The research tells us:
- We have a primary organizing principle that seeks to protect us from danger every waking moment of our life, multiple times a second (that’s good)
- The threat (fight or flight) network kicks in faster, is stronger, lasts longer and has more brain real estate devoted to it than the reward network (that can be good, too)
- The right amount of threat can increase performance, but it also diminishes and can overwhelm higher-level “executive” brain function (that’s not so good)
We can’t necessarily overcome or completely short-circuit this organizing principle, but we can work to lessen its impact on us and for our clients. The goal is knowing how much threat is necessary and managing the situation to minimize unnecessary threat.
This brings us to our next idea/implication—the rank and weight of each person’s brain’s social/emotional needs is different. This implies that guessing someone’s social needs can be quite tricky. So, I’ve simplified it: Work in an intentional way at noticing threat and meeting as many social needs as possible during any interaction.
Our third idea/implication is that a client’s ability to manage his own “fight-or-flight” reaction has a direct impact on his performance, meaning someone with a lesser ability to manage threat will have lower executive function/performance and someone with a higher ability to manage threat will tend to have higher executive function/performance in the same situation.
You and I have developed different levels of self-awareness and self-control (regulation). For instance, your brain and my brain are wired in such a way that things we unconsciously perceive as dangerous will trigger a quick “fight-or-flight” response, effectively dampening down executive (prefrontal cortex /PFC) function and marshalling our body’s resources to get away from or “kill” the danger. We will differ, however, in our response to the threat based on our level of self-awareness and self-regulation.
The key to managing threat well is the ability to quickly notice the threat response kicking in and a strong braking system (right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex). Studies link a strong direct experience network (this may also be thought of as mindfulness, interoception or self-awareness) to a strong braking system. This means the more aware you are of what is happening inside of you, the more quickly you can apply your brain’s brakes as the threat response is trying to take over. This allows you to maintain more executive function during the situation, which will promote higher/better performance.
So, there you have it, three core ideas and implications to consider if you are thinking of applying neuroscience as a coach.
Remember, when you honor the brain, you honor the person.
This article was originally published on ICF Coaching World.