If media interest is anything to go by, neuro-stuff continues to hold public imagination in thrall1-3, much as it’s done since the turn of the century. This brave new world of “brain science” promises an original understanding of what it means to be human, potentially furnishing coaches with a game-changing perspective on clients, colleagues and themselves. But has it lived up to the hype? In this chapter, we will explore two brain-behaviour disciplines, neuropsychology and neuroscience, to understand their potentialities and limits - and to establish where nemosubstance ends and neuro-myth begins.
It is more than ten years ago now since I first came across a book written by a marketing professional that cited fMRI studies of brain activation on viewing images of popular global brands. The intensity of activation when a person saw their favorite brands was reported as comparable to that of priests viewing religious symbols! The implications were painted as obvious and thrilling. Brain imaging could be used to test the commercial viability of products in development. Less implicitly stated but perhaps important from a psychological perspective, by tapping into what most excited consumer brains at a synaptic level, neuroscience offered companies a fresh take on the “buy-sell” dynamic4.
This got my attention, why? Firstly, as a neuropsychologist by background, my initial reaction was that fMRI protocols must have progressed a fair way since my time in clinical practice, when they were clunky at best. Secondly, now working at a global leadership consultancy, I was interested in the value this could add to my coaching conversations with corporate clients. Thirdly, throughout my career, the unconscious had suffered from a shady reputation - the dominant paradigm in psychology had for decades favored conscious processing and rational thoughts. And now, in 2008, here was the subterranean brain making a surprise appearance; it was being re-introduced into good society through the back door!
And finally, a very personal reason: I had moved from clinical psychology to business psychology in 2004 when that was still relatively rare. Indeed, colleagues on either side of the divide had been quick to express their reservations; my sanity had been questioned. Clinical and Occupational are held as different and distinct branches of the psychology tree. I felt alone in having a foot in both camps. This book was a potential bridge-builder - in proposing that a clinical approach was applicable within a coiporate setting, it validated the hybrid me! My excitement didn’t last long.
When it comes to psychology, coaching and life, I have come to realise that I am inherently epistemological, in the sense that I am first and foremost interested in knowledge about knowledge. Before I admit data, facts, theories or models into my worldview, I want to know how they have come into being. This includes understanding (as much as is possible) the minds and motivations of authors, not to mention their operating milieu. And so, when I started digging into the aforementioned book, it simply didn’t stack up. Before you carry on, reader, it is only fair to state that over the years, my epistemic bar has been raised to the point that I am somewhat allergic to knowledge presented as “new”. At this point, Hogan practitioners might suspect an elevated score on the HDS “skeptical” scale and they’d be right.
Defining the parameters
If you ask Alexa for definitions of neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, comparative neuropsychology, cognitive science, etc., it’s quickly apparent that they suffer from being 20th century newcomers, inasmuch as, there is no clear consensus on the centre ground/outer limits of their respective fields of inquiry, the areas of overlap, and therefore how they ought to relate to each other. These unresolved identity issues notwithstanding; in a relatively short space of time, each tribe has generated big literatures within self-defined, often hotly debated, frames of reference using increasingly abstract, bespoke vocabularies. As in many other walks of life, this creates a headache for the more holistically minded, because it makes the job of “joining up the dots” that much harder, begging the question, how does one navigate this new frontier?
I’d like to suggest that coaches go back to the fundamentals and use two compass points; firstly, the lens on human experience provided by these specialist fields, and secondly, whether and to what extent this is relevant to their clients’ presenting concerns. By way of demonstration, let’s use this approach to consider the fields of Neuropsychology and Neuroscience within coaching contexts.
This term doesn’t feature in psychology nomenclature until the 1930s; essentially, it concerns relationships between the structure and function of the brain. Ancient inquiry centred on establishing the “seat of the soul” (in the head or heart) and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that psychology was seen as distinct from philosophy. By this time, whereas phrenology was the fad (correlating the size/shape of the brain with intelligence and personality), it was localisation approaches (studies linking specific brain lesions to cognitive functions) that eventually paved the way for modem nemopsychology.
The dayjob of a practicing neuropsychologist largely involves deciphering the real-world applications of data from standardised tests designed to ascertain the integrity of memory, language, attention, perception, etc. For a taste of what such a life entails, look no further than this series of papers5, which interrogate some of the many issues involved in inferring visuospatial functioning from results on the “block design” subtest of perhaps the most famous neuropsychological battery of all - the Wechsler Intelligence Scale. If nem opsychology comes across as a timeheavy, micro-detailed, painstakingly rigorous process fraught with bias-laden rabbit holes and interpretative booby-traps; that is because it is.
Neuropsychologists are in essence assessment specialists; as such, they often operate in multi-disciplinary teams within clinical diagnostic services, rehabilitation centres and research programmes. When psychometric data is considered alongside brain images, specific structures of the brain may be implicated. In repeating assessments using parallel versions of the same neuropsychological tests over time, the degree of improvement or degradation of brain function can be inferred. By including performance on effort tests in the assessment process, judgments can be made about whether the individual is showing up authentically and at their best, and therefore if brain functions are being accurately gauged.
Nemopsychology looks at human experience through the lens of individual responses to a series of paper-and-pencil or computerized tests of cognitive function. To accept that the neuropsychologist has done all the due diligence necessary to get a “true” result, we would need to be convinced that the appropriate tests have been used in an appropriate manner and the data has been interpreted within the context of extraneous performance issues (such as boredom, fatigue, distraction, intentional deception for the purposes of material gain, etc.).
Professional reputations are built on the ability of a practitioner to convincingly justify their choice, administration and reading of cognitive test scores. Clinical neuropsychologists make public most of the information used to establish the veracity of their judgments, in their reports, and in the case of medico-legal proceedings are required to do so. Wherever possible, the aim is to triangulate psychometric scores with third-party witness accounts of cognitive deficits affecting everyday life. Each step of the process from scores to summary conclusion needs to stand ttp to the scrutiny of peers. Fortunately for us, this ethos of making inferences only as far as the data extends is characteristic of most research activity too. Abstracts tend to be iterative, conservative and chock frill of caveats. The downside is that neuropsychological research is devoid of glamorous strap-lines and has a turgid quality that is palatable only to true enthusiasts.
Then, there remains the issue of whether neuropsychology is relevant to coaching practice. In the 15 years since I have been a coach, my neuropsychology background has been materially important in my dealings with clients a handful of times. For example, the clinical alarm bell in my head has sounded when I have wondered if the person sitting opposite me was drinking so heavily as to impair his recall memory of our previous conversations. For the most part, my clinical roots come into play in the form of psycho-education, for example, when a client informed me of a diagnosis with MND, I could talk him through the cognitive changes he could expect in the journey ahead to help plan his exit from work. Or when clients bring work-life imbalance concerns into the room and the root stressor is coping with children diagnosed with learning difficulties or an elderly parent who’s had a stroke.
However, there is a growth area in neuropsychology - the “walking wounded”. These are folk who have had some kind of neurological incident (for example, a fall from a bicycle resulting in a minor concussion), which they pinpoint, as the start of their struggles but in the absence of evident structural damage to the brain. Memory lapses, concentration problems, reductions in verbal fluency, brain freezes and disorientation - this sort of symptomology is a murky area for health providers, because it sits in the hinterland of well-being and fitness, mental health and physical health, especially in the case of previously high performing individuals. In searching for a diagnosis, these folk can become the proverbial “revolving door” patients, looking for answers before the question has been properly formulated.
In my view, integrated, early stage neuropsychology-coaching advice for the walking wounded would prevent unnecessary, counter-productive medical input and curtail spiralling anxiety as individuals and their families grapple with that feeling that life is spinning out of control. Where a clinical neuropsychologist can establish whether and to what extent cognitive deficits are clinically significant in a controlled test environment, an executive coach is able to contextualise the consequences of performance variability at home and in the office. A working dialogue between the two fields would make it easier for both sets of professional to help clients make sense of their experience, normalise concents where appropriate and advise remediation strategies with sufficient levels of conviction that there is no magic pill erne and that their recommendations represent the best available way forward.
To my mind, this reaffirms the core strength of neuropsychology as a discipline in its own right. When MRI scanners first became affordable tools of clinical inquiry in the 1980s, it was heralded as the end of neuropsychology. Why put a person through hours of psychometric tests to infer brain damage when sophisticated imaging could identify previously undetectable strucmral changes in a fraction of the time? Answer - because neuropsychological deficits can presage strucmral changes in the brain in certain conditions, for example, in the onset of dementia6. I would argue, that sometimes the only external validation of perceived problems in the walking wounded is a score that marks them out as falling within the clinical range compared to a demographically matched norm group (usually <5th percentile for age and socio-educational background).
And therein also lies the tub: If you really want to get picky, the Achilles heel of neuropsychology lies in the very idea of norm groups. If psychometrics had an Olympics, the aforementioned Wechsler batteries would win the gold medal for noun groups, hands down. Wechsler manuals are hundreds of pages long, table after table of reliability and validity statistics; truly elegant constructions but flawed because of the ideology that sits at the heart of neuropsychological testing. Most of them are birthed in the West in the English language, including the inherent cultural blind spots (just one word for love - really!7-8) with norm groups that are self-selected (very often participants responding to adverts paying them to take part in research) and therefore skewed from the start. English items are translated, often without the rigour that such an exercise demands. I can say this because my doctorate thesis was an evaluation of an Urdu translation of the short version of the General Health Questionnaire, and its 28 items threw up a host of philological issues - not least of which was what to do when a symptom of anxiety has no obvious conceptual equivalent in the destination language9? Is it meaningfill to translate it at all? Answers on a postcard please.
Then, there is the issue of what finds its way into the public domain and why. For a good example of a “battle of the brains” in neuropsychology, look no further than the brawl between proponents of IQ (Intelligence Quotient, as most commonly measured with, yes you guessed it - the Wechsler tests) and RQ (Rationality Quotient)10. Keith Stanovich has long been arguing that even the best IQ tests do not comprehensively tap the cognitive domains, because they neglect the processing errors and unconscious biases of the human brain, brought so com-pellingly to life by Noble Laureate, Daniel Kahneman11. The upshot being that intelligence is just one side of the com, rationality being the other. It is a sobering fact that Stanovich and Kahneman, both heavyweights in their field, have spoken about the role played by prevailing political winds in the making of reputations, research programme sponsorship, academic publication success and test development.
In summary then, the defining strengths of neuropsychological testing have a dark side, the veiy notion that a set of psychometric scores positions a person within a “normal” or “clinical” range can’t be assumed and requires more air-time than it gets. Add to this, the issue that some constructs being measured may not translate meaningfully across cultures and languages, and that the vested interests of established players may be unduly driving developments in the field rather than the science, and neuropsychology is facing a difficult set of existential questions in the 21st century, but it is not alone in that.
For me, neuroscience is to neuropsychology as Marilyn Monroe is to Bette Davies; one bright, shiny, appealing, relatable and sexy, the other challenging, cool, distant, not easy to get along with or easy on the eye. But look under the surface and the differences dissolve. Both women were part of the same system but consciously chose to play their parts differently. Bette presented the idea of woman in all its complexity, no holds barred, warts and all. Marilyn parodied the idea of woman and gave the system the “ideal” it had always wanted, with a cherry on top. However, Bette is remembered as transparent, direct - she stayed unashamedly authentic as she aged and outlived most of her peers. Marilyn is memorialised as a mystery as yet unsolved - she struggled to reconcile what she projected to the world with who she really was and spectacularly self-sabotaged in her prime. And this may end up being the fate for neuroscience too, time will tell.
Tty putting your finger on what neuroscience is and it becomes whatever you want it to be - a chimera. On the outside, it offers the best seats in the house; as human emotions are felt and thoughts formulated. It threatens to bare our “real” reactions to the world, not by way of post-hoc rationalised responses, but unadulterated activations, before there’s been time to put words around them or defences kick in about what’s appropriate to disclose. Nemoscience in this guise presents itself as pure, almost virginal. It is so tempting to believe that after a century of looking for it, we have finally found the holy grail - a portal into the psyche.
But on the inside, neuroscience is based on technology that is quite frankly dehumanising. It is difficult to get across just how much, unless you have experienced it. I wonder how many nemoscience enthusiasts have been inside an MRI seamier for brain imaging. I have, several times, and I’ve counselled patients going through pre-operative scanning many more besides. Locked into a heavy skullcap, you slide deep into the narrow tubular machine, the dimensions of which may well trigger till then latent claustrophobia. Your head must be kept completely still for long stretches at a time because the image is so easily corrupted. It is so noisy that even with earplugs in, your head soon starts to throb. And this, when all you are required to do is nothing.
MRI protocols in neuroscience research are a variation on the same theme; participants are asked to look at or listen to a series of stimuli, and to respond by pressing button(s) on a manual console. It surely remains one of the most inhospitable places on earth in which to demonstrate sentience. Not to mention that our responses to isolated stimuli inside a seamier have near zero ecological validity, because in the real world, we are incessantly flooded with inputs and therefore constantly filtering what is deemed important to us by brain systems that largely have autonomous control of our executive functions and attentional resources. And yet, we are asked to accept that how people respond to carefully selected samples of pictures and sounds inside a seamier is an uncontaminated reflection of then innermost functional states. I confess I struggle to believe. But then, I am dubious by nature and disbelief comes easily to me. So, let’s not write it all off without further consideration.
As for the lens that it provides on human experience, nemoscience is nothing if not a kaleidoscopic phenomenon. There are strands of neuroscience endeavor that do suck me in; the type of research that’s harder to condense into splashy media headlines. I remain enamored with studies that have demonstrated grey and white matter changes in the brains of novices after a few weeks of juggling12, I have an abiding affection for studies that show hippocampal plumping in taxi drivers learning “the Knowledge”13, and I can’t get enough of work that shows how much adolescent brains sprout and self-arborize during puberty14.
In short, I love the idea of neuroplasticity across the life span - it is such a delightful and hopeful neuroscience discovery, not least because I am 50+ and not ready to resign myself to decaying brainpower just yet. But this type of neuroscience has been allotted a place in my heart for another reason - because it conducts itself like other sciences I trust. And like most neuropsychologists, these nemoscientists are humble and transparent in the way they acknowledge the theoretical assumptions made in generating hypotheses, justify their choice of methodologies, situate their work in extant knowledge and qualify the conclusions reached. In short, they have form.
We can’t ignore the fact that we live in a world where in a matter of mouse clicks, a single study can parachute into the public domain dressed up as a genuine new discovery. Here, I am veering into the territory of how science is reported in modem day times. The first exhaustive look at this makes compelling reading15, in particular, the perils of “neuro-realism”, whereby coverage of fMRI findings renders the “phenomenon uncritically real, objective or effective in the eyes of the public”. Bottom line - if you want people to believe that your story is based on substantive science, liberally sprinkle with some neuro-dust! Before you know it, you may be influencing policy decisions for decades to come16.
But if nemoscience is not to go the way of politics post-spin and journalism post-fake news, bona fide neuroscientists must take more control of the narrative, and in so doing, wrest power from slick-sounding pseudo-scientists whose commitment to the scientific process starts and finishes with the investment they can attract, the IP they can commoditize, the interventions they can sell to naive clients and the public profiles they can build for themselves.
In terms of the lens on the human experience provided by nemoscience, as an executive coach, I wholeheartedly accept that a technology that was originally designed to show us the microstructure of the brain is shedding light on how the cellular composition of the brain changes over time. It’s the pennutation of imaging as a window on human functioning that I still have a problem with. Too often neuroscience findings about complex emotion states such as empathy, or multi-dimensional constructs such as leadership, are emphatically reported as meeting the benchmark for scientific fact. But look at the original imaging studies and you will find they come laden with phrases such as “may be associated with”, “could be linked to”, found to be related to”. And there is a very good reason for that.
Slightly to the left of the world of brain imaging is the world of brain simulation. Rewind to 2014 when the multi-billion Human Brain Project (with the overarching aim of building a complete computer simulation of the brain) was signed off. Hundreds of neuroscientists from across the world signed The Open Letter to the European Commission expressing concerns that the project was ill defined, if not misguided. You would think that the debacle that followed17 would wake everyone up to the fact that we don’t know how bits of the brain give rise to the doings of the brain!
I’m sorry to burst the bubble for neuroscience fans but we remain clueless about how clumps of brain cells are related to even the simplest of cognitive tasks. Prof. Gary Marcus crystallises this beautifully:
we know that there must be some lawfill relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws. We don’t know, for example, whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do18.
Oft-quoted Prof. Susan White sums it up for me: “Functional brain imaging is like trying to understand how a complex organisation works by measuring the electricity usage in different rooms”19. It is about time that serious questions were asked about the integrity of neuroscience methodology itself, and thank goodness, that is starting to happen. YongWook Hong’s investigations into false positive neuroimaging being a case in point20.
So, it’s not that academics haven’t pointed this out time and time again21, or that we lack outspoken authoritative critics of neuroscience flim-flam22, it’s just a sad truth that complexity doesn’t have the same appeal for humans that silver bullets do. Neuroscience sells because somewhere deep inside we desperately want a shortcut to understanding what makes us tick. And there isn’t one . . . but we still allow ourselves to be seduced by pretty colour's on grainy brain images, over and over.
And so, to the relevance of neuroscience for coaching practice. If you are a practitioner who has more questions than answers about life, love, happiness, success, etc. - you can endlessly riff with clients on why we can’t resist the temptation to make everything simpler when great minds have cautioned against it23, neuroscience being a prime example. If you are a coach who believes in neuroconstructivism, there is no end to rich conversation on the lifelong bilateral relationship between neuronal wiring and the environment. If you are a coach who enjoys using allegory in your work, you can have hours of fun swapping neuroscience metaphors with clients, for example, the Chattering Monkey of Steve Peters24 or the Testosterone Rex of Cordelia Fine23.
And the list goes on - neuroscience as a lens on human behaviour can find its way into client conversations in myriad ways, as well it might. It is often interesting, even if it is not always relevant26. It’s when it becomes the ballast of coaching that it becomes limiting. Given we don’t have a good theory of how the brain works, the belief that the fullness of human experience can be illuminated through neuroscience is misplaced. Good neuroscience can help to affirm laws of human behaviour that have been received wisdom for almost a century27. Bad neuroscience does suck up disproportionate amounts of funding, generate unhelpful media pap and create umiecessary white noise. Both ways, it is a one-trick pony. So, at this juncture, please do ask yourself how you’d respond to a client asking - so what if blood flow to a certain brain region increases in response to a stimulus? If your house of coaching is founded on the leaps of inference so often made in the name of neuroscience, you have built your house on sinking sand.
One of the first lectures I attended as an undergraduate in 1985 was on the philosophy of science. I count myself immensely lucky to be introduced to this so early in my professional life. It was clear from the outset that I would have to get used to the fact that my chosen subject, psychology, sat squarely in the grey area between positivism, inteipretivism, critical realism and social constructivism28 because psychology is the study of human behaviour in the round. Over the past 30 years, working as a psychologist has been instrumental in teaching me a fundamental life lesson: the art of non-attachment. I am less wedded than ever before to being “a psychologist” and all the debates that go with it; whether psychology is a hard or soft science, the merits of quantitative vs. qualitative research, the replication crisis, voodoo correlations, etc.
The older I get, regardless of whether I am seeing patients or business executives, I find myself dealing with people jirst trying to come to terms with being human. And to help me to help them, I have found myself more and more often turning to those who went before me for guidance. And what a source of comfort they are. Recently29, I was reminded of the decades long dialogue between the founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung and one of the pioneers of quantum physics, Wolfgang Pauli30. These and many other “elders”31’32 have found a modicum of peace in later life by accepting the truth inherent in the ancient Indian parable, Blind Men and the Elephant. It behoves seekers and healers everywhere to acknowledge and continually remind themselves that we are all essentially navigating in the dark and playing a bit part in a show that is so much bigger than we can hope to comprehend in a single lifetime.
I am certain that coaching is at its strongest when it bridges between different fields. And it is wonderful to see the discipline moving away from black box coaching interventions to narrative approaches that acknowledge the seen and unseen landscape within which coaching takes place33. We are leaving behind an era anchored in the belief that mono-specialism upwards is the surest means to advancement. We are entering a new age when integration across will be key. There is growing awareness that disciplines able to accept this with humility will endure and those that position themselves, as somehow at the forefront of human evolution will wither34. With that in mind, my intention has been to share a little of what goes on in my head when I read anything neurorelated, with the hope that it might be of some use to you. If it hasn’t been, just ignore what I have written - I won’t take it personally - well, I might but I’ll get over it.
1 Stavropoulos, K.K.M. & Alba, L.A. (2018) ‘It’s so cute I could crush it! ’: Understanding neural mechanisms of cute aggression. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12: 300.
Hemrajani, N. (2018) wr’i'w.bbc.com/capital'story/20180810-how-cities-trick-you-into-better-behaviour
Bokyeong, K., Yoon, S., et al. (2018) Dopamine D2 receptor-mediated circuit from the central amygdala to the bed nucleus of the stria tenninalis regulates impulsive behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(45).
Lindstrom, M. (2008) Buyology: Truth and Lies about Why We Buy. Doubleday.
Salmon, D.P. & Bondi, M.W. (2009) Neuropsychological assessment of dementia. Annual Review of Psychology, 60: 257-282.
Lomas, T. (2016) The magic of untranslatable words: Building a positive cross-cultural lexicography. Scientific American.
Riaz, H. & Reza, H. (1998) An evaluation of an Urdu version of the GHQ-28. Acta Scand 97:427-432.
https://thepsychologist.bps.oig.uk/volume-27/edition-2Avhat-intelligence-tests-miss Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar Strauss and Giroux.
Draganski, B., et al. (2004) Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature 427: 311-312 and Scholz, J. et al. (2009) Training induces changes in white matter architecture. Nature Neuroscience 12: 1370-1371.
Maguire, E.A., et al. (2000) Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 97: 4398-4403.
Blakemore, S.J. (2018) Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. Doubleday.
Wastell, D. & White, S. (2017) Blinded by Science: The Social Implications of Epigenetics and Neuroscience. Policy Press.
YongWook Hong, Yejong Yoo et al. (2019) False-positive neuroimaging: Undisclosed flexibility in testing spatial hypotheses allows presenting anything as a replicated finding. NeuroImage 195: 384-395.
Tallis, R. (2014) Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity’. Routledge.
www.theguardian.com/science/2008/nov/23/human-behaviour-science-dementia Einstein, A. “Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, But Not Simpler ” is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein by Roger Sessions of The New York Times, 1950. Peters, S. (2012) The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme for Confidence, Success and Happiness. Vermilion.
Fine, C. (2017) Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society. W. W. Norton & Co.
Giant, A. & O’Connor S. (2019) A brief primer for those new to coaching research and evidence-based practice. The Coaching Psychologist 15: 3-10.
Understanding Research Epistemology’. Presented by SGCP on January 29th, 2019. Sabbadmi, S. (2019) The I Ching, Synchronicity and Time. Presented at Science and Medical Network London Group on January 21st, 2019.