The leader and your brain

As executive coaching gains momentum worldwide as a valuable part of the leadership development journey, the field of neuroscience is providing a better understanding of the inner workings of the brain, and evidence of the benefits of coaching. It is fascinating to see through Neuroscience research how these shifts are manifested in the brain, and to benefit as a leader from some of these findings.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system including the brain, the spinal cord, and networks of sensory nerve cells, or neurons, throughout the body. Neuroscience advances the understanding of human thought, emotion, and behaviour. Neuroscientists use tools ranging from computers to special dyes to examine molecules, nerve cells, networks, brain systems, and behaviour. From these studies, they learn how the nervous system develops and functions. [1] [2]

Experiences drive our behaviour: In the past it was thought that we were born with brains that were hard-wired and predetermined, but in fact the brain is soft wired and can be rewired through experiences.  Neuroplasticity is the term used for what scientists believe describes the process where many of the many structures of the brain can be modified by experiences, even in adulthood, (Rock, 2009) viz. a rewiring of the brain (Schwartz & Begley, 2002:15).

Meditation or quiet moments: One of the coaching practices that I often recommend is to quiet the mind, or to meditate. According to David Rock, a quiet mind allows the weak connections of non-conscious processing to rise to awareness. [1] This explains why in your quiet time, or moments of rest all sorts of forgotten tasks, thoughts, or new innovative ideas arise. They were probably in your mind all along, but in the background. Think of how many great ideas you’ve gotten while in the shower, or in bed.

Taking a break: We’ve all had a sneaky suspicion that the unconscious is more powerful than the conscious. In a recent study done by Neuroscientist David Creswell [3], he explored what happens in the brain when people tackle problems that are too big for their conscious mind to solve. According to this study, people who were distracted (for just a few minutes) did better on a complex problem-solving task than people who (continued to) put in conscious effort. So if you were to take a break your unconscious (which is probably about billions of times larger than your conscious) will still keep working on solving the problem.

Reframing or gaining a new perspective: This process of reframing occurs through conversation, clarifying or challenging questions, reflection, and the all crucial ‘aha’ moment, which results in responding to a situation in a new informed and liberated manner. Strong emotions reduce our processing power. The moment the coachee can gain a new perspective and ‘unhook’ themselves from the emotional triggers, they are better equipped to respond appropriately, and resolve problems.  Matt Lieberman refers to this as the brain’s braking system, which once activated, results in emotions that are lower in intensity. Studies show that the braking system is activated when one labels an emotion in simple words, and increases our processing power that we need for deliberate thinking and insights.  However, when one instead tries to suppress the expression of emotions, it actually has the opposite effect, making the emotion more intense, affecting memory, and creating a threat response in others results in an increase of intensity. [4]

Stress Management: according to a study at Yale University, stress can actually result in brain shrinkage, losing the important connections (synapses) in the brain. [5 & 6], while cardio exercise may help increase your brain volume. Another great reason to exercise!

Exercise: Several research studies have shown that aerobic exercise increases neurogenesis (the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus) which is good for certain types of memory, as well as increase neurochemicals which promote growth, differentiation, survival and repair of brain cells, and enhances several neurotransmitters which play a key role in mental health and improves the mood.
Sleep: When I was studying statistics in my first degree, I recall struggling to understand a specific concept. I was so frustrated that even after hours of non-stop effort, I just could not figure it out. Eventually I decided to have a break and go to sleep. The next morning when I opened my book, to my surprise, the answer was staring me in the face. It seemed so obvious that I could not believe that I had missed it! So what was going on in my brain? According to Jessica Payne, (Cognitive neuroscientist, University of Notre Dame), the sleeping brain is busy processing and transforming information, and at times is more active than when you are awake. [7]. High quality sleep, naps or even a 5-minute meditation changes your neurochemistry in a way that helps you process information.

It is certainly very encouraging to know that the practices that have been developed and refined by coaches through the years, some intuitively, and some through trial and error, some using practices from other disciplines have been proved to be effective through scientific means. Who knows what more we will learn through this fascinating and relatively new field of neuroscience? One thing is certain, we still have a lot to learn about how to use this thing called our brain.

About Racheal: 

 As Organisational Psychologist, and Executive Coach, I have worked with leaders internationally to build resilience and create strategies to become more effective. I have developed an online platform to connect and grow leaders. You will find mentorship stories from senior leaders, learn how to become more resilient, have access to bite size leadership lessons, and engage with a coach. Please connect if you would like to learn more.

Coaching can be defined as a partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that supports them to identify and take steps that move them between their current reality to where he or she wants to be. The biggest impact of coaching occurs when there is a shift in a person’s thinking, (or aha moments). Shifts in how we perceive the world occur because what we experience changes through the questions that are asked.

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