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Brain activity confirms the benefits of positive coaching experiences

The process of conducting coaching research has historically relied on asking coaches and their clients questions that reveal aspects of their experience. Instead, Dr. Angela Passarelli explores what happens in the brain on an unconscious level.


In the past, coaching and neuroscience have operated independently


Neuroscience can uncover insights into how coaching benefits people


Understanding brain impact helps coaching continue to develop effective methods

Wisdom Weaver

What we know about the brain and coaching

In interviews, coaching clients describe how being coached helped them increase their self-awareness, strengthen their identity, and set realistic goals to achieve personal and professional growth.  The insights drawn from these interviews reveal how coaching guides individuals to create sustained change in their lives. However, for Wisdom Weaver Dr. Angela Passarelli, personal awareness of change is just the beginning. Her research seeks to understand what goes unnoticed in a coaching session.

“A good deal of existing research has begun to examine the mechanisms of coaching; And predominantly, these factors that exist in the literature are psychological in nature; they are about need fulfillment, self-efficacy, psychological capital, emotional intelligence, mindfulness…and so one way of digging below the surface is to use neuroscience or psycho-physiology to explore what the body can tell us about how positive change and transformation occur.”

Dr. Angela Passarelli

Everything we see, experience, or think is processed through the brain, but not all of it is useful in day-to-day life. While we might engage with memories and opinions actively, the brain also controls things like heart rate, adrenaline, and breathing. To better understand the relationship between the two, neuroscientists use fMRI brain scans to see what parts of the brain light up when interacting with a stimulus. 

Angela’s research examines these same unconscious and non-conscious processes by looking at how the brain reacts to positive and negative experiences in coaching. Using fMRI, Angela and her colleagues can see how different areas of the brain light up on the imaging technology when participants reflect on their coaching experience.

There is room for overlap and interaction between conscious awareness and non-conscious processing. Take, for example, the practice of mindfulness. Individuals can control their breathing, focus on physical experience within an environment, and perhaps even lower their heart rate. Research into PTSD has found a connection between mind and body, noting that patients can suffer from chronic illness and a host of other physical symptoms even if they do not actively engage with their trauma.

Coaching can benefit from the field of neuroscience by:

  • Exploring how positive experiences impact brain response in clients
  • Connecting the interaction between conscious and unconscious processing

Evolving technologies highlight the mind-body connection

Mind-body coaches use psychology, traditional medicine, and spiritual practices like yoga to help their clients define holistic well-being. However, invasive technologies can easily disrupt the intimate nature of a coaching session. Collecting physiological measures in less distracting ways would give a unique glimpse into what is happening in the brain and body during a coaching conversation. Angela suggests a few of the ways neurobiological methods can continue to expand coaching research and practice:

 “It would be interesting to examine [the] impact of health behaviors like nutrition, hydration, sleep, exercise, as either antecedents or moderators of some of these dynamics. Then, of course, there are coaching practices already that specifically address clients in neurobiology practices like breathwork, heart math, body scan, somatic coaching in general, and so these practices may be a place to delve into a broader understanding of these neurobiological mechanisms at play.”

Dr. Angela Passarelli

Coaching and the United Nations Global Goals

As helping professionals, coaches can support United Nations Global Goal 3, good health and wellbeing, by partnering with clients to achieve their maximum potential. Neurobiological research in coaching illuminates how the coaching process impacts the brain and body. Understanding how coaching promotes long-term change in clients will give coaches greater insight into which tools and strategies are most effective. 

About this Convening

Forty-one Wisdom Weavers from across the globe gathered to share their thoughts and observations on Shaping the Future of Coaching across three separate Future of Coaching Convenings in September 2021. Learn more about the participants and topics covered in this Convening.

For the complete report and research recommendations, see Boyatzis, R.E., Hullinger, A., Ehasz, S.F., Harvey, J., Tassarotti, S., Gallotti, A., & Penafort, F. (2022). The grand challenge for research on the future of coaching. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. DOI: 10.1177/00218863221079937

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