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Home » Blog » Coaching the Brain with Joseph O ‘Connor

It would be quite intriguing for most of us how a classical professional guitarist who taught music topsy-turvied his career to study neuroscience and coach people.


How can the same person play differently in 10 seconds?

Here is an interesting story by Joseph O’ Connor that he shared at Coaching Matters. When he used to tutor people with their guitar, he noticed conspicuous behaviour among his professional guitarist students. He would sit in a session, and notice that the student is playing very poor. But, when he would step out for a few seconds for a coffee break, he would hear them play beautifully in his absence.

So, what’s happening with that person. The competence cannot change to a great extent in just a few seconds.

This happens often with performers.

And, that is because the person is dealing with some kind of an internal opponent or self consciousness or mental model that impeded their real skill.

This brings us to raise one’s ability as a coach to help people express themselves in any situation possible and most importantly during difficult situations.

How do you define the brain? How do you distinguish between the brain and mind?

For Joseph, interest in neuroscience emerged as a result of interest in spotting gaps. So that brings us to the definition of brain.

“Brain is how the mind looks at matter.”

What is good for the body is good for the brain. For instance, exercise or socializing. This tells us that the brain is a social, biological, and mental organ.

Why is it important for a Coach to understand the brain and the neuroscience behind that? What are the applications of it for a Coach?

Coaches are involved in conversations. Behind every thought and decision the brian remains working. We are constantly involved in helping people without understanding how their brains work.

By understanding how the brain works, coaches can not only help themselves, but also their clients, to a great deal. This helps us approach our clients with compassion instead of annoyance.

What is the neuroscience behind Goals? Why is it important for a Coach to know about this?

Our wants drive us as humans. This forms our goals. It gets complicated after we meet our basic wants such as food, clothing and shelter.

We need to understand the interface between the feeling wanting something and what goes on into producing the output. This study reveals some interesting levers.

We are all natural creators. And so we also create goals. Then, we plan and get feedback and move towards achieving them. Hippocampus codes memories. If it does not work, then you can’t remember. This part of the brain alone is not enough. Because after you code memories, they have to be stored and retrieved.

That makes neuroscience of goals a cognitive aspect. There are many tips and tricks that put us off course. We don’t notice it because we are thinking with all sorts of biases. We don’t know that.

But, if you know of them, then you can cope with the deviations and distractions, ahead.

What can a Coach do to allow the coachee to make informed decisions?

We seem to often be triggered by bad memories and not the good ones. Humans are always looking out for danger, for threats. And, this keeps us alive as we are constantly looking out for something. The amygdala always rings the alarm that makes the person identify that there is something wrong around here.

The prefrontal cortex that helps us do most of our logical and rational thinking has a superpower. This allows us to time travel. It helps us to plan, forecast, analyze scenarios, but unfortunately it gets hijacked by the amygdala. The amygdala hijacks on behalf of the threat and builds anxiety.

This triggers further anxiety and does not help us think cognitively about it. So, understanding the neuroscience behind goals and decisions helps us think cognitively. It lets us stay in the present and use the resource to its best use.

Which part of the brain gets tapped when a person is operating from values and how does it show up physiologically?

Values are spoken about very abstractly. Values need to link with emotion. Emotion is about meaning.

For instance, the sensation that I get when someone I love touches my hand versus a mosquito touching my hand. In the former, I would feel loved and in the later I would express disgust. This is what value does. It gives meaning to what you do.

We need to connect our goals with values. This makes our life more meaningful.

The part of the brain that deals with values is connected to the deeper parts of the brain which is linked to the brain stem further connecting to the autonomous nervous system. This network determines our blood pressure, pulse rate, skin conductivity, temperature and so on. So, if you see, how our brain thinks is linked to our body. That is physiology.

Sometimes the meaning that we derive may not be of any use to us. How can coaches bring in more awareness for their clients so that the coachee can operate from a different meaning?

Our brain makes predictions based on our past experiences. These create mental models. The mental models get translated into circuits. But, circuits don’t get updated. And, any mental model that brings grief and unhappiness does not work very well.

Unhappiness with an interpretation of an event is a good signal for us to bring our awareness to. Mental models are not about right or wrong. They are a distillation of our experiences which is laid down in the brain through different connections. This leads to predictions about what happens next. And if we are jumping blindly into the same predictions again and again will only get us what we have always got.

Some indicators that help us raise our awareness are:

  • Shifting body posture
  • Physiological breathing
  • Tightening the chest
  • Sweat

These create the feedback for the brain to fix things. Changing the physiological disposition can help us change something in our brain for the short term.

The prefrontal cortex is like the CEO. It is also a master of inhibitions. So if you want to keep your amygdala in control for the long term, one way to do it is meditation.

How can belief systems be changed? What is the role of neuroplasticity in changing the mental model?

At a physical or material level, we repeat habits. At an abstract on an immaterial level, we repeat thoughts.

When we keep repeating a thought such as “I am not good at something” or “I am very good at something” and fit it into a mental model over and over again, it becomes a circuit. A circuit becomes stronger with more such repetition. The brain does not or cannot distinguish for you between a stupid and a good thought.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change itself in response to experience. Therefore, we need to be careful about the experience that we choose to have. Attentive repetition builds change connections in your brain. Learn good things about yourself. Practice a story. Practice a good one.

What is coming up after your book ‘Coaching the Brain’?

Joseph O ‘Connor in collaboration with xMonks is launching an exclusive workshop for 14 weeks on ‘Coaching the Brain. It also includes coaching hour credits. For more, get in touch with our team.

Watch the video here.