April 21, 2015

Is neuroscience relevant for coaches?

Neuroscience is becoming increasingly popular. How relevant is this scientific discipline for coaches? 

In recent years there has been a growing interest in neuroscience. Neuroscience is the scientific study of our nervous system and it is more than just a branch of biology because many scientific disciplines contribute to it. It is a huge field of study which is relatively young and developing rapidly. When I talk about neuroscience with coaches (for example about a new book or a new study) I usually notice two types of reactions. The first, and in my perception dominant reaction, is one of great interest. Many people are curious about topics like brain structures, neural circuits, neurotransmitters, and neuroplasticity. The second is one of skepticism. One type of skeptical question I sometimes hear is whether neuroscience is relevant for coaches. In other words, is it useful at all for coaches to start learning about neuroscience? A second skeptical question is whether it is feasible for coaches to acquire knowledge about neuroscience.

Both questions seem like reasonable, justified questions to me. Let's start by taking a look at the question whether neuroscience is relevant for coaches. A skeptical coach might say: "What does it matter what happens in the brain of my clients? The only thing that counts is whether what I do works, isn't it?" I agree that this is indeed the most important thing and that knowledge about neuroscience is, strictly spoken, probably not a prerequisite for effective coaching. But this does not mean that knowledge about neuroscience isn't relevant. My view is that knowledge about neuroscience is actually relevant and useful for several reasons.

By acquiring knowledge about neuroscience you may gain more insight into why and how certain interventions work. By not only knowing that they work but also why and how you can apply them more deliberately. Furthermore, you can explain and justify better (to others and yourself) why you work the way you work. Also, by gaining more insight into what happens inside the brain when clients do certain things you may become more precise in the applications of your interventions. You may encounter some new ideas for interventions and drop some old ones which are less effective or even counterproductive.

Another skeptical thought about the usefulness of neuroscience is that it does not add anything useful. For example, a coach who read about the fact that prolonged mindfulness meditation leads to structural changes in the brain, responded by saying: "So what? What does it matter that those structural changes are there? Why would that say anything about the value of mindfulness meditation?" The question is a good one but by the way it was asked I could notice it was meant as a rhetorical question rather than as a curious question. The person asking it implied that this type of finding adds nothing. I disagree. Indeed, isolated studies are of limited value but neuroscience gradually builds a network of interrelated findings which creates a context from which we may evaluate findings from individual studies. Looking at patterns of findings from different neuroscientific and psychological studies may actually make it possible to know something about how valuable certain changes in the brain are.

Now let's look a the feasibility question. Can you expect from coaches that they start studying something so complex as the human brain? I can imagine that some view this as an big challenge. But is that a reason to not do it? I don't this it is. Neuroscience itself has taught us that intellectual challenges are good for us. They help us to keep our brains fit. That neuroscience is so challenging is an extra reason to start studying it.

It may not be a necessity for coaches to learn about neuroscience but it is probably a good idea because it may make them a better coach.

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