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Neuroscience for Coaches Summary

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Neuroscience for Coaches PDF Summary

How to Use the Latest Insights for the Benefit of Your Clients

If you are a coach, then, undoubtedly, you already have your own method dealing with clients. 

But do you know the scientific basis of your method? Do you want neuroscientific tips to enhance its success?

If so, you’re reading just the right summary:

Neuroscience for Coaches.

Who Should Read “Neuroscience for Coaches”? And Why?

Even though all readers may find some interesting things here—like, for example, which parts of the brain are responsible for which activities, and how you can trigger them when you need them (or turn them off when they are a nuisance)—as suggested by the title, this book is specifically written for coaches. 

In other words, if you are not a coach then you can easily skip this book without any fear that you’ve missed something. If you are a coach, however—regardless of your specific line of work—this book will probably become your very special little encyclopedia. 

About Amy Brann

Amy Brann is a keynote speaker, a bestselling author of three neuroscience-based books, and the founder of Synaptic Potential.

Even though she left UCL (where she studied medicine) to focus on her consulting and writing, she has never stopped using her academic knowledge to help coaches achieve better results and perfect their methods.

In addition to Neuroscience for Coaches, Brann has also authored Engaged and Make Your Brain Work.

Find out more at http://www.amybrann.com 

“Neuroscience for Coaches Summary”

We’ve summarized quite a few books about coaches and coaching, but, at least to our recollection, none of them defined coach the way Amy Brann does in the first sentence of Neuroscience for Coaches: “an expert in facilitating self-directed neuroplasticity.”

At first, it may sound a bit mouthful, but if you knew that “neuroplasticity” refers to the brain’s ability to change and if you recalled that “self-directed neuroplasticity” is the process of willfully rewiring your synapses, then you would see why Brann’s definition is right on the spot. 

To translate it into the language of the common man, it states nothing more than a few facts: 1) that our brain can change; 2) that we can direct the course of its changes; and 3) that a coach is someone who helps us direct this course in a more disciplined manner.

That is, after all, what the etymology of the word “coach” encompasses: a coche is an old word for “a wagon” or “a carriage,” and a coach, much like a wagon or a carriage, takes someone from point A to point B.

Now,, ever since the dawn of times, people knew that if they wanted to get great at something, they needed to get a coach, coaching has a long history and, as Brann says, “a huge number of different models, strategies and training programs” have developed around coaching. 

Neuroscience for Coaches is not a book that offers a new, revolutionary way of coaching, nor one that should supersede all previous models.

It merely uses the new findings in neuroscience “to underpin everything that sits on top of what a coach does.” In other words, it uses science to help you, a coach, better understand the nature of your students.

Neuroscience for Coaches should help you understand why some of the methods you use as a coach work, and why others don’t, in addition to offering you a clearer picture of what goes around a student’s mind during each of the coaching stages.

Exceptionally structured, Amy Brann’s book is nothing short of an encyclopedia on the subject and a long Q&A session on everything related to it. Therefore, it is impossible for a summary to do the book enough justice (it is in itself a summary of a vast body of knowledge), but nothing stops us from bringing you all the highlights from its first part.

In it, Amy Brann introduces us to the structure of the brain and its various areas and explains why coaches should be aware of each of them and how they can use them to facilitate progress and make the most of their training methods. 

So, let’s go!

The Triune Brain 

Before delving deeper into the structure of our brains, in a brief introduction, Brann introduces her readers to the evolutionary model of the triune brain, developed by physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s.

According to this model, “attractive in its simplicity” and “widely espoused,” there are three parts of the brain: the reptilian, the paleomammalian (the limbic), and the neomammalian. 

The first (and the oldest) is responsible for instinctual behaviors, the second for “things like motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior,” and the last one “for our higher cognitive functions such as planning, perceiving and language.”

However, modern science is highly skeptical of MacLean’s model and numerous authors suggest that we should abandon it altogether. Unfortunately, the model is very present in non-scientific circles, and this is the only reason why Brann offers this introductory sketch.

If you use it, she advises, you need to use it with caution and be aware that it functions best as a metaphor or an analogy. In truth, the structure of the brain is far more complex, and, consequently, our reactions are much less predictable.

1 Prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex (PFC), as Brann writes, is “affectionately thought of as the CEO or conductor of the brain responsible for higher-level cognitive functions.” 

One of the newest brain areas, it is involved in all our executive functions, our ability to plan, decision making, express our personality, align our thoughts and actions with internal goals, and moderate social behavior.

Consequently, it should be very important to coaches, who need to never forget two things:

• The PFC doesn’t function well under stress
• The PFC is unable to multitask

So, in coaching, you must aim to reduce stress, encourage focus, and break down long lessons into smaller chunks.

2 Basal ganglia

The basal ganglia is “key to storing routines, repetitive behaviors, and thoughts.” In one phrase, it is “the home of habits.” These habits are stored in the form of thousands of mini-programs or maps that follow sets of “if/then” orders.

The main objective of the basal ganglia is simple: to save your brain some energy for more important operations by turning on the autopilot whenever it can.

Coaching is always about change and progress, so it is essential for your client to understand the structure and function of the basal ganglia as well. This should help him see why his whole body is so resistant to new habits but also set him up for the acquiring and development of some new habits.

3 Striatum and nucleus accumbens

The core component of the basal ganglia, the striatum is a sort of relay station that receives input from the cerebral cortex and gives input to the basal ganglia. The part of the ventrium closest to the face is called the ventral striatum, and part of it is the nucleus accumbens.

This part is “involved in pleasure, reward, motivation, reinforcement learning, fear, addiction, impulsivity, and the placebo effect.” Consequently, it is pretty important for coaches to understand it. 

For example, the nucleus accumbens proves that, even though it sounds as if something was picked straight out of an SF movie, it is a scientific fact that there are things happening inside your brain even when you are just imagining things. 

That’s why, imagining a scene when a certain goal has been achieved—what football great Pelé deemed watching mental highlight tapes—is helpful. This doesn’t mean that (as many self-help books claim) visualizing a goal magically leads to its fulfillment.

However, it does mean that visualizing something has a positive effect on your brain and makes the internal environment in your body a more favorable one. 

“People are more likely to be motivated and take goal-oriented behaviors with a boost of dopamine in the NA,” concludes Amy Brann, busting one of the greatest myths in the self-help industry, “and so visualization may make a particular outcome more likely.”

4 Insular cortex

There is an insula in each of the brain hemispheres; they are areas of the cortex folded deep down between the temporal, parietal and frontal lobes.

These insulae are very well connected to the amygdala and are involved in a range of things, including emotions, perception, self-awareness, decision-making, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. 

In fact, some authors (such as the renowned Antonio Damasio) suggest that it is because of the insular cortex that rational thinking cannot be separated from feelings and emotions. When the insular cortex is thicker, people are more capable of making a distinction between the objective and the subjective and are much more “in tune” with themselves.

It has been demonstrated by numerous studies that mindfulness and meditation—and even yoga and Pilates—improve the cortical structure and make people more self-aware. No wonder they are included in many coaching programs nowadays: science backs the idea that they should work.

5 Amygdala

The amygdala is an important part of the limbic system which is heavily involved in regulating our emotional life. It is also important in memory, attention (the ability to focus on something while excluding something else), and social processing.

Simplified, the amygdala is the seat of the “fight-or-flight” response in your brain and the part of the brain that reacts most instinctively, so special care should be taken by coaches if they want to maximize their client’s performance.

Amy Brann suggests several things:

• Fear may hold back a client, so you should be alert if his amygdala is overreacting; sometimes, just opening a discussion on the topic is helpful in itself, since it redirects the brain energy from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex.

• It is quite possible that “just by being around fear-inducing stuff your unconscious will pick up on this” and you’ll start underperforming. Therefore, start reducing negative inputs: turn off the news, don’t read the newspaper, and avoid negative people.

• Help your client with his fears by translating them into challenges. This is hugely important since it should free up other areas of your client’s brain and he’ll be more effective and efficient. 

• Help your client to explore unconscious fear triggers.

• Prevent your client from making big decisions when he/she is anxious or fearful.

• Science says that “working under pressure doesn’t create optimal brain environments.” So, experiment with alternatives which include discipline, plans, and long-term objectives.

6 Anterior cingulate cortex

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) looks like a collar stretched around the frontal part of the corpus callosum (the bundle of neural fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres) and is primarily responsible for conflict or error detection.

According to Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, the anterior cingulate cortex may be the place where human free will is stored. 


The anterior cingulate cortex is excellent in comparing expectations and reality and is great at revealing to us whether what we get is what we have expected. The ACC is more about “awareness” than it is about doing things, which is why coaches need to stimulate it before doing anything else.

Since the ACC detects errors, motivating clients to assess and reassess situations by making a constant comparison is always very useful.

7 Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is a small area of the brain responsible for various metabolic processes and synthesizing and secreting neurohormones.

It is important in “regulating hunger, aspects of parenting and attachment behaviors, thirst, fatigue, and sleep.”

Consequently, unless you are working with clients on weight-loss goals, there’s not much you can do with them even if you know everything hypothalamus-related.

8 Hippocampus

Located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain and resembling a seahorse, the hippocampus consolidates information from short- to long-term memory. 

A 2005 study we’ve already mentioned in another summary demonstrated that people’s hippocampi are more active when they are successfully navigating, which is why cab drivers have larger than average hippocampi. On the other hand, PTSD results in reductions in the hippocampal volumes. 


Possibly because of cortisol (a marker of stress) which has been shown to kill hippocampal cells in animals.

If you want to help your clients and excel as a coach, there are several things that you can do to activate the hippocampus and, thus, stimulate memory.

• Start doing regular aerobic exercise
• Keep cortisol levels low by reducing stress
• Turn off your GPS and start finding your way around town using nothing but your brain.

Key Lessons from “Neuroscience for Coaches”

1.      The Triune Brain Model Is Not Accepted by Neuroscientists
2.      Our Actions Are Influenced by the Structure of Our Brains and Several Brain Chemicals
3.      The Complexities of the Quantum Brain

The Triune Brain Model Is Not Accepted by Neuroscientists

You’ve probably read this in many books: our brain consists of three parts, the oldest of which (the reptilian) is responsible for our instincts, the middle one (the limbic) for things like motivation and emotion, and the newest one (the neomammalian) for cognitive functions (language, planning, anticipation).

Well, we’d hate to burst your bubble but this is not backed by science. This model—called the model of the triune brain—was proposed by Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s and has since been disproven as a simplistic understanding of how our brain works.

In reality, things are much more complex.

Our Actions Are Influenced by the Structure of Our Brains and Several Brain Chemicals

Even though our brain is much more complex than what the proponents of the triune model would like you to believe, it is still highly compartmentalized, with different parts of it responsible for different functions. 

Naturally, we are far from understanding all of them, but we do know, thanks to numerous studies, roughly which parts are responsible for roughly which actions and can predict how a human might act in the absence of some of these brain parts.

The same holds true for the brain chemicals—serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline, cortisol, GABA and glutamate—which means that, despite the complexity, a coach can direct someone else’s brain-behavior in the right direction using science.

In fact, that’s Amy Brann’s definition of a coach: “an expert in facilitating self-directed neuroplasticity.”

The Complexities of the Quantum Brain

Amy Brann’s book uses classical biology and classical physics as its basis, but does make a brief intermission in the fifth chapter to talk about something she refers to as “the quantum brain.”

Basically, she says that modern physics has questioned the postulates of classical physics and that this may mean that classical neuroscience will soon make space for a much more modern approach as well.

This approach may reveal that some things such as “feeling,” “knowing” and “effort” are “intrinsically mentalistic and experiential and so cannot be described exclusively in terms of their material make-up,” which is not something most scientists are ready to accept nowadays.

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“Neuroscience for Coaches Quotes”

Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain to change. Click To Tweet The field of neuroimaging is a specialized one. It includes all the techniques currently at our disposal to study the structure and functions of the brain. Click To Tweet Self-control or the utilization of willpower involves the ability to consciously decide what you will do and when, to resist temptation, and to put off a reward until later. Click To Tweet Beliefs are tricky from a neuroscience perspective, and in another 10 years we are likely to be in a much clearer place. Click To Tweet The mirror neuron is a type of neuron that fires when an action is observed in another neuron. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

As John Leary-Joyce—CEO of the Academy of Executive Coaching—suggests Neuroscience for Coaches is the book which can help you “provide a rational neuroscientific explanation for the interventions” and make the move from “Trust me I’m the coach” to “Here’s the explanation for why this will work.”We agree enthusiastically: this is a book that every coach even remotely interested in the whys of his work should enjoy reading and rereading. If you are such a coach then you should always have this Amy Brann’s classic next to you in your office.

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