Understanding the Brain ~ Crucial Insights for Coaches

We are pleased to share an article entitled “Understanding the Brain ~ Crucial Insights for Coaches” written by Irena O’Brien.

To truly empower their clients and promote meaningful change, coaches must understand how the brain works. The human brain is not only a reactive organ, it is also a predictive machine that constantly makes predictions about future events based on past experiences.

With this understanding, coaches can better guide their clients in reshaping their brains’ predictions by ensuring that decisions are informed decisions, not just reactions dictated by the past.

This knowledge can be transformative and allows coaches to facilitate deeper introspection, personal growth and positive change for their clients. This article examines how the brain makes its predictions and why it is crucial for coaches to understand this.

THE PURPOSE OF THE BRAIN

When thinking about the brain, most of us see it as a center for feelings, thinking or creativity. The reality, however, is much more primal. The brain’s foundational purpose is to ensure our survival, growth and reproduction.

The brain anticipates the body’s needs based on previous experiences and prepares to meet them. This process is called allostasis or body budgeting. This means that, at its core, the brain is in a constant state of prediction, trying to keep us safe and functional.

THE BRAIN IS BUILT FROM PAST EXPERIENCE

Every moment, every memory and every experience we have shapes the architecture of our brain. Imagine constructing a building, brick by brick. Each brick represents a segment of our life – an experience. The brain develops in a similar fashion. Every memory, every moment, impacts its structure, creating our internal model of the world. Here’s how it works: The brain uses data from past experiences to predict future needs. When designing our brains, nature prioritized identifying threats and meeting our physiological needs.

This ensures our safety and survival, but it sometimes overshadows deeper layers of self-awareness. From an evolutionary point of view, introspection took a back seat to the vital goal of staying alive.

For coaches, it is crucial to understand this predictive nature of the brain. When you recognize that a client’s reactions or fears are based on predictions from past experiences, you can help them create new, beneficial behaviors more effectively.

THE BRAIN’S NORMAL STATE IS PREDICTION

Humans are creatures of habit, and our brain structure reflects this. The brain thrives on patterns and functions like an advanced pattern-recognition machine. When confronted with a situation, the brain scans its database and asks, “Have I seen this before? What did I do?” This reference system is incredibly efficient and allows us to respond quickly to situations. That is what makes driving and sports possible: Both require quick reactions.

However, there’s a flip side. This innate tendency can also trap us in detrimental routines and biases. For example, if you have been publicly ridiculed, even as a child, the brain could predict a similar outcome in all public environments, leading to social anxiety or avoidance.

THE BRAIN FORECASTS THE FUTURE

The predictive mode of our brains is not only about reacting to the present, but also forecasting the future. Our brain senses and prepares for changes even before they physically manifest. Before you drink water, your brain already predicts the change it will cause in your body. Such predictions help us respond quickly to threats or opportunities, like detecting a predator or identifying signs of illness.

OUR PERCEPTIONS ARE PREDICTED BY THE BRAIN

Our perceptions are not purely objective. They are shaped by our conscious and unconscious expectations. Communication, for example, is crucial, but our brains do not make communication easy. That’s because we hear what we expect to hear. But we can override our brain’s predictions by paying close attention to what our conversation partner is saying.

Studies have shown that the brain’s sensory areas send four times more signals back to our sensory organs, such as the ears, than forward to decision making regions. This implies that much of what we experience isn’t even processed by our brain’s decision-making regions. In essence, we’re living in a simulation created by our brains. If we don’t challenge and update these perceptions, they can limit our growth and potential.

This is why habits and behavior patterns are hard to change. Your brain predicts what it already knows; if you don’t challenge its predictions, it can predict you into a straitjacket. As a coach, you can help your clients recognize these patterns and develop strategies to disrupt detrimental cycles. You can introduce exercises to encourage self-reflection, guide clients to challenge their brain’s default predictions, and cultivate more adaptive responses.

SHAPING & RESHAPING PREDICTIONS

Recognizing and understanding our brain’s predictive machinery is the foundation for leveraging it. Helping clients create awareness is crucial. We need to encourage our clients to challenge and change their brain’s inherent biases through targeted questions and reflective exercises.

Changing our brains’ predictions requires effort, but effortful tasks today can become automated with practice. Experienced drivers, for instance, can anticipate road events much further ahead than beginners precisely because driving has become automated.

Here are some additional strategies and insights coaches can use to help their clients challenge their brains’ predictions:

  • Promoting Novel Experiences: Often, we get trapped in the monotony of routines, which can make our brain’s predictions stagnant. Coaches can suggest new experiences, which can shake things up and set challenges that gently push clients out of their comfort zones. It’s not about extreme adventures, but simple new experiences, like trying a different cuisine, reading an unfamiliar genre, or visiting a new place. Novel experiences introduce fresh data into our brain’s predictive model, which refines and diversifies its future forecasts.
  • Reframing Perspectives: One of the most potent tools coaches have in changing predictions is reframing. They can help clients see situations from different angles, allowing them to challenge and rewire their brain’s predictions. For instance, converting the fear of public speaking to excitement can change performance. The ultimate goal is to provide new evidence that can drive a different set of predictions and destabilize the old ones.
  • Positive Self-Affirmation: Positive self-affirmation is a potent antidote to counteract ingrained negative biases. Encouraging clients to acknowledge and celebrate their strengths can rewrite the narratives shaping their predictions. For instance, a simple exercise of listing positive attributes before a public speaking event can significantly elevate performance.
  • Mindfulness & Meditation: Mindfulness practices and focused-attention meditation can be transformative. Teaching clients to ground themselves in the present can help them detach from unhelpful predictive patterns and allow for a grounded and balanced experience. Meditation also helps suppress the ego and decreases neuronal activity in areas linked to self-awareness, such as the default mode network. These are the same areas affected by psychedelic drugs.
  • Virtual Reality: Technology like VR offers new avenues for rewiring the brain. VR allows an individual to step into someone else’s shoes and has been used to reduce racial bias: Participants with light skin who could see themselves in a dark-skinned avatar reduced their negative implicit associations toward black individuals.
  • Psychedelics: Though controversial, there’s growing interest in the potential of psychedelics to “reset” the brain’s predictive patterns. They offer a new lens to view the world, disrupting established patterns. Psychedelics potentially alter our self-perception, letting users view the world and themselves in fresh ways. Neurologically, they decrease prediction communication among neurons and suppress the default mode network, which is active during self-centered thoughts. Of course, any exploration in this domain must be approached with caution and under appropriate guidance.

CONCLUSION

Our brain’s primary purpose is to protect the body, drawing from past experiences to predict future actions. While this predictive nature has kept us alive for millennia, it’s also responsible for our biases and repetitive behaviors. In our modern, complex world, some of these age-old predictions can limit our experiences and potential.

As coaches, understanding our brain’s predictive nature provides a unique opportunity. With the right strategies, coaches can guide their clients in reshaping their brain’s predictions, crafting a future where decisions are informed choices, not dictated by the past.

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