Where is Co-Active in the Brain?

Hi everyone, today’s post is an exploration of Co-Active, the heart of the Coaches Training Institute’s (CTI) coach training and leadership model. Hoping all coaches will find this interesting and helpful!

sun_moon_tattoo_by_faeroneCO-ACTIVE in the Brain

The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess

~William F. Allman

What does “Co-Active?” really mean? Is it the dance between being (co) and doing (active)? The different energies of feminine (co) and masculine (active)? Deepen the learning (co) and forward the action (active)? Certainly there are two very different drives in human experience—even the ancient Greeks understood the difference between Aristotelian (cool, logical, analytical) and Dionysian (warm, passionate, intuitive) energy.

Therefore, it makes sense that there must be some sort of brain explanation, but trying to actually pinpoint a concept like “Co-Active” in the brain is a challenging proposition. For one thing, it’s not completely clear, even at this point in history with all our fancy technology, exactly what each brain region does. We can come close, but because it is a highly complex and yes, messy system, it’s often difficult to fully understand the component parts. And just to make things even more challenging, there are also many specialized neural networks combining multiple areas, which are activated in certain brain states.

In thinking about the idea of being Co-Active from brain perspective, it makes sense to look at both specific location as well as network activation in order to (perhaps) come close to the whole story. It’s worth looking at the distinct role and purpose of 1) the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and 2) the default mode and task positive networks, as both of these both have implications for our understanding of Co and Active. 


Although each hemisphere is specialized as to function (see below), neither operates as a brain unto itself. Rather, the two hemispheres integrate their activities to produce physical movements, mental processes and behaviors greater than, and different from, their individual contributions. That being said, the specialized functions—which make it possible for us to have nice big brains and still be able to walk upright—are important to understand because they point to a certain way of looking at the world. The right hemisphere gives us global awareness and a holistic view, while the left allows focus and specificity.

The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres, playing a role not only in linking the two halves of the brain, but also inhibiting one or the other from dominating. Thus it is possible that a more integrated, “Co-Active” brain is able to link positive aspects of the hemispheres and inhibit negative ones. (This would correlate to research on long-term meditators, who are both shown to be more emotionally intelligent than average and also to have thicker corpus callosa as a result of meditative practices.)

Right Hemisphere Functions—CO Left Hemisphere Functions—ACTIVE
Focus on big picture, holisticThe meaning and purpose of things
(and people, relationships)

Empathy, emotional content

Oneness and connection

Codes sensory input as images

Synthesizes things in space
(things are here or there)

Deals with new information

Gives things spaciousness and openness

Awareness of the important of freedom

Focus on specific partsThe utility of things
(and people, relationships)

Logic and analysis

Separateness and individuality

Codes sensory input as words

Analyzes over time
(things are linear and sequential)

Deals with representations of information

Gives things form and sequence

Awareness of the important of structure

The RIGHT HEMISPHERE is more concerned with relationships, emotions, the big picture, meaning, purpose, and oneness, and has a softer, more inclusive way of looking at the world. Thus, we place it on the CO side of things, because this is the place we slow down and consider the greater impact on people, relationships, and the broader purpose. (However, by placing it here, we don’t mean to say that the RIGHT HEMISPHERE has no connection whatsoever to action.)

The LEFT HEMISPHERE is more concerned with logic, analysis and the sequential movement of things, and has a sharper, less inclusive (but more focused) way of looking a the world. Thus, we place it on the ACTIVE side of things, because if ideas and possibilities cannot be broken down into component parts, it is not possible to move anything forward. (However, by placing it here, we don’t mean to say that the LEFT HEMISPHERE is inherently and solely concerned with action.)

Despite lots of fun and entertaining online quizzes, research shows that no one is truly “right-brained” or “left-brained.” However, it does seems that one hemisphere or the other can be over-activated in certain circumstances, such as when we are under stress, activating not only the positive aspects listed above, but also some of the more challenging ones such as:

Right Hemisphere Functions—CO Left Hemisphere Functions—ACTIVE
Emotional overwhelmSadness, fear, depression



Too much information leading to paralysis

Chaotic thinking

Judgment and blameSeeing people as things

Anger, frustration

Not enough information leading to impulsive decisions

Rigid thinking

Thus, when we work towards being more Co-Active, we ideally help to create more balanced and effective brains in our clients (and ourselves), where we are able to use, as needed, the positive aspects of each hemisphere, without getting stuck in the negative states.

The Default Mode Network and the Task Positive Network

The Default Network (DMN) and the Task Positive Network (TPN) are two distinct neural networks in the brain. The DMN is a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest. It’s called “default” because it is the network that is activated unless we are specifically engaged in goal-directed activity, the realm of the TPN.

Probably one of the most interesting aspects of these two networks is that when the DMN is active, the TPN is not. And when the TPN is active, the DMN is not. Part of each network’s function is to shut the other down.

NOTE: While some of the aspects below may sound similar to Right and Left Hemisphere operations, each network actually includes both. Thus, adding an awareness of the DMN and TPN increases our understanding of what it is to be Co-Active.

Default Mode Network—CO Task Positive Network—ACTIVE
DreamingEnvisioning the future

Long-term memory

Gauging other’s perspectives

Theory of mind (understanding others)


Self-referential thought

Focus on taskActively paying attention (external)


Reacting to and working with sensory information

Short-term (working) memory


Abstract reasoning

Because the Default Mode Network is activated when we are daydreaming, imagining the future, pondering our own thoughts and beliefs, and trying to understand others, we place it on the CO side of things.

Because the Task Positive Network is activated when we are doing or focused on doing, we place it firmly on the ACTIVE side of things.

Perhaps even more than the right and left hemisphere, the DMN and TPN interaction helps explain why being Co-Active can be so challenging. When we are dreaming, reflecting, and standing in someone else’s shoes, the neural network concerned with action is not “on line.” And when we are planning and acting, the network associated with creating vision and understanding others is shut down.

By holding a Co-Active view, whether in terms of coaching, leadership, or life in general, we create a dance between these two networks. Many coaching tools are, in fact, designed to activate one or the other, whether it is envisioning our “future self” (Default Mode Network) or planning what we will do next (Task Positive Network). By holding focus on both the being and the doing, we can’t help but create connections between the two networks, so that even if only one can be activated at a time, it becomes easier and easier turn on the switch of the other and shift back and forth more and more quickly.

In looking at the right and left hemispheres and the default mode and task positive networks, we can perhaps understand the scope and challenges of Co-Active a bit better. Ultimately, the true strength and brilliance of any person, whether they are a leader, parent, student, or coach, is not just the development of one aspect or another, but the continual commitment to stand in the hyphen, increasingly honoring both.

My Favorite Green Shorts: Unlocking Transformation

green shortsA couple of months ago, it finally got warm enough in Minnesota to wear summer clothes. I happily fished out my sandals, t-shirts and shorts from their box under the bed, pulled on my favorite pair of green cut-offs, and found, to my extreme dismay, that I was, um, bulging a bit over the waistband. Which was tight. And uncomfortable. And not the experience I wanted at all. Sure, I could get them on, but the way they used to fit low on my hips was only a vague memory. What to do, what to do?

Here’s the thing. I turned 50 this year. Menopause and I are good friends. Who the hell actually knows what is happening with my hormonal balance, which seems to change daily. I have high values of self-acceptance and am on a very authentic quest of deep self-love. I eat very consciously, and I exercise. A huge part of me just wanted to say “Ah well, so it goes.”

But another part, perhaps immature, perhaps vain, was screaming OMG MY FAVORITE SHORTS DON’T FIT! DAMN IT ALL!

And the truth is, like many of us, I had been on the high end of my “normal” range for a while. Perhaps even the mid-range of a new normal that I didn’t want to own. Sometimes, when the truth stares us right in the face, it can be a blessing. Damn it all.

So I decided it was time to make a shift. I was seeing lots of inspiring photos on FB of people who had successfully completed 30-Day Challenges, and that was the beginning of a structure for me. It was one of those “where will I be in 30 days if I don’t do anything?” moments. And I further decided to bring in everything I knew about neuroscience and consciousness to help. Here’s what I came up with:

#1. I created a tracking grid on Excel with goals for the week and a place to note daily progress. Here’s why: the antidote for feelings of chaos (and I was definitely feeling out of control about my weight!) is structure. This is because chaos is a function of the right hemisphere of the brain being over-activated and “below the line.” When we go to chaos we tend to feel overwhelmed, anxious, hopeless and even ashamed (all emotions processed by the right hemisphere). Structure is a helpful aspect of the left hemisphere (when over-activated, helpful structure becomes unhelpful rigidity, by the way), which can pull us out of chaos and back to a more centered place. Nothing radical, but it gave me some order and control (two more things the brain likes when it is feeling chaotic), and it also kept me focused on my big goal and mini-goals.

#2. I focused on mini-goals as part of the bigger goal. Here’s why: I decided that this time, I wanted to transform, and not just change. After all, as everyone knows, you can fast or restrict calories severely and lose weight, but it all too often comes back on. And I didn’t want to be back in the same place next spring. So it made sense to me that what was needed was to actually rewire my brain, which right now seemed to be wired about 10 pounds heavier than I wanted. Just losing weight was not going to do that. Focusing on new habits in support of losing weight might. In our coaching program, we have a process we call “red yarn, blue yarn” where we use yarn to represent neural pathways around certain habits or beliefs (red for negative and blue for positive). My goal in my 30-day challenge was to create new blue “pathways” that would (ideally) become defaults or habits going forward.

#3. I made sure the goals were positive. Here’s why: the goals needed to be positive because, as I like to say, our brains are essentially like three-year-olds. If you’ve ever tried to get your car keys away from a three-year-old who wants to keep them, you’ll know that it generally doesn’t work to say “Give me my car keys!!” over and over or try to wrest them out of the child’s hands. It’s needlessly difficult and stressful for everyone involved. Far better to say “Here, have this lovely stuffed giraffe” and watch as they lose interest in your keys. Our brains are pretty similar. They respond best when we go towards something rewarding. And I believe that, over time, if we add enough positive things, our brains start to lose interest in the negative ones. It’s a carrot rather than stick strategy, essentially. So for my 30-day challenge, I focused primarily on things I was moving towards rather than things I wanted to move away from.

#4. I made sure the goals were SMART. Here’s why: this is also nothing new, but in my opinion SMART is still a helpful acronym. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. It’s not SMART to have a goal to be nicer to myself, because it is not specific, measurable, or timely (and it may not be attainable and realistic either!) It is SMART to have a goal to say 14 nice things to myself about my body every week. So everything I wanted, I figured out how to break it into a SMART goal. I want to add that because I had weekly, not daily goals, every time I did anything, it counted. For example, if my goal is 10,000 steps per day and I miss a day, I have failed up to seven times each week. But if it is 70,000 steps per week, I get to win every time I take any steps, and at the most, fail once a week.

#5. I focused more on the being than I did on the doing, and I specifically focused on one key thing. Here’s why: what we believe at the deepest level will trump what we consciously think and intend every time. In order to make real lasting change, it’s most important to shift what you believe, and to shift it at very deep levels. There is fascinating evidence from people with multiple personalities (now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID) that shows how important this is. Anyone who has ever worked with someone with DID knows that different personalities will often have differences in vision, allergies, and even disease. What one personality experiences physically can be very different from what another experiences, and this will show up in observable and measurable ways, such as one personality having diabetes while another tests normal. In other words, our beliefs create our biology.

To me, this is a fascinating potential doorway to change. But how on earth do we access it? This level of belief is so far below consciousness that me just telling myself “I’m thin and strong” isn’t going to do very much. When we say something consciously that we don’t really believe consciously, our brains tend to reject it. It’s like they are saying, in effect, “yeah, right.” We know too much about ourselves, and our fabulously unhelpful brains will bring up all the evidence as to why what we just said isn’t true, which helps to actually reinforce the old pattern. Lovely, eh?

So now what? How do we bypass the conscious brain and go right to the deepest beliefs for reprogramming. There is some evidence that EFT (commonly known as “tapping”) can help, or work with the breath or the body, and I think these are all areas worth exploring. What I tried, however, was a bit different, and it’s pretty simple. I call it a “feelization,” and here’s how it works for weight loss:

  1. Think of an item of clothing that is a bit too tight for you. I like to use one I like, that I want to wear, so for me, it was the green shorts. Do NOT pick an ideal, or even where you ultimately want to be. It needs to be something that you can imagine fitting into. Back to the SMART aspect of “attainable.”
  2. Imagine this item fitting you more loosely. Really imagine this in as much detail as you can. Feel the waist of your pants loose on your body. Imagine putting your hands into the pockets more easily. Imagine buttoning them without having to suck in your stomach.
  3. Link your “feelization” to another activity, such as walking or driving. You want it to become a habit. For some, it is easier if you do this while you are doing something else that does not require concentration.
  4. Do this as much as you possibly can.
  5. As item becomes looser, adjust. Add a belt, or switch to another item. Keep it attainable, you have to be able to imagine this item, it has to be within your grasp.
  6. It can be helpful to also write some affirmations that are essentially your feelization, because additional details will emerge that you can use. But feeling it is the key. You want to show your body how it feels to be thinner. In essence, you are giving it a new map.

And so, you are wondering, the results? After now almost 60 days, I have lost about 8 pounds, and my green shorts fit loosely again. I am thinner than I have been in years, and it required no effort, dieting, or pain. Which is good, because I don’t believe we are meant to suffer.

I know that everything I mentioned above made a difference: 1) Having a structure and way to track kept me focused on the little things and also kept me from forgetting my intentions. I loved filling out my list every night with the things I had done and looking for opportunities during the day to “get on the chart.”  2) Breaking it down into small goals has actually done the job of creating new habits and beginning to rewire my brain in positive ways. For example, instead of feeling like I “should” go for a walk, I now find myself getting a bit itchy if time or weather prevent me. 3) Having positive goals was simply FUN. I loved my goal of saying nice things to myself about my body, which was so much easier than trying not to say mean things. And I rarely say mean things any more. Hmmm. 4) SMART goals rock. Everything became measurable which meant I could win. Yay! I love to win. My goals felt real and tangible, even though the big picture included a huge intangible, which was self-love. 5) Honestly, I think this one was the real key. Telling my body how it feels to be thin seems like it may be the magic pill we’ve all been looking for. And this one has no side effects and is free.

I hope this helps you, a coaching client or someone you care about easily and joyfully create for themselves the body they want. And I’d love to hear any successes or challenges along the way!