Kandel’s Principles of Neuroscience
Back in the mid 1990s when I was an undergrad, the core text of my neuroscience curriculum was ‘Principles of Neural Science’ by Eric Kandel, James Schwartz and Thomas Jessell. Eric Kandel went on to win the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on memory storage in neurons.
A few years earlier Kandel penned a paper ‘A new intellectual framework for psychiatry’ explaining how neuroscience can guide a new view of mind health and wellbeing.
As a follow up, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine proposed seven principles of brain-based psychotherapy that are relevant for psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. The principles have been translated into practical applications for health & wellness, business, and life coaches.
The most fundamental principle is,
“All mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from the operation of the brain.”
Kandel then pointed out
“Insofar as psychotherapy or counseling is effective . . . it presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections.”
That is, experience and environment influence brain development and functioning. This concept is now established in neuroscience and is often referred to as neuroplasticity.
What does coaching have to do with the brain?
Short answer: EVERYTHING!
Plenty of neuroscience research supports the idea that our brains remain adaptable (or plastic) throughout our lifetimes (I’ve written about it here).
If you’re a coach you know that you can facilitate changes in:
thinking (beliefs and attitudes)
emotions (more mindfulness and resilience)
behaviour (new healthy habits).
Coaching builds the psychological skills needed to support lasting change such as:
Health and wellness coaching in particular is emerging as a powerful intervention to help people initiate and maintain sustainable change (and yes, there is research to back this up! Check out a list of RCTs in table 2 of this paper).
With all this (and the brain) in mind, here is a summary of Kandel, Cappas and colleagues thoughts on how neuroscience can be applied to therapy and coaching…
Seven principles of neuroscience every coach should know.
1. Both nature and nurture win.
Both genetics and the environment interact in the brain to shape our brains and influence behaviour.
Therapy or coaching can be thought of as a strategic and purposeful ‘environmental tool’ to facilitate change, and may be an effective means of shaping neural pathways.
2. Experience transforms the brain.
The areas of our brain associated with emotions and memories such as the pre-frontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus are not hard-wired (they are ‘plastic’). Circuits in our brain change in response to experiences, not just during development, after injury, or during learning and memory formation.
3. Memories are imperfect.
Our memories are not a perfect account of what happened. Memories can be reconstructed at the time when we recall them depending on how we retrieve the memory. For example, a question, photograph or a particular scent can interact with a memory resulting in it being modified as it is recalled.
With increasing life experience we weave narratives into their memories. Autobiographical memories that tell the story of our lives are always undergoing revision precisely because our sense of self is too.
Consciously or not, we use imagination to reinvent our past, and with it, our present and future.
4. Emotion underlies memory formation.
Memories, emotions, and feelings are interconnected neural processes. The amygdala, which plays a role in emotional arousal, mediate neurotransmitters essential for memory consolidation. Emotional arousal has the capacity to activate the amygdala, which in turn modulates the storage of memory..
5. Relationships are the foundation for change
The therapeutic relationship has the capacity to help clients modify neural systems and enhance emotional regulation.
Caring relationships in adulthood may elicit positive physiological responses ranging from modifying circadian rhythms to enhancing recovery from an illness.
6. Imagining and doing are the same (to the brain).
Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, and organising actual sensory information such as vision, smell, taste, and touch. Imagining activates the same neural pathways as the real experience. Envisioning a different life may as successfully invoke change as the actual experience.
7. We don’t always know what our brain is ‘thinking’.
Unconscious processes exert great influence on our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
The brain can process nonverbal and unconscious information, and information processed unconsciously can still influence therapeutic and other relationships. It’s possible to react to unconscious perceptions without consciously understanding the reaction.
If you want to explore these ideas in more detail, they form the basis of my FREE e-course, Neuroscience for Coaches and Wellness Professionals.
Join over 2000 other health and wellness professionals and coaches who’ve signed up to discovery more about the brain, and how to apply neuroscience to their life and work.
As Cappas et al note that this list is not exhaustive. This blog post should serve as a jumping-off point for considering coaching through a neuroscience lens. Psychologists, therapists and coaches face the challenge of understanding and treating the whole person with biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. It’s possible knowledge of the brain and mind can enhance this practice, and begin to inform new strategies consistent with neuroscience principles.
Image credit: Purkinje cells in cerebellum, Harvard Centre for Brain Science
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