What Does it Take to Change the Brain?

changesI’ve written about neuroplasticity here before a few times, but since it is a fascinating, complex topic (like everything about the brain, right?) I thought I’d share a few more thoughts about some of what we are learning helps or hinders our ability to change.

Neuroplasticity—Keys and Enhancers

Neuroplasticity is, simply put, the capacity of the brain to change throughout life. It can occur on a variety of levels, ranging from changes due to learning or growth, to large-scale changes in response to injury (see Norman Doidge’s entertaining The Brain that Changes Itself for more on the latter). While for most of the 20th century, general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively unchanging after early childhood, current understanding is that many aspects of the brain remain plastic—that is, changeable—even into adulthood.

And so,  we can (and do) change. But what does it take? And why do some people succeed at developing new habits where others fail miserably? Well, extensive research points to certain keys to neuroplasticity, without which it is more difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the brain to make neuroplastic changes. In addition to these keys, there are additional aspects which also assist with or enhance the process. In both cases, the more keys/aspects, the better.

Five Keys to Neuroplasticity*

The following five keys are necessary to the process of making new neural connections. The more one of more of these keys is compromised, the harder it will be for the brain to stay flexible, healthy and cognitively sharp, especially through aging and stress.

1. Exercise

Exercise improves blood flow and increases oxygen levels, which increase neuron growth. (The brain is only 2% of our body mass but it consumes 20% of our oxygen and nutrients.) Exercise also increases the volume of white and grey matter in the brain, by increasing brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary to neuronal growth. A minimum of 30 minutes three times a week is generally recommended, although shorter workouts of more intensity and longer with less are helpful as well.

2. Sleep

A healthy adults needs between 7-9 hours of sleep (Teens need 8.5 – 9.25 hours). During sleep our brain has the chance to integrate learning and also combs through information and decides what is needed and what is not. Neural impulses are literally reversed from our waking state, which serves to both clean out unneeded information and prime the cells for learning and memory in the future.

3. Food

The brain needs Omega-3s and vitamins from foods to create new neural pathways. It’s also critically important to stay away from foods and substances that inhibit neural growth and/or create inflammation. According to new research, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, vegetable oils and many grains may all contribute to non-optimal brain states. Promising research finds coconut oil, berries, B vitamins (and much more) helping to build neural connections in the brain.

4. Novelty

New experiences stimulate neuronal connections. If we don’t know how to do something, the cognitive patterns for it don’t exist in our brains, thus new connections must be made. In order to maintain the benefits, however, these experiences have to increase in challenge in order to create new growth. Additionally, we simply don’t pay attention to things that are boring!

5. Focus and Attention

The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters (such as BDNF, mentioned above in the Exercise section) responsible for creating new neural connections. In addition, many studies have linked meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness or density of gray matter.

Four Enhancers to Neuroplasticity

The following four enhancers are extremely helpful to the process of making new neural connections. The more we have of each, in combination with the five keys, the easier it is to learn, remember, and change.

 1. Relationships

We learn and change best in safe, supportive relationships. Feeling socially connected diminishes stress and can even reduce inflammation, while feeling judged or “less than” others creates fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. When we feel we are being heard and understood, it increases the connective neural fibers in our brains—fibers that are crucial for bringing together disparate areas for increased cognitive function.

2. Mistakes

A critical part of the learning process is the ability to try, fail, recalibrate and try again. This is literally how the new neural connections we make get either strengthened or pruned. According to Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, training “at the edge of our abilities” produces results up to 10 times faster than regular practice. That is, making mistakes leads to better skill acquisition. Directly linked to the key of novelty, making mistakes is inherent to increasing the difficulty of the task. As long as we are making mistakes, the task is probably challenging enough.

3. Humor/Play

Humor relaxes and bonds us, and is a wonderful ally in helping to overcome the brain’s strong negativity bias. Laughter has been shown to release oxytocin, which not only makes us feel more bonded and connected and trusting, it’s also a great anti-inflammatory agent. Good humor also often plays upon the unexpected, causing us to think in new ways (novelty). Similarly, being playful puts the brain in an open state for learning. All baby animals and humans learn through play, which allows mistakes to be made and learned from in a safe environment.

4. Multi-Sensory Input

The more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the “pathway” becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain. For example, when we remember a vacation to the beach, we may access sounds, smells, sights, even the feeling of sand on our toes. This anchors in the experience more strongly than simply seeing a photo of sand and waves. When we are intentionally working to create positive new neural pathways, bolstering this process by bringing in as many of our senses as possible is a fabulous strategy.


*A huge thank-you to Dr. Daniel Siegel for first sharing the Five Keys to Neuroplasticity with me.

Coming soon: a complete bibliography of studies supporting these keys and enhancers. Stay tuned!


Some Thoughts About Consciousness and the Brain


Hello everyone! I am musing today about consciousness and the  brain. It’s a messy, imperfect attempt to get my head around something, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

I posted on our sister site, BEabove Leadership, so just click this link and head on over:




The Neuroscience of Co-Active Coaching

Hello everyone! Today I just want to share a link to a new white paper where I explore neuroscience links to the Co-Active Coaching model. Co-Active Coaching and the Brain walks through the four cornerstones, three principles and five contexts (whew) of Co-Active Coaching.

Even though this paper looks specifically at the coaching model taught by the Coaches Training Institute, there is much in it that is applicable (and hopefully useful) to all coaches.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it!







Process Coaching / Guided Awareness and Focus

In Co-Active Coaching, we learn a principle known as “Process,” which is designed to help clients experience the ebb and flow of life more fully and completely. The tools in this principle are designed to enable the client to be fully present to their experience rather than sleepwalking through life or subconsciously resisting certain aspects or areas. Process coaching helps make present what is bubbling under the surface—often only experienced as vague sensations or fleeting thoughts. By stopping the chatter of the active mind and helping put voice to the client’s full experience, Process coaching deepens and integrates what Daniel Siegel calls our “embodied mind.”

Amazingly, recent research has found we have neurons not just in our brains, but also in our heart and in our gut. And our whole bodies are taking in critical information all the time, somatically doing their best to make sense of the world. This useful information is all too often ignored in our day to day lives, possibly because the pathways from the body connect with the right hemisphere of the brain, which is not as skilled at putting things into linear language and logical understanding (see Come On Over to the Right Side for more on this). When the information is not processed and integrated, it stays vague and unfocused, and often continues to nag at the client even though they may not know why.

Process coaching helps the client “grab” this information, and through the use of metaphor, focusing on body sensations, and other tools, to go deeply into the experience. Research on meditators has shown that the close paying of attention — which is exactly what the coach is supporting the client to do — activates a part of the brain that releases a chemical called acetylcholine, which helps with neuroplasticity  (the ability of the brain to make new neural pathways). Close attention is also linked to the brain’s release of brain-derived neurotropic factor, which increases growth between widely separated areas of the brain.

Thus, when we help our clients pay close attention by taking them into their experience through process coaching, we help create lasting change. The impact is that issues that have been bothering the client, and areas where they have been stuck (sometimes for years) get resolved.

Updated Book List

I first posted a list of my favorite neuroscience books back in December, but have added some since then, so I thought I’d update it again for the spring. In no particular order:

Mindsight, Daniel Siegel — he is my hero, and this is a wonderful book. One of the few writers and researchers really looking at the brain through the lens of consciousness. True stories of real profound changes and healing. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, Louis Cozolino — in my opinion, probably the best book for coaches out there, although he focuses on therapists. Accessible but deep. Cozolino also uses real-life examples and has a curiosity and humility that really shine through his writing.

Coaching with the Brain in Mind, David Rock and Linda Paige — I use this for reference. It’s very detailed and complex and perhaps not an easy cover to cover read, but I find it very helpful for looking things up. They spend a fair amount of time talking about different aspects of coaching, so it’s quite a broad overview. They don’t include or discuss co-active coaching and there tends to be a business effectiveness focus.

The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge — wonderful true stories of “neuroplasticity” and astonishing ways the brain can find new ways to do things. Highly enjoyable to read.

Incognito, David Eagleman — also an easy to read book, lots of true stories about how we know what we know. Gets a little redundant towards the end but still worthwhile. Just the story of chicken sexing is worth the price of the book.

My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor — a wonderful book about right brain/left brain, written by a neuroscientist who had a stroke. Her TED talk on the subject is widely popular, and the book takes it deeper. Bolte Taylor’s humility and wisdom really shine through. Absolutely a must read for anyone who is working with someone recovering from a stroke. She gives real, straightforward, practical advice based on her own experience.

The Art of Changing the Brain, James Zull — this may be the best book on learning and the brain for educators. Zull does a fabulous job explaining the action-learning cycle in terms of neuroscience.

Your Brain at Work, David Rock — good for leaders, very business focused. I don’t use it in coaching, but I recommend it to clients who want to understand some very basic aspects of the brain presented in a simple way. He uses two fictionalized characters to make his points. I prefer stories of real people, but even these made-up characters do help the material come to life.

The Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius — a great introductory book on the brain that weaves in mindfulness and Buddhist wisdom and includes practical tools for personal development.

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate — fabulous work on the neuroscience of addiction. Mate unflinchingly tells about his own battles with compulsive shopping, as well as stories from working with longtime addicts in Vancouver.

The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist — amazing, powerful work on the right and left brain. Will change the way you think about the hemispheres. (Confession — this one is on my shelf but it is 500 pages with 10-point type and I have not gotten very far in yet. However, the RSA video is fantastic and only 11 minutes or so: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI)

I do also still own a copy of the Idiot’s Guide to the Brain as seen in the above photo. I went to sell it at Half Price Books the other day and couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not sure why, maybe I just find it comforting to own it ….   🙂