7 principles of neuroscience every coach and therapist should know

coaching neuroscience health wellbeing

What does neuroscience have to do with coaching and therapy?

Short answer: it can provide a unique lens through which to understand human behaviour.

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.

How can neuroscience more deeply inform coaching and therapy?

During my undergraduate days in the mid-1990s, the cornerstone of our studies in neuroscience was the seminal text ‘Principles of Neural Science’ authored by Eric Kandel, James Schwartz, and Thomas Jessell. It’s worth noting that Kandel was later awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work on the mechanisms of memory storage in neurons.

Not long before his Nobel accolade, Kandel penned an influential paper, ‘A new intellectual framework for psychiatry‘. In this work, he laid out a vision for how insights from neuroscience could revolutionize our understanding of mental health and wellbeing.

Drawing inspiration from Kandel’s groundbreaking ideas, a team from the Yale School of Medicine put forth seven principles of brain-based therapy. These principles weren’t just for psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists; they found their way into the toolkits of health and wellness professionals, business leaders, and life coaches, offering practical applications far beyond their initial scope.

These principles underscore human interactions and experiences’ profound impact on brain function and behaviour change.

The notion that the brain can change in response to experience, now commonly known as neuroplasticity, is a well-entrenched concept in contemporary neuroscience. Research abounds supporting the fact that our brains are capable of remarkable adaptation at any age.

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.

Nature and nurture are not adversaries; they’re collaborators, intricately intertwined. It’s not an either/or scenario; it’s a resounding both.

Our brains bear the imprints of genes, hormones, molecules, and inherent patterns of neural activity constituting the ‘nature’ component. Simultaneously, childhood experiences, social bonds, education, culture, and the world around us form the ‘nurture’ component.

Both nature and nurture possess the power to forge and modify brain structures, neural chemistry, and, consequently, human behaviour.

Therapy or coaching can be considered a strategic and purposeful ‘environmental tool’ to facilitate change and may be an effective means of shaping neural pathways.

2.  Experiences transform the brain.

Our brain circuits remain responsive to experiences throughout our lives, not merely during development, after injury, or when we engage in learning and memory formation.

Neuroplasticity is an enduring, lifelong process.

Notably, the regions of our brain linked to emotions and memories, such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, exhibit remarkable plasticity.

3.  Memories are imperfect.

Let’s uncover a truth: your memories aren’t pristine records.

Memories are remoulded as they’re recalled, and the remoulding depends on the context in which we retrieve the memory.

As we age and accumulate life experiences, we intertwine narratives with our memories.

Our well-being, personality, and emotions are intricately tied to memory. The conscious recollection of personal past events, known as autobiographical memory or episodic memory, is how we craft our personal stories.

With increasing life experience, we weave narratives into their memories.  Autobiographical memories that tell the story of our lives are constantly undergoing revision precisely because our sense of self is, too.

Whether we realize it 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.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett succinctly puts it:

“An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean in relation to what is going on around you in the world.”

Emotions and memory are pivotal facets of therapy, education, and coaching. Grasping how they influence behaviour and understanding our agency over them can greatly enhance your practice.

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


Explore these seven principles in my free 10-day Masterclass: ‘Principles of Neuroscience for Coaches, Therapists and Wellbeing Professionals’. SIGN UP for free here 


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 can help clients modify neural systems and enhance emotional regulation.

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

Here’s a fascinating revelation: when you imagine something, your brain activates the same neural pathways as when you actually experience it!

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.

Even in the realm of medicine, guided imagery is so potent that it can alleviate chronic pain stemming from conditions like cancer and spinal cord injuries.

For your clients, mentally rehearsing aspects of a desired goal or behaviour can effectively engage the same brain networks as the actual experience.

7. We don’t always know what our brain is ‘thinking’.

More often than not, we remain unaware of our brain’s inner workings, of what it’s quietly ‘thinking.’

This is because unconscious processes sway our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.

Our brain is a master at processing nonverbal and unconscious information, tirelessly monitoring our hydration levels, hormones, body temperature, pH, digestion, breathing, heart rate, and more.

Unconscious information processing can also shape our thoughts and feelings. It’s entirely feasible to react emotionally to something without consciously comprehending why.

Perhaps this analogy can clarify the following:

“At times, you may find yourself emotionally stirred by something you hear, even though no harm was intended. This experience stems from your emotional memory, triggered automatically. The good news is that you can rewire this emotional memory. You can also learn to intercept your thoughts when your mood takes a negative turn and assess the accuracy of those thoughts in the moment.”

In essence, we can learn to ‘think about thinking.’

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26 Comments

  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.

    Maria

    • 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
    Denise

  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.

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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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