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Neuroscience of Teaching, Mentoring, and Coaching: What Does Amy Have To Do With It?
Ontai , G.
Capella University, School of Education
Emotions play a significant role in developing relationships in teaching, mentoring, and coaching
in post-secondary education (Johnson, 2006; Jones, 2017; Mocrei, 2017). Evidence-based
neuroscience research has shown a deeper understanding of how the brain’s amygdala (Amy)
creates barriers or rapport in human relationships (Whitman & Kelleher, 2016). In any given
social setting, socio-cultural experiences and intellectual aging shape the emotional topography
between the mentor and mentee, teacher and student, coach and learner, often based on both
individual’s emotional theater (Taylor & Marienau, 2016). Understanding how the brain works
at a person-to-person level is meaningful in today’s need to improve interpersonal skills
(emotional intelligence) in an increasingly diverse learning environment (Smith, 2015). This
paper explores five issues that examine how teaching, mentoring, and coaching are defined,
converge, and configured within the brain’s emotional architecture and relationship building.
The world is changing rapidly and the need to know how to engage with each other in ways that
are more impactful, productive, and constructive will be crucial in creating quality in the global
workforce and academic community (Holzer, 2015). Teachers, mentors, and coaches in higher
education play a key role, as they always have, in shaping how people learn and engage with
each other. At their core, teachers, mentors, and coaches are the spark-plugs to human learning.
By their esteemed position in society, they are expected to be role models in the classroom, in
closed door conversations, and on the playing fields (Cox, McIntosh, Kadian, Terenzini, Reason,
Lutovsky, & Brenda, 2010). Yet, academia struggles with defining what is a good teacher,
mentor, or coach (Henard, & Roseveare, 2012). Are good engagement skills learned, inherited,
or both? What makes some teachers, mentors, and coaches more able to motive and transform
lives than others (Strada-Gallup, 2018)? How is it that in today’s classrooms micro-
aggression/bias is still exerted by instructors, whether inadvertently or not (Myers, Edwards,
Wahi, & Martin, 2007; Suarez-Orozco, Casanova, Martin, Katsiaficas, Cuellar, Antonia, Smith,
& Dias, 2015)? Why do students/learners show disdain for some instructors and rapport with
others (Kearny, Plax, Hays, & Ivey, 2009)? To what extent do teachers, mentors, and coaches
understand the emotional topography that shapes the impact they have on others? How much do
practitioners understand the strategic use of affective-based skills in nurturing confidence,
motivation, and transformational thinking with students/learners and especially with underserved
and culturally distinct communities (Lundberg, Kim, Andrade & Bahner, 2018; Markle, 2015;
Neuroscience of Emotions
The brain is a complex structure but key components and hormones associated with emotions
and learning are better understood today because of advances made in neuroscience. The
amygdala (seat of emotions) is an almond shaped bundled network of neurons deep within the
brain where all incoming senses are first interpreted (Janak & Tye, 2015; Hassall & Williams,
2017). In evolutionary terms, the amygdala functions to enable humans (and all complex living
creatures) to survive in a constantly changing environment (Eagleman, 2015). Smell, touch,
hearing, taste, and sight are coded with/as stress, anxiety, fear, pain, discomfort, or coded with/as
delight, relaxation, pleasure, satisfaction.
Contiguous to the amygdala is the hippocampus, another key part of the limbic system, which
acts to record events and assign motor functions, navigation, direction, and spatial coordination
to the amygdala’s incoming emotional codes (Sejinowski, 2014). When motor activities are
assigned to incoming new stimulation, the brain is likely to store the stimulation as long-term
body/mind memory when the act becomes repetitive and/or is intensely emotional (Roberson,
2014). Sapolski (2017) asserted that when the amygdala, hippocampus and outer cortex areas
work with the prefrontal cortex (decision-making) of the human brain, optimal curiosity,
creativity, and reflective experimentation occurs.
The amygdala induces endocrinal hormones, which play a catalytic role in shaping the brain’s
emotional status (Garner, 2010; Sywester, 1994). Oxytocin (happy hormone), dopamine (reward
hormone), adrenaline (excitement hormone), and cortisol (stress hormone) are key
neurotransmitters. While there are other factors, these neurotransmitters play a key role in
memory/retention. The intensity or absence of these neurotransmitters determines whether an
event or an in-coming stimulation is momentarily-lived, short-term memory or long-term
memory (Khalili & Elkhider, 2016; Silva, 2017). Medical research continues to provide clues
and insights into how hormones act together in shaping memory/retention.
One of the amygdala’s role is to induce cortisol (stress hormone), which is present in the body at
all times but in varying degrees. When too much cortisol is present in the body’s system, such as
in a fight or flight situation, the brain is least able to think rationally and creatively. The
cognitive process is impeded and the body acts on its own accord in an attempt to remove itself
from the source of the stress (Eagleman, 2015; Cox et al., 2010). Conversely, reflection,
creativity, and curiosity are optimized when oxytocin, dopamine, or serotonin are induced and
cortisol is held at a reduced level in the body’s system (Ludvik, Evrard & Goldin, 2016;
These findings in neuroscience suggest significant insights where teaching, mentoring, and
coaching can be applied using more meaningful and impactful strategies that improve inter-
personal communications (Averbeck & Costa, 2017). Strategies that increase student/mentee
motivation through activities that induce oxytocin and other positive neurotransmitters can create
a more energizing learning environment for mentoring, coaching, advising, and sustained
learning transfer. Practicing teaching skills that reduce classroom stress and its inhibiting effect
on creativity, curiosity, and exploration can be of enormous benefit.
Theater of Emotions
The brain is designed to read body language, voice pitch, and facial expressions, especially eye
expressions -- its movement, direction, pupil size, coloration, and moisture (tearing) (Tobin,
King, Henderson, Bellocchi & Ritchie, 2016). This interpretation is how humans instinctively
read emotions and react in relative response. The mechanism is evolutionary, designed to
maximize survival in an adversarial environment and to react to in ways that defend, avoid,
repulse, or embrace, accept, enjoy or desire (Arbib, 2019; Wei, Jia & Chen, 2016). Facial
expressions send signals that reflect the mind’s psychological, emotional, and mental state,
almost always instinctively before cognition even begins (Banning, 2013; Wei et al., 2016).
These human expressions can evoke powerful emotional impulses which can motivate and
inspire, as well as repel and resist. Taylor and Marienau (2016) posited that each individual has
her/his own theater of emotions shaped by life’s experiences that are permanently stored and
coded in the brain. These life experiences can range from vivid memories of a car accident,
being in a bad marital relationship, experiencing racial discrimination, or remembering a
humiliating classroom incident, to memories of a loving relationship, an eventful birthday
celebration, an act of kindness given or received by someone, or a special time when the
impossible was achieved.
In a teacher, mentor, coach and student, learner relationship, both sides bring their own theater of
emotions into this coupling. Each side of the relationship is shaped by her/his socio-cultural
values, beliefs, and habits, all of which bear emotional attachments of varying intensity (Dirkx,
2008). Brain plasticity in the amygdala allows new feelings to emerge in all new relationships,
as well. This could explain how transformational learning, motivation, and self-confidence is
nurtured in a relationship when there is a best fit between the teacher and student, mentor and
mentee, coach and learner. Powerful emotions in such relationships can motivate, energize, and
stir the desire to teach, to counsel, to learn, and to achieve.
Conversely, a relationship that is not a best fit can result in less motivational impulses on both
sides of the relationship or only with one side. A solution to finding a best fit might include team
work where instructors, advisors, or coaches meet to assess who among them have the expertise
and affinity that feels right for the needs of the student or mentee.
A teacher who displays negative characteristics or micro-aggression (belittling life-styles or
profiling based on cultural stereotypes), whether inadvertently or not, affects the learning
environment and how students/learners behave in turn (Kearny, Plax, Hays & Ivey, 2009).
Minority students possess theater of emotions more attuned to micro-aggression behaviors
(passive or active) and are more likely to be energized by relationships based on empathy, trust,
and caring (Jones, 2017; Zeivots, 2018). A solution to this scenario might include instructor
willingness to be observed by a peer with knowledge of such negative characteristics and to learn
from this feedback.
The more a shared common experience exists between teacher/student, mentor/mentee, or
coach/learner the stronger the relationship (Krams, 1983; Cox et al., 2010). Emotional
intelligence (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009; Goleman, 1995) has emerged as a skill that helps to
improve emotional connectivity in a relationship. Given that people come from diverse
backgrounds and life experiences, such a skill can be crucial in learning how to be a good
listener, observer, and strategists when practitioners are aware of their own emotions, as well as
the emotions in others in a given working or social relationship. To be an effective teacher,
mentor, or coach, being conscious that every individual has her/his own theater of emotions
should be a starting point in approaching all types of relationships (McGinty, Radin & Kaminski,
Myths and Misconceptions
Applying neuroscience in a teacher, mentor, coaching relationship is a relatively new approach.
Increasingly, evidence-based research is beginning to shed more light into how the brain works
in human interaction. However, misconceptions of the brain still remain in the business and
academic world (Harpaz, 2008). Many believe the brain is born with a static amount of grey
matter that limits learning and understanding. We now know that the brain grows through
plasticity in every part of its architecture, stimulated by emotional influence and strengthened
through repeated practice or mobility. Plasticity is the process of growing new brain cells
through electrical synapses occurring between two or more closely connected brain cells. Neural
cells perform this process through tagging via dendrites to create new memories. Athletes are
acutely aware of this phenomenon through mind-body training and ordinary people are surprised
with their impossible achievements as a result of actions induced by words of inspiration and
encouragement. Andreatta (2016) asserted that instilling inspirational words of encouragement
can dramatically change people’s attitudes of learned hopelessness to attitudes of optimism and
hope by triggering the brain’s reward and happy hormones.
It is a myth that older people cannot learn new information. Plasticity continues in intellectual
aging, stimulated by emotional activities and mind/body exercises. Older people are able to
draw upon crystallized memory such as wisdom based on life experiences and collective
knowledge (Cattell, 1963) to enhance fluid learning. While intellectual aging affect cognitive
functions (Schaie & Willis, 2010), older students/mentees learn by reflecting upon richer past
experiences and how new information form nexus with past knowledge to form new
perspectives. Growing research shows that healthy lifestyles improve cognition and fluid
memory, despite declining mental agility (Schaie & Willis, 2010).
The notion that people are left-brained or right-brained determines certain characteristics is a
myth. The brain’s six regional areas are complex and inter-connected with all parts acting
together to form cognition, memory, creativity, curiosity due in large part to how plasticity and
neural-densification have developed in areas of the brain. This plasticity densification is
especially true in the limbic system (most of the inner parts of the brain closest to the brain stem)
in shaping emotional intelligence (Bailey, 2018).
Whether in the workplace or in an academic setting, teachers, mentors, or coaches play a
significant role in shaping relationships and attitudes toward students, mentees, or learners.
These myths and misconceptions hinder the creation of teaching methods and skills that help
foster learning and growth. It is important to dispel these myths and approach learning and
personal communications with a better understanding of how the brain works. It is also
important to recognize that individuals bring theaters of emotions that are often based on these
myths or misconceptions, where perceptions exist that one is too old to learn, only right-brained
people are creative, or some social groups are not able to learn.
Definitions between mentor-mentee, coach-learner, and teacher-student relationships are
complex and often blurred. Expected role playing between the three categories could vary in
significant ways. Mentoring, in typical form, is when a senior or more experienced adult
provides advice, counsel, or guidance to a less experienced individual. A close relationship is
maintained based on trust and mutual confidence that both parties will work together in
achieving the mentee’s goals (Krams, 1983). This kind of relationship is likely to be enduring.
In a coaching relationship, the relationship is more of a transactional arrangement, where the
relationship is for duration of time, with specific goals or objectives to be accomplished, and
where limits to the relationship are defined between both parties (Krams, 1983; Lancer,
Clutterbuck & Megginson, 2016). This kind of relationship is limited in terms of emotional
bonding having lasting impressions.
In teaching, the instructor traditionally holds a power relationship over the student and where
expectations are set by the teacher (Brookfield, 2013; Chen, 2017). This relationship is prevalent
in most formal settings. In such a relationship, students are likely to be guarded and less trusting
in exposing their emotions or feelings with the instructor, mentor, coach (Webb & Barrett, 2014).
However, an increasing trend toward learner-centered programs is placing the focus on the
student taking the center role in determining the direction, scope, and means to achieve
educational objectives (Knowles, 1975; Weimer, 2012). In this inverted relationship, the teacher
is focused on supporting the student and her/his goals. The teacher is in the position to be
facilitator, educator, advisor, mentor, coach, or counselor (Krams, 1983; Page & Margolis, 2017).
In adult education, student-centered relationship may be more effective if both sides are viewed
as equals in order to develop trust and confidence (Marilee & Ludvik, 2016).
In all three roles, the ability to establish rapport or a positive emotional relationship is crucial to
the learning process (Oznacar, Yilmaz & Guven, 2017). The relationship can be more effective if
the use of brain-friendly skills and strategies are applied. In neuroscience terms, all three roles
converge at the level of brain dynamics involving the amygdala, hippocampus, and hormonal
influence. In each role, players bring theater of emotions into the relationship. The brain’s
cognition process operates similarly in each relationship, despite the differences in roles.
Honing Skills with Brain-Friendly Methods
While much of this paper discusses how the brain operates, behavior is far more complex,
uneven, and asymmetrical because of theaters of emotions, intellectual aging or disabilities. For
practitioners looking to improve their neuro skills, these attributes can be a plus or a negative,
depending on how learning is facilitated. One approach to perfecting teaching, mentoring, or
coaching skills using neuroscience is on reflecting on how the brain’s emotional impulses are
show-cased with case studies provided by colleagues. How these impulses are enacted through
personal stories can lend insights into how different socio-cultural groups behave (Brookfield &
Preskill, 2016; Immodino-Yang, 2016). Team learning (social learning) is a powerful method to
learn best promising practices by sharing stories (often highly emotional) with each other
(Shuck, Albornoz, & Winberg, 2015; Zeivots, 2018). In peer learning, the brain operates in the
same manner. Practitioners share theaters of emotions and provide insight and examples of what
works and what doesn’t. At the same time listening skills can be perfected and non-verbal
communications can be learned as part of social learning skills. Each participant creates her/his
own meaning as stories of success and failures are shared (Bandura, 1986) and in the process the
art and science of teaching, mentoring, and coaching is enriched.
Practicing body language skills and facial recognition patterns can be immensely helpful in
improving communications that lead to better bonding and deeper emotional ties. In teaching,
mentoring and coaching adults, having keen awareness of how adults handle emotions can be
studied and incorporated into best practices. In curriculum and instructional design,
incorporating brain-friendly strategies could be made an essential component in lesson plans. In
addition to application to teaching, mentoring, and coaching, possessing brain-friendly skills and
strategies can be helpful in student financial advising and career counseling, where patience and
body language are important to facilitate effective communications. These skills can be
especially helpful when working with underserved communities or people of different cultural
backgrounds and theaters of emotions (Chen, 2017; Harris, 2013; Taylor & Marienau, 2016). In
the workplace, these skills can also be effective in improving communications with colleagues
and co-workers, where team spirit and collective goal setting is crucial to business growth. The
need for professional development training in brain-friendly teaching, mentoring, and coaching
will become increasingly important in social and workforce settings (Friedlander, Andrews,
Armstrong, Aschenbrenner, Kass, Ogden, Schwartzstein, Viggian, & Thomas, 2011).
Teachers, mentors, and coaches who work with adult students/mentees/learners in higher
education need to apply personal skills and strategies that focus on emotional mechanisms of
how the brain functions. Whether communications takes place in the classroom, in the privacy
of an office, coffee shops, or outdoor venues, developing brain-friendly approaches to motivate
or transfer knowledge are significantly improved when instructors, mentors, coaches are aware
of how to manage the amygdala-hippocampus role in relationship building. The amygdala
triggers endocrinal hormones such as the stress hormone, cortisol, which impedes the learning
process and relationship building. Introducing humor and laughter into the communications
process counter-acts the effects of stress. Inserting empathy and caring behavior triggers happy
hormones in relationship build which helps to enhance motivation, engagement, and knowledge
According to Taylor and Marienau (2016), theaters of emotions shape people’s perceptions of the
world and approaches to relationship building. Teachers, mentors, and coaches must aware of
their own theaters and should make conscious effort to understand the emotional theaters of their
adult student, mentee, learner in relationship building. Theaters of emotions are unique to each
individual based on their cultural, social and personal experiences. Practicing and developing
personal skills in the use of and recognition of non-verbal body language and facial expressions
can greatly enhance the ability to penetrate hidden veils that often obscure relationship building
because of individual theaters of emotions.
Brain plasticity theory should be fully understood by teachers, mentors, and coaches as the
mechanism for building positive approaches to learning via the brains immensely powerful
emotional impulses. Learning is continuous regardless of age, disability, social, or cultural
background. Teachers, mentors, and coaches have the ability to significantly set the emotional
tone in relationships. A positive emotional relationship stimulates dendrite growth and fires the
wiring process in neural connectivity.
Because myths or misconceptions of the brain continue to persists, teachers, mentors, and
coaches should be conscious that the brain functions as one entity with all parts connected in a
complex network of neurons. People are neither left-brain nor right-brain learners. Teaching,
mentoring and coaching should encourage learners to be linear, as well as non-linear thinkers,
with the capacity of unlimited growth. Brain plasticity continues even as people age, though it
may be at a slower pace. Learning how to work with older students, mentees, and learners
require strategies that encourage patience, social learning, and appropriate body language and
communication cues based on age differences. Creating a positive emotional environment that
is receptive, respectful, and enjoyable is essential for older learners.
Whether one falls under a formal or informal definition, teachers, mentors, and coaches all share
the same fundamental goal for enhancing the learner’s desire to improve or achieve a desired
outcome. In any of these roles, brain friendly skills and strategies enhance the ability to motivate
and energize both sides of relationship building in a learning environment. A key component in
all three roles is the development of a healthy affective relationship based on brain-friendly,
Finally, improving one’s neuro-emotional skills and strategies as a teacher, mentor, or coach is
significantly enhanced through peer learning and sharing (Shuck et al., 2015; Zeivots, 2018).
With background knowledge of how the amygdala-hippocampus operates and the effect
endocrinal hormones have the learning process and relationship building, faculty members,
mentors, and coaches convening in a closed setting among themselves, can learn from each other
what works and what doesn’t work in ways that help to reveal hidden biases, misconceptions, or
outdated practices. Peers learning by sharing best practices will improve their roles in ways that
best fit the unique mission of their institutional workplace, as well as their own professional
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