For a long time the received wisdom within the world of brain science has been about structure, fixed neural connections, localization of function and other related concepts. This view was largely influenced by some of the pioneering work of people like Hubel & Wiesel, Nobel Prize winners in 1981.
The idea that the brain may actually be ‘plastic’ in some way, that it may continue to make new connections, and that regions of the brain may actually be able to adapt and become responsible for function that it was not originally ‘mapped’ for, was dismissed until very recently.
The great news is that ‘neuroplasticity’ is now out there and widely accepted, as a result of the growing weight of evidence that has built up over the years. Evidence from the experiences of stroke victims, of people who have suffered brain injuries and gone on to recover function previously lost, and from animal experimentation. This is great news for us all. It means our brains can change, which means we can change. The expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, is simply not true. We need to replace it with, “It’s never too late to learn”.
It’s also great news for the so-called ‘talking therapies’, which includes psychoanalysis, counselling, CBT, as well as coaching. In fact, Freud was one of the first to advocate that the brain had ‘plastic’ properties. “Neurons that wire together, fire together”, a maxim which is essentially the basis of many of the theories of ‘association’ that have underpinned much of learning theory, from Pavlov on.
In a conference on Coaching & Neuroscience in November of 2011, Tara Swart, a psychiatrist turned coach, described coaching as being like “brain surgery”. What she meant was that she is constantly attempting to cut through the cortical layers which are responsible for our logical, analytical and general problem solving processing and expose our limbic system, thereby getting in touch with our emotions, drives, motivators and deeper feelings. Our higher cortical processes are constantly trying to make sense, intellectualize and rationalise what is going on for us, and can, and do, get in the way. Peeling back the cortex and working with the older parts of the brain takes skill and dexterity and a very sharp scalpel on the part of the surgeon, and it is no different for coaches as they skilfully ‘operate’ with their clients. How sharp is your scalpel?