Neuroscience and Coaching

by Amy Brann

Can neuroscience help a client form better habits?

Probably yes. Habits are regular tendencies or practices. They are often unconscious and automatic. We each have lots of them, some useful, some not so.

Why are habits so important for Coaches to work with?

Habits are naturally great things that free up your client’s mind to focus on new things making them both more efficient and productive. They enable us to cope with the huge amount of information, choices, decisions, goals, and emotions we experience every day. We have habits for a large part of our daily life. Many habits are unconscious which means they can be directing your client’s behaviour without them being consciously aware of this. While good habits make it easier to achieve desired results because we naturally do these things without conscious thought and less energy is required to fall on these defaults, undesirable habits make it difficult. It is such a juicy topic I almost always mention it in the keynotes I deliver to coaches around the world.

The Science

One of the important things to be aware of here is called Hebbian theory which underpins Hebbian learning. A Canadian neuropsychologist called Donald Hebb theorised that:

When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A's efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased

This has been simplified to “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. As you have repetitive thoughts or take actions repeatedly, your neurons fire again and again forming a stronger and stronger neuronal circuit.

The formation of these circuits has the benefit of meaning we can do things on autopilot. The downside is that many of the circuits that are created are undesirable to your clients. The more a habit is performed the stronger it becomes. This is because when the neurons fire they attract a protein blend called myelin to insulate it. This speeds up the transmission of signals, in effect making it easier and quicker for the habit to occur next time.

The neural pathways that encode habits are found in the basal ganglia, so this is the part of the brain often associated with habits. However, recently it was discovered that habits aren’t exclusively automatic. A study from MIT showed that a small part of the prefrontal cortex called the infralimbic cortex is involved in shutting off habitual behaviour.

Practical applications

A great approach, depending on your client and the situation, could be to focus on a specific habit. In order to decide where to focus you could first:

  • Invite your client to verbally share with you five habits that they feel are holding them back or doing them a disservice in some way.

Once you feel that you understand these habits, the triggers for them and the negative effect they are having you could move onto:

  • Get clear on what habits would be supportive in reaching desired goals

Perhaps elicit between 3 and 10 here. You could ask your client to write these down either during a session or even better at home. Again, here you want to know the value that these habits will bring to the individual. The next stage is like being an architect. The aim is to identify all the small parts to one of the new desirable habits.

  • Identify small steps involved in creating a new habit

Then, depending on how successful your client normally is with establishing new habits, you want them to start implementing and mastering one step at a time. So this stage can be really slowed down for people who might have a history of not creating solid new habits. Literally taking one component and working on it until it is second nature before introducing another step. Another point to mention here is that this process is best initiated when life is not overly stressful. If your client is trying to move house, lose ten pounds, and start Coaching their team at work in a new way then it would be wise to wait until the house move is complete and the pounds lost.

Amy BrannAmy Brann is passionate about helping people understand more about their biggest resource. She believes that through understanding how to make your brain work you are able to create more of the life you want to live. Amy works with companies to help them understand what is vital for them to know about the brains of their employees and clients so that they can achieve their business goals in a sustainable way.

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