The Neuroscience of Transformational Coaching by Shane Pearson

The human brain is by far the most complex structure that we know of on the planet. It contains about 100 billion neurons and at least 100 trillion neural connections. To put that in context, that is at least 1000 times the number of stars in our galaxy!

Put simply, your brain is the most powerful supercomputer on the planet, so the next time you call your phone ‘smart,’ consider for a moment that you are infinitely more powerful and complex than the latest and greatest high tech device.

On the downside, the enormous complexity of the human brain combined with just how well protected it is inside the skull has meant that, until very recently, little has been known about how it works. Fortunately, thanks to modern technology and improved research we are beginning to learn a lot more about, not only how the brain works, but also how to work with our wonderful brains.

The exciting new field of ‘Transformational Coaching’ has evolved from this knowledge. Based on findings from the field of neuroscience, it allows for deeper exploration of a client’s cognitive, emotional and sensory relationship with themselves and the world around them, allowing for more profound transformational shifts, breaking down of negative thought patterns and opening up of new opportunities, potential and wellbeing.
Here’s how…

Earlier research that mapped the human brain showed how repeated behaviours lay down neurological ‘highways’ in the brain to form habits – both good and bad. You may have heard the saying ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ and this is an important area on which both performance and developmental coaches have been basing their work for decades. Here’s how – coaches support clients to reach their goals by helping them create new habits and routines through repetition of appropriate behaviours – the hope being that these will eventually override the existing ‘neurological highways’ of outdated or unwanted habits and behaviours by forming new competing ones. Eventually the new ‘pathways’ will ‘wire together’ and the old habits or behaviours will become redundant, leading to lasting behavioural change.

However, this approach is not always enough. Many people trying to change for the better come up against internal barriers, inner resistance, self-sabotage or repeatedly ‘fall off the wagon’ before lasting change is embedded. Unfortunately, consciously attempting to override or erase some learned behaviours, painful memories or responses to certain situations or stimuli often proves futile, and failed attempts to change can actually reinforce negative or limiting beliefs that the client is ‘stuck with’ their problem. The limitations of this approach may be because memories of past experiences, especially with strong emotional components, seem to get hardwired into the neurology. From the evolutionary perspective, the intention here is to help ensure you learn from life experiences to avoid great pain or to recreate very pleasurable experiences in the future. Your primitive brain is wired to reproduce behaviours it has learned in the past during times of heightened emotional intensity to survive, escape or avoid pain or to experience strong pleasure in the future.

These memories are consolidated in parts of the brain called the limbic system, or the ‘emotional brain’. In evolutionary terms this part of our brain is more ancient than our logical and rational neocortex or ‘human brain’ and, importantly has a more direct access to the nervous system that controls behaviour. Simply put, after memory consolidation from a significant past event your primitive brain stores a little program to run an automatic behaviour should it find itself in a similar situation in the future. Because the ‘emotional brain’ has a more direct route to behaviour than our more evolved ‘human brain’ these programs play out before we are even consciously aware of them!

However, not all of these automatic responses are appropriate and some need editing. In today’s world this might show up in issues such as fear of rejection/intimacy/public speaking/confrontation etc. to protect you from emotional pain such as hurt. Or, perhaps it may show up as a ‘wired in’ pleasure seeking behaviour such as addictions to sugar/food/drugs etc. Many people suffer greatly from reproducing unwanted behaviours and feelings that seem out of their control.

Fortunately, back in 2004, researchers exploring brain neuroplasticity (Pedreira, Maldonado, Pérez-Cuesta, 2004) discovered a way to erase and/or edit emotional learning through a process called memory re-consolidation. This helped hugely in starting to overturn the prevailing belief among neuroscientists that the brain could not erase or edit existing emotional learnings.

‘Memory reconsolidation is the brain’s natural, neural process that can produce transformational change: the full, permanent elimination of an acquired behavior or emotional response. It is the brain’s innate process for fundamentally revising an existing learning and the acquired behavioral responses and/or state of mind maintained by that learning.’ (Ecker, 2015)

This has been a game changer in areas such as therapy, coaching and self-development. In coaching it has led to the emergence of Transformational Coaching, an exciting model that integrates the process of memory reconsolidation to permanently clear blocks or internal barriers to success, erase recurring negative emotional responses or unwanted acquired behaviours and bring about scientifically backed transformational change. Now that’s something we’re excited about at IHS – how about you?

For more information on the IHS Diploma in Transformational Coaching, including next start dates, click here and for the Combined Diploma in Nutrition, Lifestyle and Transformational Coaching, click here

See also, Shane’s article The Future of Coaching