder sciences like neuroscience are more reliable and informative than softer sciences like psychology. This makes people susceptible to neuro-hype. The idea that neuroscience is separate from and more reliable than psychology is an illusion. Good neuroscience depends on psychology. Just as promising new drugs must be tested in clinical trials, psychological studies are essential to translate neuroscience findings into good practical advice. Coaches should be wary of the naïve tendency — even many seasoned researchers find it hard to shake — to be overly impressed by neuroscience. History shows that isolated findings from neuroscience have often given rise to misleading and ineffective ideas.

Myth: Neuroscience tells us more than psychology.

Fact: Neuroscience wows us because we are intuitive dualists. 

Take-home: Coaches can use neuroscience to motivate and engage clients. However, they should avoid being overly swayed themselves. Coach training programs that claim to be based primarily on neuroscience are misleading. Good evidence-based approaches to coaching are based first and foremost on psychology, which is in turn informed by neuroscience. 

What neuroscience is most significant for coaching?

Many simplified accounts emphasize the importance of brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to change. We have long known that adults can learn and change how they think. This would not be possible if the brain was not plastic. Brain plasticity is surprising because of our tendency to intuitive dualism. The focus here is on findings that go beyond this fundamental starting point.

A common idea is that the mind is divided between reason and emotion. Neuroscience has shown this is wrong. Antonio Damasio and colleagues studied patients with brain damage similar to the historical figure Phineas Gage. Damasio’s work, summarized in his 1994 book Descartes’ Error, showed that emotions play an indispensable role in everyday practical decision making — especially when dealing with other people. This neuroscience helped to bolster work on social and emotional intelligence.

Basel van der Kolk’s influential work on trauma is richly informed by neuroimaging of brain areas overlapping those Damasio studied. His 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score has helped therapy move beyond purely talk-based approaches by demonstrating the importance of bodily awareness to emotion regulation. A recent study provides evidence that coach training programs that emphasize bodily self-awareness foster higher levels of social and emotional intelligence.

Exciting recent developments come from studying the network properties of the brain. The new field of cognitive network neuroscience reveals that the brain is fundamentally divided — not between reason and emotion, but between two ways of understanding. The analytic network concerns itself with facts, logic, mathematics, and science. It gives us cognitive intelligence. Descartes had it right that this type of reasoning is divorced from emotion. The brain areas studied by Damasio and van der Kolk, on the other hand, are part of the empathic or “default” network that supports reasoning with emotion. The empathic network generates wisdom: it allows us to understand and connect with others, navigate ethical dilemmas, regulate our emotions, and generates our sense of self and purpose in life. The networks responsible for analytic and empathic thinking have a surprising relationship. Analytic thinking turns off brain areas for empathic thinking and empathic thinking turns off brain areas for analytic thinking. Evolution designed this seesaw relationship to avoid interference. Individuals with a wide variety of mental disorders — and healthy individuals who become fatigued or overly emotional — experience a disruption in the seesaw. Healthy high-functioning brains make full use of both modes of thought. To avoid interference, they don’t engage both at the same time. They regularly cycle between the two brain networks.

Western education emphasizes analytic thinking. Yet empathic thinking is far more important for stress resilience and job performance. Empathic brain areas lie at the core of the brain — the empathic network is the conductor of the symphony or CEO. Overemphasis of analytic thinking leaves empathic brain circuits to atrophy.

At the Coaching Research Lab, my colleagues and I often share this emerging research with executives and other professionals. It opens their minds to the importance of personal development and how analytic thinking gets in the way of wisdom. We also share with them that just as much plastic cortex is devoted to empathic thinking as to analytic thinking. This helps them see how coaching can be part of a life-long process of training the parts of their brain their formal education neglected.

Neuroscience can open clients’ minds to change. However, neuroscience engages analytic thinking. Personal growth comes from developing empathic thinking and learning to dynamically balance it with analytic thinking. We live in such an analytic culture that it is powerful to show how science supports the importance of letting go of analytic thinking. 

Myth: The best strategy is to “coach with the brain in mind.”

Fact: Science should inform coaching, but personal growth depends on coach and coachee setting aside scientific thinking.

Take-home: Decades of neuroimaging research has established that soft skills — the best predictors of performance for most jobs – depend on completely different brain circuits from analytic intelligence — targeted by conventional education. It is important not to confuse analytic with empathic thinking because they need to be trained in different ways.

What is the future of coaching?

Coaching has a bright and exciting future — for those with patience. One of the major advances of the twentieth century was increased understanding of mental illness. Yet, the developmental of effective psychotherapy was hampered by conflict between clashing philosophies. Psychoanalysis lacked a solid scientific footing. More scientific approaches then emerged — the cognitive and behavioral therapies — but suffered from being overly analytic, alienating clients. The humanistic schools (e.g Rogers, Gestalt) took a diametrically opposed approach. Initially this appeared anti-scientific, but the science now strongly supports the role of empathy in healing and development. The apparent paradox is resolved by Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a highly effective evidence-based approach that emphasizes balancing acceptance and change. DBT acceptance strategies are informed by humanistic approaches and spirituality. DBT change strategies derive from cognitive behavioral therapy. DBT’s central dialectic parallels the way healthy brains maintain a dynamic balance between analytic and empathic thinking. 

The new field of coaching research can build on advances in psychotherapy, positive psychology, and neuroscience. The key to progress will be thoughtful synthesis. Universities must play a role because they are needed to support the breadth and depth of knowledge necessary to do this well. In so far as coaching continues to rely predominantly on commercial funding streams, it will be held back by overemphasis on marketing gimmicks e.g., exaggerated and misleading emphasis on neuroscience. Unfortunately, the academy moves slowly. However, there are promising signs. Business schools are starting to offer coach training and a few universities – so far Harvard and Case Western Reserve University are the only in the USA – are home to dedicated coaching research labs that fund coaching research and bring together researchers with different perspectives. 

Coach training and accreditation agencies promote specific coach competencies and methods as best practice. These are guided by the wisdom of experienced coaches. This is preferable to a free-for-all. However, there is presently very little solid science supporting these guidelines. For example, recent research casts doubt on a widely promoted guideline for how to initiate coaching. Coaching has great promise, but it will take time and hard work for research to inform optimal coaching practices. 

Myth: We already know the formula for highly effective coaching 

Fact: Improvements in coaching will depend on university-based researchers synthesizing evidence, testing their conclusions, and incorporating the findings into coach training and accreditation.

Take-home: Support from universities and funding agencies will be essential for coaching to realize its tremendous promise to unlock human potential.

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