7 principles of neuroscience every coach and therapist should know


What does neuroscience have to do with coaching and therapy?

Short answer: Quite a lot!

If you’re a coach or therapist, your job is to facilitate change in your client’s

  • thinking (beliefs and attitudes)
  • emotions (more mindfulness and resilience)
  • behaviour (new healthy habits).

Coaching builds the mental skills needed to support lasting change. Skills such as:

  • mindfulness
  • self-awareness
  • motivation
  • resilience
  • optimism
  • critical thinking
  • stress management

Health and wellness coaching, in particular, are emerging as powerful interventions to help people initiate and maintain sustainable change.

And we have academic research to support this claim: check out a list of RCTs in table 2 of this paper).

How can neuroscience more deeply inform coaching and therapy?

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. Kandel won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on memory storage in neurons.

A few years before his Nobel, Kandel wrote a paper A new intellectual framework for psychiatry’. The paper explained how neuroscience can provide a new view of mental health and wellbeing.

Based on Kandel’s paper, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine proposed seven principles of brain-based therapy for psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. The principles have been translated into practical applications for health & wellness, business, and life coaches. 

One fundamental principle is,

“All mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from the operation of the brain.”

And another is:

“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, human interactions and experience influence how the brain works.

This concept of brain change is now well established in neuroscience and is often referred to as neuroplasticity. Ample neuroscience research supports the idea that our brains remain adaptable (or plastic) throughout our lifespan.

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.  Experiences transform the brain.

The networks 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’. The brain prunes and tunes its connections in response to the experiences it has.

3.  Memories are imperfect.

Our memories are never a perfect account of what happened. Memories are re-written each time when we recall them depending on how, when and where 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 and emotions 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.

Research suggests each of us constructs emotions from a diversity of sources: our physiological state, by our reactions to the ‘outside’ environment, experiences and learning, and our culture and upbringing.

Explore these 7 principles in my FREE 10-day e-Masterclass

‘Principles of Neuroscience for Coaches, Therapists and Wellbeing Professionals’.

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5. Relationships are the foundation for change 

Relationships in childhood AND adulthood have the power to elicit positive change.

Sometimes it takes the love, care or attention of just one person to help another change for the better.

The therapeutic relationship has the capacity to help clients modify neural systems and enhance emotional regulation.

6. Imagining and doing are pretty much the same thing to the brain.

Mental imagery or visualisation not only activates the same brain regions as the actual behaviour but also can speed up the learning of a new skill.

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 (but I’m not willing to put a percentage on ‘how much is subconscious’).

The brain can process nonverbal and unconscious information, and such information influences therapeutic and other relationships. It’s possible to react to unconscious perceptions without consciously understanding the reaction.

To explore these ideas in more detail, they form the basis of my FREE 10-day e-Masterclass ‘Principles of Neuroscience for Coaches, Therapists and Wellbeing Professionals’.

SIGN UP here for 10-day e-Masterclass.

Join over 8000 coaches, therapists and health and wellness practitioners who have discovered new ways how to apply neuroscience to their life and work.

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  1. Jeremy Britton on June 27, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Meditation, NLP and hypnosis techniques can assist with processing unconscious brain data, including removing or transforming limiting Belief Systems (BS) and creating empowering new habits. Visualization is a very powerful tool, and not used effectively by so many people. Too many people *Think* and grow poor, when they could possibly *Meditate* and Manifest 🙂

    • Cc on October 15, 2020 at 9:42 am

      An amputee won’t meditate and manifest a new limb. There are certain things which we are bound by.

  2. Owen on July 7, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Now that brings back memories! Kandel and Schwartz was already the long-standing dominant thome in my undergrad days in the early 80’s too.

    Coaching is of huge import to the mental health of those being coached. A coach’s input carries greatest weight when it is given (or recalled) at crucial times in one’s life. Recent work with brain-injured subjects by Jacques Duff at Swinburne demonstrates the biological underpinnings of depression and anxiety, the knowledge of which is also valuable to those who coach or mentor others. You never know when the guidance you offer may influence someone dealing with some of life’s more insidious problems.

    • Sarah McKay on July 7, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      It is really important. I admit I was a bit of a skeptic about ‘coaching’ in general…but I think there is a place for health & wellness coaching, and the evidence is certainly in favour. Now to start training up brain health coaches!

      • Susan Carroll on March 16, 2021 at 11:39 pm

        I am currently undertaking a Master’s in Applied Psychology,(Coaching and Positive Psychology) in University College Cork in Ireland, I am really interested in the connection between changes in the brain and coaching, I would love to be a “brain health coach”. I will be doing my Master’s thesis next year, and would love to look at something in this domain,.

  3. Maria Davis on August 4, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Hi Sarah – thank you for posting this authoritative blog. The information is insightful and it lends itself to the belief that out physiology is shaped and can be re shaped by our thoughts.

    I asked one of my clients whether she feels she will ever be well and she responded that she feels that her body will never serve her and she will always be ill. I find this sad as her thoughts and beliefs will keep her unwell and her life is set on this course.

    Anyhow love your writing and for us in the coaching field it validates our efforts to support all on their journey in life.

    • Sarah McKay on August 4, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      Thanks Maria – So what did you tell you client?
      Delighted you enjoy my blog too 🙂 x

  4. Hilary on August 19, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Hi Sarah,
    What an inspiring post! I am literally on the brink of signing up to study a cert IV in Life Coaching (with a particular interest in health and wellness) and I just decided to do a quick google browse on life coaching principles to gain a little more perspective on the subject. In fact, I am suddenly so excited that I am making a choice to study this and your post and the comments about neuroplasticity, lifestyle design, habit maintenance etc have me buzzing in my seat! It’s also reassuring to see blogs by doctors and neuroscientists discussing the research and the science behind these principles and strategies which can support people to create for themselves a better quality of life. 🙂

    • Sarah McKay on August 22, 2014 at 12:38 am

      Hi Hilary
      Stick around … I’m currently working on a online course on neuroplasticity/brain science for coaches. It would be perfect for you!! Sarah

      • Hilary on August 22, 2014 at 11:42 am

        Hi Sarah, amazing! so it get’s even better! I will definitely be sticking around. PS Love your website too. Cheers, Hilary

  5. Maria Arredondo on December 11, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    very interesting article Sarah, thank you!

    As a certified coach, I can understand how you can be skeptical about coaching in general, in particular when those who call themselves coaches are more like trainers or people who teach others how to follow a path they have walked themselves before (nothing wrong with this per se, just pointing at a lack of regulation in the industry that luckily organisations like the ICF are trying to raise awareness on and actively working on raising the coaching industry’s standards)

    There are some organisations like the Coaches Training Institute that are partnering with organizations like the Harvard Medical Shool to bring the art and practice of coaching together with the science that supports its efficacy.

    There are also some very interesting neuroscience studies that support the efficacity of coaching (read here: http://www.thecoaches.com/pressroom/press-releases/neuroscience-research-supports-co-active-coaching-as-tool-for-change)

    Raising this awareness is very important.

    Thank you for contributing to this working body of people who believe in coaching as a tool for change, and in documenting how it is supported by science.


    • Sarah McKay on December 12, 2014 at 4:50 am

      Thanks for the link Maria! I’m off to read it now.
      Yes… its a problem for the industry that it is so unregulated. Anyone and everyone can all themselves a coach! I’m sure I could be a brain coach if I decided 🙂

  6. Denise Carew on September 25, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    Hi Sarah

    I love your site and your video. I am very interested in enrolling on your course but unfortunately I couldn’t afford it at the moment. I look forward to hearing how it goes and what your plans are for the future.

    I am putting together some resources for new coaches who are supervisors in a government environment and would like to include your 7 principles on neuroscience (fully referenced) and a link to your website. Let me know if this would be ok with you.

    Thanks Sarah

  7. Shannon on August 27, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks for the article. An easy-to-read format with great points. I know it’s neuroscience, but many of these points remind me of emotion focused therapy.

  8. Herzolex Ultra on February 19, 2018 at 6:28 pm

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  9. John Mekrut on July 30, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    Number 7 is my domain. Neurofeedback can help re-train those unconscious brain habits that are contrary to best mental, phsyical and spiritual health. Add this modality to your health plan and increase the likelihood of success.

  10. Ian Renfrew on August 10, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    How much of this science is predicated on the brain not being physically damaged? Even negotiating this web page is difficult when interactions don’t meet your expectations, or your level of awaremness is compromised.

    • Sarah McKay on August 21, 2018 at 9:00 am

      Good Question! It’s assuming an undamaged brain. Sorry to hear you’ve had trouble finding your way round Ian. The content is intended for a professional audience. x

  11. Vishal Jain on April 6, 2019 at 5:04 am

    Is epigentics real ?
    I have heard all over internet that food,sleep,exercises,emotions and thoughts affect genetic expression .

    Is it true ?

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  13. تمريض منزلي on August 25, 2021 at 9:25 pm

    i found this article about Principles Of Neuroscience Every Coach And Therapist Should Know very interesting, it has a lot of great and helpful info, thanks for sharing

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About Dr Sarah

I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.

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