Coaching the brain: Neuro-science or Neuro-nonsense?

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Abstract
This paper discusses some myths and misconceptions that have emerged in relation to neuroscience and coaching, and explores the notion that neuroscience provides a foundational evidence-base for coaching, and that neurocoaching is a unique or original coaching methodology. It is found that much of the insights into coaching purported to be delivered by neuroscience are long-established within the behavioural sciences. Furthermore, the empirical and conceptual links between neuroscientific findings and actual coaching practice are tenuous at best. Although at present there is no convincing empirical support for a neuroscientific foundation to coaching, there are important ways in which coaching and neuroscience can interact. There is good evidence that solution-focused cognitive-behavioural (SF-CB) coaching can reliably induce specific behavioural and cognitive changes. SF-CB coaching could thus be used as a methodology to experimentally induce specific changes including greater self-insight and better relations with others. Subsequent changes in brain structure or brain activity could then be observed. This has potential to be of great value to the neuroscience enterprise by providing more hard evidence for concepts such as neuroplasticity and brain-region function-specificity. It may well be that coaching can be of greater use to the field of neuroscience than the field of neuroscience can be to coaching. In this way we can address many neuromyths and misconceptions about brain-based coaching, and begin to author a more accurate and productive narrative about the relationship between coaching and neuroscience.
Introduction
T
HERE HAS BEEN a significant growth
over the past 10 years in articles, prod-
ucts and services in the coaching
industry that purport to draw on neuroscien-
tific research. There is an immediacy and
attractiveness in neuroscience that appeals
to many people. For some, neuroscience
offers the ultimate explanatory framework
from which to understand coaching. For
others neuroscience-based coaching is
a classic example of pop-science band-
wagoning with coaches, workplace trainers
and business consultants using neuroscien-
tific jargon and brain images as pseudo-
explanatory frameworks for atheoretical
proprietary coaching systems (for discussion
see Grant & Cavanagh, 2007).
The target paper in this issue provides an
opportunity to reflect on some aspects of
neuroscience-based coaching. I should state
that I am no expert in neuroscience.
My expertise (if any) lies in solution-focused
cognitive-behavioural approaches to coach-
ing, conducting coaching research, prac-
ticing evidence-based coaching with
organisations and coaching clients, and
teaching and training others in evidence-
based coaching. In addition, my undergrad-
uate and postgraduate training in psychology
taught me some skills in critical thinking,
reasoning and research. It is from this
perspective that I write.
This paper, in response to the target
paper, discusses the narrative that has
emerged in relation to the use of neuro-
science in coaching, some neuromyths and
misconceptions and explores the notions
that neuroscience provides an evidence-base
for coaching and that neurocoaching is a
unique or original coaching methodology.
The Coaching Psychologist, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 2015 31
© The British Psychological Society ISSN: 1748–1104
Response to Dias et al.
Coaching the brain: Neuro-science or
neuro-nonsense?
Anthony M. Grant
This paper discusses some myths and misconceptions that have emerged in relation to neuroscience and
coaching, and explores the notion that neuroscience provides a foundational evidence-base for coaching,
and that neurocoaching is a unique or original coaching methodology. It is found that much of the insights
into coaching purported to be delivered by neuroscience are long-established within the behavioural sciences.
Furthermore, the empirical and conceptual links between neuroscientific findings and actual coaching
practice are tenuous at best. Although at present there is no convincing empirical support for a neuroscientific
foundation to coaching, there are important ways in which coaching and neuroscience can interact. There
is good evidence that solution-focused cognitive-behavioural (SF-CB) coaching can reliably induce specific
behavioural and cognitive changes. SF-CB coaching could thus be used as a methodology to experimentally
induce specific changes including greater self-insight and better relations with others. Subsequent changes in
brain structure or brain activity could then be observed. This has potential to be of great value to the
neuroscience enterprise by providing more hard evidence for concepts such as neuroplasticity and brain-region
function-specificity. It may well be that coaching can be of greater use to the field of neuroscience than the
field of neuroscience can be to coaching. In this way we can address many neuromyths and misconceptions
about brain-based coaching, and begin to author a more accurate and productive narrative about the
relationship between coaching and neuroscience.
Keywords: neuroscience; coaching; neuromyths; brain-based coaching.
I then argue that, by providing a well-
validated methodology for creating human
change, coaching per se may well be of
greater use to the field of neuroscience as an
experimental methodology than neuro-
science per se can be to coaching.
Neuromyths and misconceptions
Neuromyths are misconceptions about the
brain that propagate when cultural or social
conditions (e.g. lack of critical thinking or
expert knowledge, unconscious biases, etc.)
inhibit rigours scrutiny (Crockard, 1996),
and can be viewed as surface markers of an
underlying social narrative.
Neuromyths arise, in part, because the
mind-brain-behaviour relationship cannot be
reduced to, or acutely represented in a
colourful computer-generated image of the
brain however impressive such images
might be. Oversimplification of these
complex relationships creates misunderstand-
ings (Howard-Jones, 2014), and such misun-
derstandings are frequently propagated by
the popular press and those who wish to use
neuroscientific language to sell their goods or
services (Beck, 2010). As Beck (2010) notes, it
is very easy to manipulate the general public’s
perception of neuroscientific findings.
Indeed, there is good research suggesting that
people find statements made with reference
to brain images and neuroscience language
more convincing than the same statements
that make no reference to the brain (McCabe
& Castel, 2008; Rhodes, Rodriguez & Shah,
2014; Weisberg et al., 2008). In short, it is diffi-
cult for those not appropriately trained in
neuroscience to fully grasp the true relevance
or veracity of research in this area.
To add further confusion, there are
significant controversies about the real
meaning of functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) a primary tool in the
neuroscientific research. The way that fMRI
data itself is statistically analysed and
reported has come under considerable criti-
cism (Vul et al., 2009), and the lack of statis-
tical power and the use of incorrect statistical
analyses has cast doubt on the validity of
many fMRI research studies (Button et al.,
2013), and this situation has fuelled a
passionate debate amongst noted experts in
the field (e.g. Diener, 2010).
The point here is that there is much
ambiguity and controversy in neuroscience
about research methodologies and the relia-
bility of findings – even amongst experts.
This ambiguity should act as an important
caution for the coaching industry and the
purchasers of coaching services, the vast
majority of who do not have the appropriate
specialised postgraduate training in neuro-
science needed to thoroughly and critically
understand and utilise the data from neuro-
scientific findings. This is not a simple area
to understand and it is very easy to over-
generalise the findings from neuroscience
research to real-life coaching practice.
Pseudo-insights from neuroscience
Indeed, the neurocoaching field is awash
with broad motherhood statements that are
purported to be ‘insights’ derived from
neuroscience. Some often-cited examples
(e.g. Rock & Schwartz, 2006; Williams, 2010)
include:
l The connections in our brains form
‘mental maps’ of reality.
l Focusing our attention on solutions or
new thinking is a better strategy for
reaching goals than focusing on analysing
problems from the past.
l If leaders want to become more effective
coaches themselves they need to learn to
stop giving unsolicited advice to people, or
if it is given, to be unattached to their ideas
and present them as options to people.
l Change is hard and people resist change.
However, all of these supposed neuro-
insights have been common knowledge
within the behavioural sciences for many
years. The notion that we hold mental
models or maps of the world in our minds
dates back though the cognitive traditions of
Beck (1987) to Korzybski (1948) and to the
ancient Greek philosophers. The idea that
change is better attained through focusing
on solutions and desired outcomes or goals
32 The Coaching Psychologist, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 2015
Anthony M. Grant
than analysing problems from the past has a
long history in psychology, and encompasses
the work of Latham and Locke (1991) and
Fishbein (1979) amongst many others. The
notion that leaders should genuinely consult
and engage in dialogue with their employees
rather than merely ordering or giving advice
has a longstanding history well before the
emergence of neuroscience (e.g. Blanchard,
1994; Locke, Schweiger & Latham, 1986);
and the idea that people find it hard to enact
change has been extensively explored in the
behavioural sciences for over 90 years (e.g.
Bandura, 1977; DiClemente & Prochaska,
1998; Schwarz, 1933).
Thus we need to ask, what new or unique
insights about coaching does neuroscience
give us that are not already evidenced
through behavioural science. One has to
conclude, that as yet, not many.
The negative impact of neuromyths in
education and management
There has also been concern that the propa-
gation of neuromyths and the inappropriate
use of neuroscientific findings have had a
negative impact on a number of areas of
practice. For example, Howard-Jones (2014)
discusses the negative impact on neuromyths
in education, ranging from the erroneous
belief that we mostly only use 10 per cent of
our brain to the (similarly erroneous) belief
that individuals learn better when they
receive information in their preferred
learning style (e.g. visual, auditory or kinaes-
thetic). Howard-Jones (2014) argues that
such neuromyths have had negative effect on
education by propagating less effective
teaching methods and inhibiting evidence-
based approaches to teaching.
Lindebaum and Jordan (2014) similarly
mount an extensive critique on neuroscien-
tific methodologies in organisational behav-
iour and management studies (which
includes neuroscience-based workplace
coaching and neuroscience-based leadership
coaching). They point out that there are very
few substantive critiques of organisational
neuroscience suggesting a degree of
groupthink, a result of an organisational
neuroscience bandwagon. They also argue
that the basic science behind organisational
neuroscience is far less rigorous than
currently advocated (due to the low statis-
tical power of some studies coupled with an
inability to locate mental phenomena accu-
rately in the brain), concluding that that the
practical implications of organisational
neuroscience research are currently over-
stated. If organisational neuroscience is to
develop, they argue, it is vital that
researchers move away from broad, general
statements and become more far specific
about the phenomena under investigation.
Clearly, caution is required in extrapolating
from general and basic neuroscientific
research to applied coaching methodologies
(Frankfurt, 2005).
Four common coaching neuromyths and
misconceptions
There are four common neuromyths and
misconceptions that sit at the core of the
neurocoaching narrative. Interestingly,
although these are often-cited arguments in
support of neurocoaching, one does not
need an in-depth understanding of neuro-
science to refute them just logic, critical
thinking and an understanding of coaching
as discipline.
1. The myth that neuroscience gives us scientific
proof that coaching ‘works’
This myth is erroneous because there are
large amounts of data in the behavioural
sciences from the 1990s onwards indicating
that coaching can help facilitate behavioural
change and enhance goal attainment and
well-being in a wide range of domains
including life coaching, leadership coaching
and in response to stress (e.g. Grant, 2003;
MacKie, 2014; Peterson, 1993; Wissbrun,
1984). Such work is peer-reviewed, conforms
to accepted scientific procedures and does
not utilise any aspect of neuroscience. In
short, there is already longstanding scientific
proof that coaching works irrespective of
what neuroscience proponents may say.
The Coaching Psychologist, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 2015 33
Neuro-science or neuro-nonsense?
2. The myth that neuroscience allows us to ‘coach
the brain’
In order for this claim to be true, propo-
nents of neurocoaching need to show how
other approaches to coaching do not involve
the coachee’s brain. Stated like this it is
obvious that all coaching involves the brain.
All coaches, irrespective of theoretical orien-
tation ‘coach the brain’!
3. The misconception of reductionism
At its core this misconception involves the
notion that we can understand complex
human behaviour by examining fMRI
images, and that human experience can be
understood by reduction to the cellular
level. This simplicity is attractive to many; in
essence it states that if you can understand
fMRI images, you can understand people.
Reinforcing this misconception is that fact
that fMRI images tend to give an illusion of
explanatory depth, with people believing
that they have a better understanding of the
mechanism underlying a behavioural
phenomenon – even when such understand-
ings are incorrect (Rhodes et al., 2014).
Thus it is easy to fall into the reductionist
trap (Cahill, 2001).
However, we cannot explain human
behaviour (or develop coaching methodolo-
gies) just by looking at, or extrapolating
from, computer-generated images that
present idealised images of brain func-
tioning. It must be remembered that fMRI
images are only surface markers of under-
lying complex brain processes that them-
selves are a response to a broad range of
external stimuli and internal psychological
and biological processes. To understand the
complexities of human behaviour (and
coaching) we need a more holistic bio-
psychosocial approach.
4. The myth that neuroscience provides the scien-
tific foundation for coaching
It has been argued that contemporary
neuroscience provides the scientific founda-
tion for coaching practice (see, for example,
Rock & Page, 2009). The idea that there was
not an already existing scientific foundation
for coaching prior to 2009 or the popular-
ising of neuroscientific language in relation
to coaching, would have come as a great
surprise to the many behavioural scientists
(e.g. Grant, 2003; Kilburg, 2001; Miller,
1990; Olivero, Bane & Kopelman, 1997;
Peterson, 1993) who had been using theory
to generate coaching-specific hypothesis,
and then testing those hypotheses through
systemic data collection and analysis facets
commonly understood as comprising the
‘scientific method’ (Wilson, 1990), a vital
part of a scientific foundation.
A foundation is commonly understood as
the base on which all else is built (Hanks,
1986). Thus if neuroscience is to provide a
scientific foundation for coaching it will
need to be able to generate unique coach-
specific theories and methodologies that can
then inform the development of unique
coaching interventions. Until this point is
reached, the best we can say is that neuro-
science can inform and augment existing
approaches to coaching.
A word of caution: Let’s get real
A word of caution is warranted at this point.
It is clear that there is little empirical data
that directly links neuroscience research to
coaching-specific outcomes, and it is clear
that there are large conceptual holes in the
arguments and conceptual frameworks
underpinning neurocoaching and in the
attempted links between neuroscience and
coaching. Thus, coaches, trainers and
consultants that use neuroscientific jargon as
a means of gaining credibility and devel-
oping an aura of scientific respectability in
order to sell their products and services run
the very real risk of having their own profes-
sional standing diminished, as well as doing
their clients and broader coaching industry a
disservice. Good, evidence-based coaching
that is solidly grounded in the behavioural
sciences does not need pseudo-neuro
psychobabble or pseudoscience to find a
market. Let’s get real and cut the hyperbole
(Frankfurt, 2005).
34 The Coaching Psychologist, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 2015
Anthony M. Grant
Final reflections and towards the future
This is not to be dismissive of neuroscience
as valid science, or dismissive of the contri-
bution that neuroscience can potentially
make to the evidence-based coaching enter-
prise. The recent and ongoing advances in
neuroscience technology and methodolo-
gies are exciting. Neuroscience has the
potential to offer great insights.
But let’s be frank about it, there’s a lot of
nonsense talked about neuroscience and
coaching. There is lots of marketing hype;
lots of sweeping statements; lots of erro-
neous reasoning, and almost quasi-religious
fervour in some quarters. This is not good
for the coaching industry or its clients, and
may well impede to the movement towards a
genuine evidence-based coaching paradigm.
The way forward?
Although at present there is no truly
convincing support for a neuroscientific
foundation to coaching, there are some
interesting ways in which coaching and
neuroscience can interact.
We now have good evidence that solu-
tion-focused cognitive-behavioural (SF-CB)
coaching can reliably enhance goal attain-
ment and induce behavioural change as well
as positively impacting on a range of psycho-
logical variables including capacity for self-
regulation, self-insight and solution-focused
thinking (Theeboom, Beersma & van
Vianen, 2013). Thus it would be valuable to
use SF-CB coaching as a methodology to
experimentally induce specific changes (e.g.
increased self-regulation; greater self-aware-
ness and self-insight; better relations with
others) and to observe (any) changes in
brain structure or brain activity. This line of
research (which should be hypothesis-
driven, rather than speculative), has the
potential to be of great value to the neuro-
science enterprise by providing more hard
evidence for concepts such as neuroplasticity
and brain-region function-specificity
In addition it would be extremely fruitful
to explore the links between the self-report
outcome measures typically used in
coaching, actual behaviour change and any
changes in brain states as recorded by neuro-
scientific methodologies such as fMRI. This
kind of holistic research has far greater
potential to make a meaningful practical
contribution to the evidence-based coaching
enterprise than much of the somewhat spec-
ulative and reductionist links that have been
drawn between fMRI images and coaching
practice to date.
It may well be that coaching can be of
greater use to the field of neuroscience than
the field of neuroscience can be to coaching.
In this way we can begin to address many
neuromyths and misconceptions about so-
called brain-based coaching, and begin to
author a more accurate and productive
narrative about the relationship between
coaching and neuroscience.
Correspondence
Anthony M. Grant PhD
Coaching Psychology Unit,
School of Psychology,
University of Sydney,
Sydney, NSW 2006,
Australia.
Email: anthony.grant@sydney.edu.au
The Coaching Psychologist, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 2015 35
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    Organizational neuroscience continues to flourish in organizational behavior and management studies as indicated by the growing number of publications. However, with a few exceptions, substantive critiques of organizational neuroscience are conspicuous by their absence. In this point–counterpoint article, we aim to redress this imbalance. We do so by asking two significant yet neglected questions: (i) how strong is the science behind this domain, and (ii) why are we doing this type of research (the so what? question)? Our analysis shows that the science behind organizational neuroscience is far less rigorous than currently advocated (due to low statistical power of some neuroimaging studies plus an inability to locate mental phenomena precisely in the brain). In terms of the so what? question, we encourage researchers to move away from general statements and become more specific about the phenomena they research. We contend that the practical implications of this research, as well as inferences of the link to behavioral changes, are currently overstated. We also underscore the importance for these studies to become contextually sensitive in order for the researchers to capture important events in the workplace. Finally, we offer some suggestions for future research. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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    This study attempts to investigate the effectiveness of a strength-based coaching methodology in enhancing elements of the full range leadership model, especially transformational leadership. Transformational leadership is the process whereby leaders engage and influence their followers toward attaining a shared vision through their capacity to inspire, innovate and personalize their attention. A between-subjects nonequivalent control group design was used to explore the impact of strength-based coaching on transformational and transactional leadership behaviors measured in a 360-degree feedback process. Thirty-seven executives and senior managers from a large not-for-profit organization were nonrandomly assigned to either a coaching or waitlist cohort. The coaching cohort received six sessions of leadership coaching involving feedback on leadership and strengths, goal setting, and strengths development. The coaching protocol was manualized to ensure some methodological consistency between the 11 executive coaches providing the intervention. This involved providing a written manual to each coach and coachee that outlined the required coaching process for each session. After six sessions of coaching over 3 months, cohorts then switched roles. The results showed that participants experienced highly statistically significant increases in their transformational leadership behavior after coaching and this difference was perceived at all levels within the organization but not by the participants themselves. Adherence to the strength-based protocol was also a significant predictor of ultimate degree of change in transformational leadership behavior. The results suggest that strength-based coaching may be effective in the development of transformational leaders. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved)
  • Article
    Previous studies have investigated the influence of neuroscience information or images on ratings of scientific evidence quality but have yielded mixed results. We examined the influence of neuroscience information on evaluations of flawed scientific studies after taking into account individual differences in scientific reasoning skills, thinking dispositions, and prior beliefs about a claim. We found that neuroscience information, even though irrelevant, made people believe they had a better understanding of the mechanism underlying a behavioral phenomenon. Neuroscience information had a smaller effect on ratings of article quality and scientist quality. Our study suggests that neuroscience information may provide an illusion of explanatory depth. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved).