What is Neuroplasticity?
As Coaches, we know the human brain is capable of great change. Neuroplasticity – the biological underpinnings of this transformative ability- is the brain’s ability to change and strengthen neural networks in response to repeated environmental stimuli or training.
Over the last 50 years, the dominant view on neuroplasticity has shifted. What was once viewed to be the sole domain of the young, growing brain is now known to be a lifelong phenomenon. Our neurons are continually rewiring. The brain is indeed most malleable in early childhood, but some degree plasticity persists throughout our entire lifespan.
Advances in neuroscience tell us that neurons can change shape, make new synapses and create new neural pathways in the brain to allow for life-long adaptation. In your 80’s? New neurons can still be generated, and your neurochemical balance can shift.
Neuroplasticity can be halted or enhanced by a complex array of interacting factors including the physical and psychosocial stimulation in the environment, drugs, stress, growth factors, learning, and the aging process.
Using Neuroplasticity with Clients
As our understanding of brain change increases, scientists are experimenting with new methodologies to facilitate neuroplasticity and lessen the negative effects of brain damage and mental disorders. The Coaching field can learn from this burgeoning area of study to help their clients improve their general cognitive performance including learning, memory, and stress reduction capabilities. Executive Coaches in particular will find that solution-oriented neuroplasticity exercises are in high demand among their clients. Coaches can tailor appropriate exercises to meet their clients specific performance enhancement goals.
A useful neuroplasticity definition – neuroplasticity is the brain’s capacity to continuously change itself in response to all of our experiences. By elucidating the concrete biological mechanisms underpinning continual brain growth throughout the lifespan, Coaches can help their clients cultivate a growth mindset rather than fixed mindset.
Here are a few tactics to share for clients interested in self-directed neuroplasticity enhancement. Deliberate, consistent practice is likely to result in cognitive benefits. Clients can greatly benefit from the continued guidance of a Coach to adjust exercises as necessary and promote program adherence.
There is a huge body of research studying the structural and functional changes within the brains of meditators. The results are impressive. Studies show that meditators exhibit increased grey matter, improved attention, and better performance on learning and memory tasks. These benefits may be seen with as little as 5 minutes a day of guided breathing meditation. Some studies have shown measurable gray matter growth in as little as 8 weeks of practice! As a bonus, meditation practice comes with many other benefits, including immune system strengthening.
- Try Neuroplasticity Computer Games
Neuroplasticity exercise computer programs use a video-game like interface to present multiple gamified memory or spatial challenges. For example, the Cogmed Working Memory Training Program programs harnesses current understanding of neuroplasiticty to help improve attention, planning, and task completion abilities [Reference: http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-14109-1_5, http://www.cogmed.com/]. There are a range of neuroplasticity training programs available depending on your client’s specific goals, including Lumosity, Superbetter, and Cogmed.
As the jury is still out on the effectiveness of various general ‘brain training’ games, Coaches should use caution in selecting the appropriate program for their clients. The most rigorous studies (randomised control trials) tend to be done on trainees with brain injuries like TBI or stroke and mental disorders like schizophrenia, ADHD, or normal age related memory declines. In general, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that computerized training can produce meaningful and long lasting improvements in cognitive function. Use these programs in close consultation with your client, offering support and encouragement, and carefully track outcomes to find a program that meets your client’s needs.
- Reduce Stress
One of the most visible effects of the environment on neuroplasticity is the well-studied phenomenon of shrinking dendrites on neurons in the hippocampus as a result of exposure to chronic stress. Chronic stress has a toxic effect on the brain. Encourage your clients to identify relaxing activities and set goals for engaging in those activities on a regular basis – not as a reward for hard work, but as a deliberate exercise for brain health.
- Foster Positivity in Relationships
Better relationships lead to enhanced neuroplasticity. Traumatic relationships can have the opposite effect, creating a hostile environment for brain change. Feeling understood by others creates appropriate climates in the brain for learning. Encourage your clients to take steps to create a supportive growth environment – whether that means shaking up group dynamics at work or focusing on improving intimate relationships. The brain is a social organ, and negative social interactions will hamper client’s ability to respond successfully to new challenges in any area of life.
- Try Something New
Learning a new skill such a new language or a new instrument gets new neurons firing and wiring together. What if you’re an Executive Coach working with a busy clients that don’t have the time for such an undertaking? Neuroplasticity can also be promoted by something as simple as taking a new path to work. Encourage your clients to shake things up – even small deviations from the daily norm can promote brain health.
Neuroplasticity is complex, and caution must be taken to not prescribe any method as a one-size-fits-all solution to a client’s needs. As always, use caution around any supplements, training games, etc that claim to use neuroscience without presenting a sufficient evidence base.
Interested in learning more about neuroplasticity? Check out this recommended neuroplasticity book: