Think you can’t teach on old dog any new tricks? It turns out that humans are more adaptable than was originally thought.
I recently had the privilege of spending several days studying the neuroscience of coaching with one of the industry leaders, Ann Betz. Betz, a faculty member for the Coaches Training Institute, shared some emerging research and coaching tools to help integrate the research into practice and has agreed to let me share it with you here.
One of the most compelling areas of research is around brain plasticity. According to Betz, in the human brain the neural connections reinforce themselves through repetition. The more we think, feel, or do something, the stronger that pathway becomes, until we create deep patterns that could be set for life. Academics believed that once a pathway was created, it was almost impossible to change. New research has proven otherwise.
It turns out that the brain is capable of on-going myelination (the official word for creating new neural pathways). It is possible to create new connections, and subsequent thoughts and experiences. Coaching is one of the ways to consciously create these new pathways, and therefore, literally change our minds.
Research has also shown that there are five key factors that aid in the myelination process: sleep, food, exercise, focused attention, and novelty.
Experts recommend 7-9 hours/day, or at least 4 hours of deep sleep to allow for a full sleep cycle. Looking at screens right before sleep, as well as drinking alcohol or caffeine, can hurt the quality and quantity of sleep.
Consuming Omega 3 fatty acids improves brain functioning and, specifically, brain plasticity. These can be found in certain fish, olive oil, avocadoes, flax seeds and many other sources.
The amount of research emerging about the positive impact of exercise on the brain is overwhelming. Everyone should aim to get heart rates elevated for at least 30 minutes, at least 4-5 times per week.
Multi-tasking is so 2008. To build your brain, focused attention is key. This may be through meditation, focus on breath, or simply being present to whatever is in front of you. You may switch from one thing to another quite quickly, as long as you are focused on one thing at a time.
Like any muscle in the body, the more you challenge the brain with new experiences, the stronger it will get. This could be by exposing yourself to new environments, languages, ways of thinking, travel, new sports or anything that provides a novel experience. Betz warns of the “Sudoku trap” where people may think that they’re working their brains by doing puzzles, but ultimately become so proficient at solving the puzzles that it is no longer a challenge, or novel.
As complex as brain and human behaviour may be, there are some relatively simple tools and practices to help you tap into your greatest potential. For example, yoga is an activity that could benefit each of the five areas: a more rigourous practice can elevate your heart rate, satisfying the exercise component. The focus on the breath and the need to be totally present to avoid falling over helps develop focused attention. The relaxing and rejuvenating aspects of yoga help with sleep and the increased body awareness that comes with an evolving practice helps train you to pay closer attention to foods that improve vitality, as well as to signs that you are full. Finally, in a dynamic practice and with a variety of teachers, you will never have the same class twice. The series of poses can evolve to be so complex that one could practice for a lifetime and still have challenges to work on, satisfying the novelty criteria.
It is never too late to start building new neural pathways that will lead you to a more vital and effective mind – and life.