Neuro Plasticity & Coaching

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The CNS (Central Nervous System) comprises the brain and spinal cord which together are the command and control centre. The PNS (Peripheral Nervous System) connects sense-receptors to the CNS and also conducts signals back from the CNS to the muscles etc.
The brain has three distinct regions and many more actual structures.

  1. The brain stem conducts messages from the higher-brain or cerebrum but also, controls autonomic functions to support basic living functions so you can breathe while you sleep, for example! Earthworms only have a brain stem but all their needs for survival are met at the most instinctive, pre-programmed level.
  2. The mid-region of the brain contains a number of structures involved with the endocrine system and emotion.
  3. The cerebrum is the convoluted area most associated with cognitive functions.

There are about 100 Billion neurons in the human brain.

Each has three areas:

  • Dendrites, like branches, that receive signals from other neurons
  • Cell Body
  • Axons, rather like wires (between a few nanometers in length to 2 metres) that transmit to the dendrites of other neurons and to muscles around the body. The axons and dendrites do not quite meet. Instead, they both are proximal to a space called a synapse.

Neurons receive two distinct types of message: inhibitory signals that tend to turn off the neuron and stop it ‘firing’ and excitatory signals that tend to turn the neuron on and make it ‘fire’. Axon signals reach the synapse and cause the release of chemical neuro-messengers. These move across the synapse towards the dendrite with either an inhibitory or excitatory message.

Neuro-plasticity was recognized by Nobel-lauriate, Torsten Wiesel. He found evidence for neuro-plasticity in the brains of children at certain developmental stages. For decades that was the held truth. It was not until Merzenich’s work (which he started in the 1970’s) that neuro-plasticity became established as a function of brains at all ages. Once Merzenich’s work was accepted, earlier work from 1912 was also widely recognized (interpreted) as showing that neuro-plasticity was in fact experimentally demonstrated back in 1912!

Merzenich went on to design the first cochlea-implant for deaf people, allowing them to re-programme their brains in order to hear again.

Groups of neurons connect and fire together in a programmed way to certain stimuli. This is repeatable and in normal people (having full functionality) these areas can be mapped in anatomical detail and will map across to the same areas in other human brains too.

 Competitive Neuro-plasticity

If you stop using a function, particularly if it is a new skill/process, another related ‘learning’ may grab some of the neurons. These neurons reconnect with other neurons via a new map of synapses firing together, in order to create a new functional learning/activity/result.

An example: as a result if the pioneering work of Edward Taub, when a stroke victim loses the use of an arm, the neuro-plastic approach is to temporarily limit the use of the good arm by strapping it for some weeks (Constraint-Induced movement therapy). Some of these neurons then reconnect with the learning being made in the inflicted arm and take over some of the neural map. You cannot strap the good arm forever, but at the right stage, the strapping is removed. The withered arm typically has incredible functionality, sometimes to 100%. The phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ summarizes the way in which new-mapping, as a neuro-plastic process, creates new learning and functionality in the brain.

Competative neuro-plasticity also explains why it is easier to focus and learn something new, rather than try and un-learn something. Also, why the whole psychology of Displacement Activity works at a basic level to ameliorate discomfort/pain etc. It also explains why, if you take the wrong turn once or twice while driving, and two weeks later try to take the correct route, the chances are that the wrong turn is already programmed – you go wrong again!

The same of course happens in golf and other sport for example. In other words, you need to train perfection and emulate it to keep it. Look at Tiger Woods who is trailing in world-ranking after a traumatic time off golf, after years of being number one and the richest sportsman on earth. Because so much of his learning was unconscious mapping of excellence, he cannot think his way to greatness again.

New mapping takes place in two stages. The first creates an overly-connected brain-area of co-firing – this co-firing involves many neurons and synaptic connections. In time, with repeated learning, the mapping becomes more effective and involves fewer neurons. It also takes place faster (1).

The keys to this learning and (semi) permanent re-mapping are:

  • clear and focussed input/stimulus,and
  • repetition.

Knowing these facts about the brain, Merzenich, with others, developed a methodology in the late 1990’s for re-training people with language impairment. Their product, Fast ForWord, has transformed not only the lives of the young but also adults with life-long linguistic issues. Some of these, shockingly, attain near-normal levels of expertise.

Neuro-plasticity is stimulated by BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). As neurons fire together, they release BDNF which helps consolidate the connectivity (or neural map) of co-firing. BDNF also stimulates part of the brain (the nucleus basalis) that helps to create the psychological-focus needed while the learning is taking place. In this learning zone of acute focus, the neuro-plasticity happens quickly. At the end of the re-mapping, it is again BDNF that works to switch off the nucleus basalis, thus cementing the network.

What does this mean for coaching and particularly the most impactful coaching?

Firstly, it is worth mentioning that people all have a level of ‘readiness-for-change’ investment that is context-specific. That is, if they want or need a change in their response to the world around them, and this motivation is urgent enough, their receptiveness for coaching (or other intervention) will be very high. If coaching a group of people in a team, there will then, different agendas but also, different readiness for actual change or remapping.

All things being equal, what form of coaching environment will make the greatest difference from the learning above?

We already know that trust is important to enable the coach to challenge the coachee, but the neuro-plasticity and coaching of their brains can help the coach work in their favour.

We want them to focus and intently focus for episodes and, to embed-learning, to re-stimulate that learning by re-testing the cause-and-effect of their new re-mapping. To get a high degree of focus, the coach can ask questions that help the individual to go into deep internal (self-) reflection. Questions that challenge belief, perception, relative values (confliction) will all assist.

When the coachee goes internal, the physiological signs are all easy to spot:

  • Breathing slows immediately and may stop for a while;
  • any involuntary tic will stop instantly;
  • the eyes will defocus into the middle-distance;
  • the jaw may slacken; the lips may part slightly;
  • the head may tilt forward slightly (usually most easily observable by the coach seeing a slight increase in the amount of white seen below the iris;
  • the body may slouch (usually most easily observable by seeing the shoulders go down relative to objects behind the coachee.

While these changes are going on, the coach can help by being silent and also change their own sight focus into the middle-distance. If the coach notices the coachee coming out of this state, and without expressing some immediate learning, the coach can repeat the same question exactly as before (2). I have never needed to repeat a question more than twice before the coachee arrives at some significant learning/perception/motivation.

The coach can be positive about the potential for (surprising) change in everyone. Unless the coach gives permission, the coachee is likely to be denied the best chance of significant change (3).

Coaches can make sure that their coachee has the capacity (resources: time, energy, emotional strength etc) for a significant change BEFORE coaching to the coachee’s issue or target. This freeing up or resources will enable them to accommodate any change and, also permit them to focus intently (needed for re-mapping) on the issue/target.

Repeating the stimulation to help set the new pathway can be done by intruding a pattern of anchoring practice or simply by repeating intense and short periods of re-testing the learning over time. Accelerated Learning suggests that this might be best done quite often in the first few days, then repeated every other day and so on until the pathway leads to automatic response. This process may take one instance of learning only, or some weeks or so, depending upon the significance of the learning and how well it is re-mapped.

Footnotes

1. Anyone who has helped to install anchoring in a coachee will have noticed that each time they go into ‘state’ this becomes generally more excellent and also faster.

2. A neural pathway that led to one coachee-response into semi-trance (one question) will be instantly open to the same reaction the second time also. No intellectual judgement is needed by the coachee and so the descent into that state is instantaneous (for video evidence of that see: http://angusmcleod.com/4-levels-of-coaching)

3. Some coaches believe that coaching sessions have to be a certain length to achieve real benefits for the coach. Because they believe that, they are in fact right. Not because they have the truth, but because they, themselves, limit fast change in their coachees. I have one master-class recording in which significant change was completed within 12 and a half minutes, including tests for sustainability. This recording has been intensively used for analysis by several researchers to date.

Dr Angus McLeod

Dr Angus McLeod is the author of many papers and books on coaching, NLP and leadership. His books include, Performance Coaching and Me, Myself, My Team (both Crown House), Self-coaching Leadership (John Wiley) and Performance Coaching Toolkit (McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, 2010). He designed distance-learning performance coaching diploma courses at Newcastle College, with over 15,000 students to date. Angus also researches and supervises academic research at Birmingham City University Business School and facilitates master-classes in coaching, trains managers and coaches 1-2-1 internationally.

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