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06 The OCM Coach and Mentor Journal 2015

All in the mind? The role of

neuroscience in coaching
Brain science, neuroplasticity,

the brain. If coaching helps the


brain improve its functioning,

neuroleadership, brain

then what we do as

training as coachmentors, how do we

keep up with the
burgeoning field
of brain-based
In this short article
I will explore

coaches is facilitate

magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI)
extends our
knowledge beyond
the behavioural.


practice in increasing attention and

emotion regulation. Mindfulness has also
been shown to improve immune function,
reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels.
The prolific research in this area is producing

Brann, A. (2015).

results to support the efficacy of mindful

practice in helping us become more aware

Is psychology still
relevant as we

how this vast and

brain and how it works?

complex field fits with

In short, yes. The disciplines

overlap and complement each

how we can use the lens of

Research supports the efficacy of mindful


learn more about the

what we already know

Anna Mclean

of our thoughts, and thus more able to

actively shape our brains.
However, Hall, L. (2013) provides a timely
word of caution about the growth of the
brand and risk of diluting mindfulness in
a bid to widen its reach. As coaches, we
need to remind ourselves (and our clients)

neuroscience to support and deepen our

other human behaviour is so complex

existing knowledge and use this to enhance

that trying to understand it from a purely

quick fix one that takes time, effort and

our coaching practice. As a Business

anatomical perspective doesnt make

focused practice to develop to a level

Psychologist and Coach I come from a

sense. Psychology is needed because we

where brain change occurs.

position of curiosity, keen to explore new

can learn useful, important things about

and effective ways of helping my clients

human behaviour without the biological

maximise their potential in this respect

understanding provided by neuroscience.

neuroscience informs the way I work.

that mindfulness is a discipline and not a

The power of reflection

Reflective practice is central to The OCMs

This said, neuroscience keeps psychologists

approach without reflection there is

The intention is to focus on what has

honest by providing another set of data

no learning. Alpha waves correlate with

captured my attention rather than provide

that psychological theories have to

shutting down of inputs from external senses

an exhaustive or expert view. For those who

explain (or at least be consistent with).

and focusing on internal stimuli. They also

have the appetite to learn more, there are

Positive psychology and the part it plays

correlate with the release of serotonin

a number of authoritative and accessible

in wellbeing and human flourishing is

(the chemical messenger associated with

resources listed at the end of this piece.

particularly relevant to us as coaches.

relaxation). So when we reflect, we also

The evidence provided by brain-based

tend to feel good.

What you need to know

research only serves to support this.

Research using functional magnetic


Neuroscience shows our brains

give off alpha-band waves

resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning

just before coming up

technology extends our knowledge

Mindfulness is well

beyond the behavioural and explains

established as

the neurobiology behind what we do.

a therapeutic

Repetition and practice of behaviours

intervention but did

results in brain changes. When this happens

not make the leap

our brains exhibit neuroplasticity new

to the world of work

neurons grow or connections between

until relatively recently

existing neurons are strengthened.

and then it exploded.

provides a language
that explains how
coaching works.

With a plethora of books,

with an insight. Rock,

D. (2006) takes this
one step further and
proposes that there
is a certain type of
internal reflection that
brings about insights
rather than thinking

logically or analysing data we

Neuroplasticity underpins learning,

training offerings, websites and

remembering, and behaviour change

other resources, is this ancient discipline

used for making links across the whole brain.

when a client practises a new skill, the area

being dumbed down and at risk of losing its

He goes on to suggest that in order to help

of the brain responsible changes. The good

credibility? No, not if we pay attention to

our clients have more insights, we need to

news is that even as we age, learning a

the evidence provided by neuroscience.

encourage them to reflect more.

new skill alters the structure and function of

are engaging a part of our brain

The OCM Coach and Mentor Journal 2015 07

Incorporating neuroscience into your

Adopt a whole person approach


encourage your client to embrace

language that explains how coaching

a healthy diet to boost brain health.

works a language that takes our craft from

From a brain-based perspective the skill of

Importantly, neuroscience provides a

Brain foods that encourage dopamine

a largely theoretical base to one that can

the coach lies in getting your clients brain

production include avocados, bananas,

be explained by scientific research. If this

working with new pathways facilitating

and almonds. Antioxidants found in fruits

makes coaching more credible, reduces

change and helping establish ways of

and green vegetables reduce free radical

resistance, makes it easier to understand

being that can be sustained. But we all

damage to brain cells, including those

know that change is hard. By introducing

involved in the production of

the concept of neuroplasticity we can


help clients understand what is happening

in their brain. By raising awareness to the

 ortisol is released in

power of brain remapping, building new

response to stress

pathways and strengthening existing ones,

both good (eustress)

clients will be better placed to work with us

and bad (distress). On

on their coaching goals or intentions:

the plus side short term

elevated levels prime

T he amygdala is important in emotional

clients to take action

responses and these in turn drive a lot

and can affect efficiency,

greater sense of empowerment

The good
news is that even
as we age, learning
a new skill alters
the structure and
function of the

of our behaviour. Oxytocin suppresses

productivity and mental

the amygdala (the region of the brain

state. Prolonged periods of elevation,

that detects threats and processes fear).

however, can have a detrimental effect

Enhancing trust can decrease amygdala

including lowered immunity, higher blood

activation. When there is a high level of

pressure, and anxiety. Stay alert to things

trust, the threat response decreases and

that trigger a stress response in your client

the client is more open to possibilities, able

that perhaps they cant see themselves

to think more effectively, and more likely

relationships, workload, and patterns of

to engage in goal-directed behaviour

behaviour. Helping your client understand

rather than habit behaviour. Quieten the

the effect cortisol has on their mind and

amygdala by creating opportunities to

body will empower them to take control.

increase perceived trustworthiness and

trusting your client.
T he prefrontal cortex is responsible for

for our clients, and ultimately leads to a

So what?
Neuroscience isnt claiming to be better than

on their part, then this has to

be a good thing.
References, further reading
and resources
Brann A. (2015),
Neuroscience for coaches
how to use the latest
insights for the benefit of
your clients, London: Kogan

Brown, P. and Brown, V. (2012),

Neuropsychology for Coaches understanding
the basics. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.
Hall, L. (2013), The Mindful Coach how
mindfulness can transform coaching practice
London: Kogan Page.
Nataraja S. (2008), The Blissful Brain
neuroscience and proof of the power of
meditation. London: Octopus.
Rock, D. (2006), A brain based approach to
coaching International Journal of Coaching in
Organisations, 2006, 4(2) pp. 32 43.
Rock, D. and Cox, C. (2012), SCARF in
2012: updating the social neuroscience of
collaborating with others Neuroleadership

many cognitive functions. Paying attention

anything we currently do as coaches, nor is

to the coaching environment and

it suggesting that it replaces core theories,

reducing distractions helps the prefrontal

models, and established frameworks. Rather,

Anna Mclean, Business Coach, The OCM

cortex to work more optimally and focus

as professionals we need to pay attention to

on executive functions including high-level

the growing body of evidence and use this

information processing and decision-

to enhance our coach-mentor offering.

making. Avoid busy cafes and noisy hotel

lobbies for your coaching sessions. Think

Neuroleadership is an emerging field of study

about moving your corporate clients away

that both unites and divides opinion. What

from their workplace. Begin coaching

we cant do as coaches is ignore

sessions with a short mindfulness practice.

the evidence. As we prepare our future

leaders, the awareness gained from

 opamine has a key part to play in

brain-based research is helping to fill critical

motivation, reward, and learning. Thinking

gaps in our understanding about the

about small tasks (rewards) that align with

optimal conditions for developing trust,

longer terms goals triggers dopamine

decision-making, emotional regulation, and

release and can help sustain motivation.

so much more.