Cognition – or thoughts – are what determine how persons understand the world around them and act (or react) within it. At their root, cognition is based on one’s belief system. What you believe about yourself and the world determines your thoughts about it, which in turn determine your actions. With a few exceptions, every human action is part of a set of thinking processes. Your cognitive abilities are the brain-based skills required to complete any task – from the simplest to the most complex. Instead of being based on actual knowledge, these abilities are more closely associated with the way we learn, solve problems, and remember.
Every experience changes your brain’s organization at some level. This change in organization is believed to be alterations in brain dynamics. Recent research has found that the brain is not a fixed, limited system that only degrades with age. Instead, it has “plasticity,” the ability to change. Not only can the brain change but it can also create new neurons and connections between neurons throughout our lifetime. This creative process is known as neurogenesis (sometimes known as synaptogenesis – there is a difference but I won’t get into it here).
Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to change and rewire itself as it responds to stimulation, specifically learning and experience. As we grow older, this rate of change may slow down but it never stops. Cognitive psychology and coaching are built around this framework that cognition and brain function can be changed, thus altering one’s behavior. An old dog can be taught new tricks.
Learning is Key
Being a lifelong learner has always been important. In fact, it is a primary trait of great leaders. Today, when combined with the neuroscience of brain plasticity, lifelong learning takes on a whole new meaning. Now, it’s a matter of brain health and well-being.
The process of learning and expanding your knowledge creates a physical change in your brain. Through neuroplasticity, learning increases cellular metabolism, the production of brain chemicals that maintain and repair neurons, and neuron connections. You can do this by practicing a new skill, reading a book, training (fitness or even professional development), personal development exercises, and a whole host of other activities.
You’ve heard it said, practice makes perfect. I would disagree. I believe “practice makes permanent” and the neuroscience would seem to support this view. Practicing anything continually stimulates the same area of the brain, strengthening existing neural connections and creating new ones. Over time, we become cognitively efficient, using fewer neurons to do the same job. the more frequently particular mental circuits are used, the more effortless it is to get them fired up again. My dad always taught me, “everything is easy, once you know how.” And he’s right.
Brain fitness is simply the ability of your brain to experience neuroplasticity. Creating additional connections between neurons and promoting new neurons is the result of vigorous mental activity. This translates to a sharper memory, better attention, and overall improvement in cognitive skills.
60 Minutes recently broadcast a story about a Franklin County Mississippi elementary school where the students are learning to play chess. Not only has chess challenged these young people but they have shown significant improvement in their grades and overall outlook of life. They are dreaming bigger and their ambitions are greater than both previous students and parents. One student, Rebekah Griffin, said this: “I feel like chess could take us anywhere. But it’s not about where it takes us, it’s about how far it takes us.” This is neuroplasticity at its best. (Read the article here.)
How Coaching Fits In
Coaching changes the trajectory of a person’s life by drawing out of them perspectives and strategies they did not realize they had. Coaching helps you consider, ponder, and “exercise their brain” in ways previously untapped. This is how coaches get the best from clients.
Coaching serves as a powerful way to empower clients. Providing the freedom to access previously untapped energy and perspectives allows clients to dig deeper and take risks that payoff in big dividends. Not only does this precipitate highly motivated and fulfilled persons who enjoy what they are doing, they are also more effective. Coaching also generates “vigorous mental activity” that promotes brain fitness. Who doesn’t want a healthy brain?
Coaching is not about solving problems per se, although problems are resolved. It involves listening for understanding, asking powerful and insightful questions, and stimulating one’s awareness and curiosity. Coaching helps persons see new perspectives and identify possible options, encouraging them find their own solutions and answers. All this is done while simultaneously supporting the path of change and challenging continued progress with reassurance, accountability, and discovering the already possessed resources needed for success. In short, coaching promotes brain fitness.
Fernandez, A., & Goldberg, E. (2009). The sharpbrains guide to brain fitness: 18 interviews with scientists, practical advice, and product reviews, to keep your brain sharp. SharpBrains.com.
Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Penguin.
Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. WW Norton & Company.