Metaphors are Lint Catchers for the Brain

Shadow luz headsI have cats. Even though they are short-haired, they shed. I like to wear black pants (so slimming, you know). My small cat is pure white and my big cat has a white belly. Thus, renegade white hairs ALL OVER EVERYTHING, especially my black pants. So I have one of those sticky rolls of tape with a handle that you can use to de-lint yourself, and it works great. It picks up everything, even stuff I sometimes didn’t know was there.

To use a simile, a metaphor is like that for your brain. Allow me to explain. Our visual cortex is more well-developed than our auditory cortex. In other words, we more quickly and easily understand things in images than we do by parsing linear sentences. If you ask me how I am, and I tell you all day I have felt like I have my shoes on the wrong feet, you can connect immediately and much more powerfully (and empathically) than if I simply say I am a bit out of sorts. And, like that sticky tape which picks up everything, you get much more information than the simple statement “out of sorts” allows. Shoes on the wrong feet brings up a wealth of interesting images and sensations. It might include awkward, stumbling, uncomfortable, tight, irritating. In a coaching conversation, a myriad of directions to explore!

Because the right hemisphere of the brain thinks in pictures (as well as sounds, colors, smells and touch), I believe metaphors are one of the most amazing tools we have as coaches to integrate the two hemispheres of the brain. The right hemisphere is the side that brings to the brain what is new, but because it doesn’t have immediate access to symbolic language (words and sentences are the provence of the left hemisphere), this information is spread out all over, nebulous and unfocused and sometimes difficult to pick up, like cat hair on my pants. But when we grab an image that swims to the surface and name it (shoes on the wrong feet), we have accessed the left hemisphere’s power of focus and language without losing the right hemisphere’s subtlety and ability to know the hidden or nebulous aspects of the situation.

As coaches, we know that when a client can’t focus in on what is really going on, we can’t work with the issue. However, if we only focus in and reduce things to simple statements (out of sorts), we often miss the heart of the matter. Metaphors allow us to do both, by engaging both hemispheres of the brain in a powerful partnership. Through the image, we keep bringing pieces over from the right hemisphere, which knows everything but can’t articulate it or do much with it, to the left, which says “Ok, let’s really look at this.” Shadow Luz who meA good metaphor is a door into consciousness, and when my clients tell me “Oh, I am no good at metaphors,” or “I just don’t think that way,” I don’t accept it. I tell them we’re going to build the muscle, because it is key to understanding themselves. Everyone has the ability, we just need to activate it.


Loving Our Clients, Being Loved by Our Clients

Happy Valentine’s Day 2013 from yourcoachingbrain. And it’s perfect timing, because today I want to talk about LOVE!! Love and science and coaching, of course.

When I think back on my twelve years as a professional coach, one of the things that stands out is the astonishing moments of StroluchKarenHeartsandStars_ManyHeartsBlueGreenintimacy I’ve experienced. The times clients have told me things they’ve never told anyone else before. The times they’ve cried, or faced their biggest demons, or finally stepped into their own greatness. What a privilege to hold all of that.

There is a poignancy to these memories as well. I know that for many of my clients our coaching relationship is more deeply honest and emotionally intimate than any other. In the container of coaching, they are able to be fully themselves like nowhere else in their lives. And interestingly, intimacy doesn’t seem to be something we’re getting much better at (at least here in the U.S.). According to the General Social Survey, in 1985 most Americans had three confidents in their lives. In 2004, the most common response was zero. I guess this might be good news for coaching, but not so great in terms of our development as humanity

While ideally we are helping our clients increase their overall capacity for emotional connection, there is often an particularly special and noteworthy energy in the relationship between coach and client. Like many of you, I’ve  know for years that this is simply the energy of love, no two ways about it. So I was thrilled when I saw Barbara Frederickson’s new book Love 2.0, How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become, and her definition of love as “micro-moments of positivity response.” By this she means that love is something that occurs in connection with another person when a flood of positive emotions and biochemical responses are activated.

This response can happen with any other person at any point as long as there is connection. According to Frederickson, biologically, there are three key aspects to the “love system.” First, our mirror neurons for empathy, which enable us to “mirror” what another person is feeling as if we were feeling it ourselves. Secondly, the hormone oxytocin, which is released during moments of intimacy and enables us to trust and connect. And third, the vagus nerve, which  connects our heart and gut to our brain (see The Embodied Brain for more on the amazing vagus nerve) and allows us to experience love in some subtle and interesting ways. For example, the vagus nerve controls micro-movements of the face and eyes as well as the muscles of the throat which produce varied vocal tone (we’ll come back this last one). The vagus nerve is also a key player in emotional regulation, calming us down in the face of stress or perceived threat. While Frederickson has been criticized for reducing love to just this trifecta and not taking into full account ALL of the other biochemical responses, these micro-moments generated by her big three certainly are one powerful form of love, and well worth considering.

So much of the brain can be understood when we remember that we are programmed to be acutely aware of threats (see Shifting the Brain’s Negativity Bias for more on this). I find vocal tone particularly interesting as a coach, perhaps because many of us do our work over the phone. Vocal tone is one way animals (including humans) cue other animals that things are safe. We listen for something called “prosidy” or a sort of rich tonal variance. At its most extreme, think of a parent crooning to a baby — we  naturally go into a sort of sing-song tone when around babies or very small children. This tone is an evolutionarily programmed cue to the baby that it is safe. And although we generally don’t talk to each other in quite such a sing-song way, emotionally intelligent, connected people with good self-regulation tend to speak more melodically. This is one way we subconsciously know whether or not a person is trustworthy. A flat affect and droning tone may indicate a less-developed vagus nerve, which means that they cannot control their emotions as easily and thus literally are not as “safe” to be around. (This will generally not be in our conscious awareness, but we may find that we are simply not drawn to that person or for some reason don’t trust them.)

And so, what does this have to do with love, and loving our clients? As coaches, we learn to make people feel safe. Many of us even become masters of doing this over the phone, without any verbal cues (something many people would believe is almost impossible). Without even knowing we are doing so, through using our mirror neurons to feel their experience, through activating oxytocin by listening deeply and holding them in our hearts, and through our melodic vocal tone, we weave a net of security around our clients that they relax into, knowing all is well — at least in this moment with their coach. And this “micro-moment of positivity response” is one form of love that is as real as any other, and when it is activated in the client, it also often gets activated in the coach. And there you are, glowing with the privilege of coaching this amazing person, who is glowing with the extraordinary experience of feeling so very safe, and loved, and held.

The Embodied Brain

At BEabove Leadership, as we get ready for the first Module Three of our Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program, I have been thinking a lot about energy, quantum mechanics, and the fact that our brains are so much bigger than the two hemispheres etc. in our skulls. So I thought I’d share some thoughts about the brain we are carrying in our entire bodies.

1) Our Heart is Actually a Brain

“Far more than a simple pump, as was once believed, the heart is now recognized by scientists as a highly complex system with its own functional ‘brain’…. “

~Roland McCraty, Institute of HeartMath

The heart has a nervous system and neurons of its own. Research in the field of Neurocardiology has shown that the heart can learn, remember, and make decisions separate from the brain in our heads. And research by the HeartMath Institute has shown that the signals from the heart, as conducted through the vagus nerve (see bleow), precede decision-making in the brain. In other words, the heart thinks first, and thinks faster, influencing the brain in the areas of perception, cognition and emotional processing.

The heart also generates a powerful electromagnetic field – much more powerful than that of the brain. To quote the experts at the HeartMath Institute, “Compared to the electromagnetic field produced by the brain, the heart’s field is about 60 times greater in amplitude, and permeates every cell in the body. The magnetic component is approximately 5000 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field and can be detected several feet away from the body with sensitive magnetometers.”

2) Our Gut is a Sort of Brain, Too

The greatest concentration of serotonin (a key neurotransmitter), which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain. Studies have found that high doses of probiotics (which serve to balance the gut flora in positive ways and unlike antidepressants, have no negative side effects) cause mice to face challenges with more perseverance and take more risks than mice not treated with probiotics.

3) The Vagus Nerve is Really Important

The name comes from the medieval Latin word vagus, which literally means “wandering” (vagrant, vagabond and vague all come from the same root). This nerve “wanders” through our body, connecting to our organs and conveying sensory information to and from the central nervous system (CNS). Most of the fibers in the vagus nerve (80-90%) are afferent, which means they take information back to the CNS.

In other words, the vagus nerve is the information superhighway connecting the body to brain, with 80-90% of the traffic flowing up to the brain from our organs and viscera (to the right hemisphere of the brain), and only 10-20% of the information going from the brain to the body. 

4) Our Body Takes Things Literally

Our bodies are remarkably literal in their interpretation of the world. (Perhaps this is because the vagus nerve is sending back so much information from the body to the brain.) There are numerous astonishing research studies showing this – a recent one published in the Association for Psychological Science last March proved that if you literally put people in boxes they think more restrictively and when literally “out of the box” are more creative. Another showed that people who hold a warm drink see a stranger’s personality as warmer than those not holding a drink. Mimicking the phrase “on the one hand, on the other hand” by moving your hands alternately in a lifting motion will generate more ideas than lifting a single hand. And so on. People who sat on hard chairs negotiated harder for a salary increase than those in soft chairs. Donation kettles at the top of an escalator garnered more donations than those at the bottom of the escalator (we associate going “up” with being better people).


We are constantly – and literally – interpreting our environment. At BEabove, we believe the task of coaches and teachers is to help people become more consciously aware of ourselves as embodied brains. Because the vagus nerve comes into the right hemisphere of the brain, which does not look at things individually, logically, or in a linear manner, we need to develop the ability to interact with this vague (interesting semantic connection there) information so that we can grasp it, understand it, and use it effectively. This is the job of coaching, counseling, and healing.

Do you want to learn how to bring more brain (and higher levels of consciousness) to your coaching? Consider joining us for an upcoming Module One of Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching.