Last week’s post on the ‘Upstairs & Downstairs Brain’ attracted considerable attention, and elicited a number of responses – some favourable, some challenging. It appears that the implications of neuroplasticity are still very much at the early stage of consideration for many people, and, just how the new knowledge being generated can be put to use by coaches is not yet clear.
Last week, I spoke about the limbic system (or old brain) as being ‘downstairs’, and the pre-frontal cortex (or new brain) as being ‘upstairs’. Today, let’s look at the brain from a different perspective – left and right.
It has long been known that the left & right hemispheres of the human brain specialise in different areas of cognition, memory and reasoning. Put simplistically, the left side of the brain tends to be associated with more logical and analytical thinking, while the right hemisphere is linked to more creative pursuits and expressions of emotion, for example, through art and music.
Furthermore, Dr. Jordan Grafman, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), puts forward evidence that the left-frontal lobe in a normal brain is specialized in storing of individual events, while the right-frontal lobe draws out themes and connections. People who have suffered damage or lesions to their right-frontal area often find it difficult to understand the point of a story, or a movie that they watch, and find the use of metaphor and simile extremely challenging. They understand the words spoken, and can make literal sense of things, but they lose the ability to interpret, extrapolate, find abstract meaning and so on.
But, from studying these unfortunate cases of people who have suffered brain damage, neuroscience has also discovered something fascinating about the way the hemispheres of the brain operate together. Some people who suffer damage or wastage in the left side of their brain, thereby losing their ability to understand the meaning of words, have been known to almost spontaneously develop unusual artistic and musical skills. In other words, skills that are typically processed in the right side of the brain. What is going on here? Well, Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurology professor at UC, San Francisco, argues that the left hemisphere would normally act as an inhibitor and suppress the full expression of the right hemisphere. Without the left hemisphere functioning normally, the right operates with no inhibitions, and is able to fully express its potential. (see Norman Doidge and “The Brain that Changes Itself” for an in-depth exploration of this area).
This phenomenon provides an important insight into how people, without such brain damage, might exploit this knowledge. If we can free up one hemisphere from the distracting, inhibitory influences of the other, if only for short bursts of time, it may help us to allow aspects of our thinking, feelings, creativity and intuition, to surface and find full expression.
This has been known for some time (although the supporting neuroscience evidence continues to catch up) and Betty Edwards (1979) created methods to help people to draw based on these very principles of switching off the inhibitory left brain processing (which usually shows up as internal chatter)
So……What does this mean for coaches?
How can an understanding of this area help your clients?
How can we work with clients to allow them to quieten their logical, rational voice, and give expression to their deeper, and often hidden (subdued) thoughts?
- Share your understanding of the roles of the hemispheres with your clients? Use this as the basis of a coaching conversation and explore what the client believes is happening in their brain.
- Ask powerful questions that connect with how the client feels, not what they think.
- Tap in to the client’s visions, values, beliefs and goals using creative and artistic methods (e.g. invite them to use music, drawings, cut-out images from magazines, describe things using smells,tastes and colours ~ ask what would work best for them).
- Explore what is expressed in terms of the senses, and ‘mine’ the limbic system for underlying emotions (see this previous post for more on this topic “Coaching is like Brain Surgery”. So, how sharp is your scalpel?)
And why might it make sense to encourage our clients to quieten their left brain and give expression to their right? Certainly not because the left side of the brain is not needed, anything but. We clearly need both to function as complete beings. We need the left brain to plan, to analyse, to make decisions, to solve problems, and to articulate our thoughts and feelings. But if we are seeking new ideas, deeper insights and creative breakthroughs, we need to leave space for our right hemispheres to connect with our emotions, feelings and passions, to fire these up and provide the fuel that will drive them forward.
No-one can speak more personally or expressively to this than Jill Bolte Taylor. Jill is a brain researcher who suffered a stroke. She plays out her remarkable and humbling story in this TED talk, whilst shining a light on the amazing structure and functionality of our human brain.
Please share your own views on the ways in which advances in our understanding of the brain are informing your coaching.
If you would like to receive brain-based coaching, taking advantage of the discoveries of neuroscience, please do get in touch. Simply submit your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to contact you for an initial chat.