The Neuroscience of Coaching

By Laurie Ellington 


Whether clients want to quit smoking, develop healthier eating patterns, lose weight, or get more  organized, they are looking for support for behavior change. Helping people change habitual  behavior lies at the heart of health and wellness coaching.  

Neuroscience and Neuroplasticity 

Neuroscience is the science of the brain and behavior. From the perspective of neuroscience,  habits are behaviors that are neurobiologically wired – that is, patterned in the brain like a map of  well-worn pathways. The good news is that even habits that are ingrained in the brain’s neural  pathways can be changed. In fact, the human brain reorganizes and remaps throughout the  lifespan in response to new experiences, including mapping new thoughts, new feelings and  attitudes, and new behaviors. This remapping through a change in neural pathways is a concept  referred to as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity basically means that the neural circuitry of the  brain is moldable, like plastic, and can be changed. 

When we understand neuroplasticity, we recognize that helping clients to bring about change  involves helping them change the very neural circuitry in the brain. New patterns of thinking,  feeling, and behaving will be reflected first at the biological level in the human brain.  

Neuroplasticity, Change, and Coaching 

So, how does neuroplasticity link to coaching?  

Coaching facilitates behavior change by helping clients step away from their well-worn paths of  thought and behavior to cultivate new neural connections, resulting in new, updated, brain maps.  The process of rewiring the brain requires a great deal of energy, energy that comes in the form  of focused attention. Wherever a client’s attention is directed will determine both the connections  that are made in the brain, and the outcomes that will show up in their lives (Rock, 2006). In the  process of coaching, attention is focused on desired change. Through the act of continuous,  ongoing, intentional focus, new neural pathways—or brain maps— become stabilized and as the  brain map changes, a consequence is that behavior begins to change (Schwartz, Stapp, and  Beauregard, 2005). Coaching facilitates this process. 

Most of our habits are associated with brain maps, or neural pathways that are below conscious  awareness. For this reason, it’s difficult for clients to shift perspective until they have a moment  of insight – in coaching, this is the process of creating awareness, facilitating “ah-ha!” moments,  during which a set of new connections are made in the brain. These new connections help the  brain overpower the resistance to change (Jung-Beeman, Collier, & Kounios 2008). Once a new  insight or awareness is voiced by a client, it needs to be acted upon and reinforced for a new  habit system to develop. In coaching we encourage this process of acting on new awareness by supporting the client in designing actions and managing progress and accountability. 

In these ways, the coaching process facilitates a self-directed approach to maintaining attention  and focus on the creation of new neural connections and, as a result, facilitates behavioral  changes the client desires to see. By helping clients explore and shift how they think about  themselves, and how they show up in the world, coaches facilitate self-directed neuroplasticity.  

Mirror Neurons 

Neuroscience has introduced us to another fascinating concept: mirror neurons. Mirror neurons  are neurons in the brain that fire in synch with the behavior of others. This finding demonstrates  that we are linked to each other at a neurobiological level and that emotion and intentions are  “contagious” in social interactions (Cattaneo & Rizzolatti, 2009; Iacoboni, 2008). In coaching,  this is important to be aware of for several reasons. First, appreciating that we can “experience”  what someone else is feeling can help us tune into our clients more closely. Additionally,  understanding the impact of mirror neurons suggests the importance of a coach self-regulating  emotionally, because the coach’s emotional tone can impact the client and consequently the  coaching interaction (Goleman & Boyatsis, 2008).  

Resistance to Change and the Limbic System of the Brain 

We have all observed that change can evoke a sense of unease for people. The human brain is designed to help us survive as a species; it is governed by the overarching principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward (Gordon, 2000). Resistance to change by minimizing  threat, is a protective force that has important implications for the health and wellness coaching  process.  

To help clients overcome resistance to change, it can help to understand a bit more about how the  brain works, in particular the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.  

The prefrontal cortex of the brain, seated just behind the forehead, is associated with much of  what makes for successful outcomes in coaching: creating a vision for our future self, higher  order decision making, impulse control, self-awareness, and self-regulation (Arnsten, 2009).  Engaging the prefrontal cortex is key in supporting behavior change.  

The limbic region of the brain, often referred to as the emotional center, is located deep in the  brain. The limbic system scans the environment for things that are threatening and things that are  rewarding This scanning occurs multiple times per second and below conscious awareness.  When the limbic system detects a threat, it engages the brain in favor of creating safety – often  seen as avoidance behavior. This process recruits resources from the prefrontal cortex,  interfering with higher order decision making, impulse control, self-awareness, and self regulation. This is why coaches might, at times, allow for a brief period of client “venting” at the  beginning of a session, so that a client can set aside any stressors to become more present to the  coaching process. 

The limbic system can be triggered by threat, but, on the other hand, when the limbic system  detects potential reward, the brain enters an approach – or engagement – state, leading to greater  curiosity and openness to new ideas. In this state, the prefrontal cortex has the resources it needs  to engage in novel perspective taking, the exploration of new possibilities, and the energy 

required for creating and adhering to a plan of change. This is why coaches might invite the  client to join in a moment of mindfulness early in a session, encouraging a state of openness and  engagement.  

Coaching the Deeply Social Brain 

But there is more to understanding the limbic system.  

For a long time, it was thought that the limbic system responded primarily to threats and rewards  related to key physical needs such food, water, and physical safety. However, modern social  neuroscience has demonstrated that physical and social needs actually have the same impact on the human brain. For example, studies have shown that the brain does not distinguish between  social and physical pain (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004; Lieberman & Eisenberger, 2008;  Lieberman, 2013).  

Findings from neuroscience research now indicate that there are five areas of social need that can  trigger the limbic system to avoid or engage. These are esteem, choice, understanding,  relatedness, and equity (Ellington, 2020).  

  • Esteem refers to our perceived importance to other people, where we rank, and having  meaning and purpose. 
  • Choice relates to a sense of control over situations and events, as well as feeling like we  have autonomy. 
  • Understanding refers to having a sense of certainty, and our ability to predict the future  so that we know what is coming up. 
  • Relatedness concerns feelings of safety with others, or deciding whether someone is  friend or an enemy. 
  • Equity is about exchanges between people being seen as fair, and that there is a level  playing field. 

Understanding the social brain and social neuroscience can help us see how the coaching process  and core coaching competencies support clients in the change process. For example, when the  coach ensures that the client sets the agenda, engages in active listening, and allows the client to  come up with their own solutions the coach is taking actions that meet social needs for esteem and choice, thus activating an approach response in the limbic system and supporting  engagement of the prefrontal cortex which can optimize behavior change. Similarly, the  coaching processes of establishing the coaching agreement and building trust and intimacy meet  the social brain’s needs for understanding and relatedness. Designing the coaching alliance  triggers reward circuitry and engagement by meeting the need for equity. Meeting rather than threatening these key social needs keeps the limbic system from hijacking the resources needed  for learning and growth.  

Health and wellness coaches who work with an understanding of neuroplasticity, mirror neurons, the limbic system and the social brain are more likely to engage those regions of the client’s  brain that are important for motivation and learning. Doing this creates the conditions that are  optimal for the insight and awareness that lead to changes in neural circuitry in the brain. These 

neural changes are the basis for creating new brain maps that lead to new habits of thinking,  feeling, and behaving aligned with the client’s most important values and desired future self.  


Arnsten, A.F.T. (2009). Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and  function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422. 

Cattaneo, L. & Rizzolatti, G. (2009). The mirror neuron system. Neurobiological Review, 66(5),  557-560.  

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI  study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290–292.  

Eisenberger & Lieberman (2004). Why it hurts to be left out: The neurocognitive overlap  between physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 294-300. 

Ellington, L. (2020). The neuroscience of wraparound. Retrieved from 

Goleman, D. & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard  Business Review, 86(9), 74-81.  

Gordon, E. (2000). Integrative neuroscience: Bringing together biological, psychological and  clinical models of the human brain. Harwood Academic Publishers. 

Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring People: The new science of how we connect with others. Farrar,  Straus, & Giroux.  

Jung-Beeman, M., Collier, A., & Kounios, J. (2008). How insight happens: Learning from the  Brain. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 20-25. 

Lieberman, M. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Random House. 

Rock, D (2006). A brain-based approach to coaching. International Journal of Coaching in  Organizations, 4(2), 32-43. 

Schwartz, J., Stapp, H., & Beauregard, M. (2005). Quantum physics in neuroscience and  psychology: A neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction. Philosophical Transactions of  the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 360(1458), 1309-1327. 


Laurie is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Ancient Science, Inc., a leading-edge human flourishing organization based on an Integrative NeuroSomatic® approach to growth, wellness, and human evolution. Laurie’s mission is to expand consciousness, turn trauma into healing, and transform the world with kindness and compassion. She is among the pioneers dedicated to harnessing the power of the mind-body-brain-spirit connection to access human potential. Combining ancient wisdom teachings with findings from modern neuroscience, mind-body research, functional medicine, epigenetics, and quantum physics she helps individuals, leaders, and organizations elevate the way they think, feel, and show up in the world.



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