“almost every”

“almost every” is a mathematical catch phrase to warn that even though something is 100% true, there are instances when it is false.

(Smith, L. 2007. Chaos – a very short introduction.) This is the first term in the glossary of that book and it made me laugh. The more I get into my DProf, the more my post-positive (objective) view is unravelling – is nothing what it pertains to be?


Well 2018 ended on a high note. On the 21st December I found out that my Ethics Form had been approved. So, 15 months after leaving Middlesex Uni I am ready to get researching again. Although my research project overall and my understanding are in a much more robust position.

My literature review is now in full flow and I know this because I have stopped reading to understand what is being said. Instead I am reading to see if the book or article has something relevant for me. In this way I have ‘sped read’, or should I say, ‘skip read’, the latest Handbook of Coaching Psychology in three days. Not bad for 580 large pages. What was interesting is that when I went to have a look at the Handbook of Coaching, it had almost identical chapters. So, I thought I’d give that a miss.

Anyway, two chapters appeared to reference the coaching dynamic I am exploring: Ontological coaching and a coaching practice new to me – Compassion Focussed Coaching, which seems to have come from the work of Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focussed Therapy. He has a book called Mindful Compassion which although cheap is exceedingly thick. Richard Boyatisz also seems to have done a lot on Coaching with Compassion. In fact, he gave a lecture on it recently which you can view here. He has an ‘interesting’ style which he explains around the 33-minute point. Both he and Gilbert reference the workings of the brain and how early life, structures much of your brain (and who you are) without you realising. Also, they advocate how sharing information on the brain helps coachees realise that they are not entirely responsible for who they are and that change is possible, which echoes my coaching stance.

For the other approaches in the handbook, the general theme appears to be: that beliefs and experience shape our thoughts and behaviours; that having a good coaching relationship and method will allow obstacles to be explored and overcome; otherwise the coachee was not really ready for coaching or was not truly committed to the coaching goals. Sound advice for most coaching assignments.

l subsequently did a Google search on ‘neuroscience for coaching’, which was depressing. “Neuro-coaching” is definitely a buzz word and there are a lot of them. For most of them, when they describe why neuro-coaching is so different to coaching, I struggled to get it. One said it was different because it was working with the brain. Funnily enough I thought that’s what I’d been doing for the last 20 yrs: working on thoughts, habits and perceptions. It was cringing to read website after website.

Patricia Riddell’s well written and pragmatic chapter on ‘Neuroscience and Coaching’, in the Handbook of Coaching Psychology says a lot. Firstly, it is short. Secondly it mainly says that neuroscience is predominantly underpinning with facts how coaching works and also how a scientific explanation works better for some people so they engage more fully into the coaching. One example discussed is neuroplasticity and how it helps people have more confidence that change is possible. In a few pages she summed up nicely, I thought, the current status of neuroscience and coaching, as does this slightly longer article which mentions that direct neuroscience developed coaching interventions are some way off.

Getting back into the neuroscience reading, ‘Mysteries of the mind’ is a good little Scientific America ebook. It is a collection of quite readable papers on various topics such as ‘Uncanny Sight in the Blind’, ‘The For-Real Science of Brain Training’ and ‘Lab-Built Brains’. At only $5.99 I thought it was a good way to catch up on some recent neuroscience topics from 2017. Although I knew a lot of it, it was useful to keep up to date on the current situation and finding an easy way to do that can be difficult. But as Patricia Riddell says in her chapter, if you are using neuroscience information in some way then you need to stay credibly up to date and ensure that what you are reading is grounded in some reasonable facts.

With that thought, here is a 2018 article entitled: Birth of New Neurons in the Human Hippocampus Ends in Childhood

I’ve also bought ‘The science of thought’ ebook which looks interesting. Its first paper is about the 10 things you don’t know about yourself and I think that is useful to know as a coach, both because you are human and to help with the person you are coaching. I’ve decided I’m very keen on coaches understanding and thinking about the person opposite them. From my literature review much of what is written feels as if it’s about the coach, the mechanics of coaching and what a coach does or doesn’t “do” to a coachee. Although the coachee’s beliefs, values and interpretation of the world are mentioned, the dynamics going on within the person is less written about. I think that is why I found NLP interesting as it is the next level down without going into the word of psychology. ‘Personality Adaptations’ also help and have a good level of depth. Both these give another level of insight into what is causing the behaviour, belief and values a coach may be seeing in, or hearing from, the coachee.

Talking of knowing the other person, and ending on a humorous note (or not), check out this article: Worried You are Dating a Psychopath? Signs to Look for, According to Science

Best wishes for a prosperous 2019,


The Advent Calendar of Neuromyths and more

With work and the coaching-based literature review I have felt somewhat lacking in neuroscience, so to hold off the withdrawal symptoms I went to the British Neuroscience Association’s Christmas symposium on Neuromyths – and it was great. (Talking of withdrawal symptoms, I found this neat video showing how caffeine affects the brain.) The BNA presentations were short and engaging: Lots of laughs and serious messages. So, to be festive, I thought I’d do 24 ‘neuromyths and more’ from my notes:

Cordelia Fine:

  1. Male and female brain articles tend to focus on, and exaggerate, the small small differences between male and female brains. There was a realisation that researchers typically use the phrase ‘significant difference’ when referring to a difference between two very specific things which are often a very very small part of something larger. Therefore, the context is important and repeatedly gets forgotten. It’s a bit like thinking human beings have been around on earth for a very long time without putting that into the context of how long the earth has been around.
  2. Research shows that differences relating to male and female brains get published but the large amount of research showing how similar they are is published far less, as it doesn’t attract readers.
  3. Every so often differences reported in male /female brains can be quite variable depending on the situation. A lot of research does not check out the variations in different conditions to see how stable they really are or indeed, how often the difference occurs.

Emma Yhnell:

  1. Ask ‘so what?’ as many brain training games have no application beyond improving your ability at that game.
  2. It appears the jury is still out on brain training as the results are mixed and advertising can be misleading.
  3. Commonly brain training studies have small sample sizes and can be quite variable which is why we regularly see articles saying that it does and then that it doesn’t’ work.

Duncan Astle:

  1. It seems as if schools often use programmes which have little scientific basis and there are still a number of widely held neuromyths in education. For example, the Top 5 presented, were:
    1. We use only use 10% of our brains
    2. Short bursts of exercise connect the right & left brains
    3. Pressing parts of the body activates the brain
    4. Learning styles – that a preferred learning style (visual, auditory etc) improves learning even though research shows that it’s not true. People believe they learn better but when tested it makes no difference.
    5. Difference hemispheres have different learning preferences.
  2. Research into children with learning difficulties is hard as they have a lot of similarities and cross-over symptoms. Therefore, it is challenging to get a ‘clean group’.

Anne Cooke:

  1. Aristotle thought the brain was a cooling system and that there was no brain at the back of our heads.
  2. Neuroscience is ever-evolving therefore some discoveries become alternative hypotheses, some persist despite being incorrect and some become damaging neuromyths.

Christian Jarrett:

  1. Neuromyths are often appealing, open to interpretation and have a grain of truth. Go and look at what the grain of truth really was.
  2. The truth is often more complex than the over simplified facts reported.
  3. Everyone seems to be racing to apply neuroscience to everyday life when in many respects a lot of research is not ready for that.

Chris McManus:

  1. The left/ right brain is a neuromyth which has been exaggerated and added to across the years but it is an appealing and powerful metaphor often fuelled by its presentation of the two hemispheres. When you are shown models showing the left and right hemispheres ask yourself whether some of those aspects are actually scientifically measurable 😊
  2. Sometimes pictures are flipped to show people as left or right handed to back up the myth. A lot of creative people such as musicians and painters are said to be left-handed when in fact they are not: Beethoven and Bob Dylan appear to be two examples.
  3. Humans are quite different in having lateralised brains, as not many (if any) other animals do. It appears that the right hand became dominant when language happened. Most language centres, but not all, are in the left hemisphere. It seems that left-handedness appeared later.


  1. An interesting presentation on the fact that most of today’s personality profiles come from the Four Humours as the characteristics often match the four personality quadrants. Today the four main neurotransmitters have become the modern-day Humours.

Helene Joffe:

  1. In a research study of 3630 articles it found that 44% were about brain optimisation and 40% were about pathology/ male-female/ criminal brains.
  2. University press departments were also cited as sometimes being part of the problem by including words/ phrases that weren’t in the research paper. So, there is a need for the Researchers to control their own press departments.
  3. As articles move away from the original source, they become more value-based.

My comment – it seems that there is a section of neuroscientists researching how neuromyths are created and propagate in the general population.

David Nutt:

  1. Gave a passionate presentation on anti-depressants which seem to suffer more than most from myths.
  2. A film called Magic Medicine has been made of his psychedelic drug trial which covers the journey three people embarked on to help alleviate their non-responsive depression.
  3. He felt that serotonin gives you resilience against daily life and its ups and downs.
  4. Research suggests, for people with depression, that their self-referential default mode network is in overdrive and focuses on negative aspects of the person. Which I think interprets to, they spend a lot of time ruminating on negative aspects of themselves.

The BNA have created an open-access publication called Neuroscience: Past – Present – Future which is full of different articles. And I found a wonderful booklet that shows you some really close-up views of neurons, etc which I thought you’d like.

Have a wonderful Christmas and my best wishes for 2019 being a prosperous year for you.

On becoming an Author and a Conference Speaker

Well November has been a great month. Yes, an excellent month because my book is now available to buy (via Amazon or Blackwells) and it is everything I hoped it would be. A wonderful comprehensive collection of viable and practical exercises, meeting formats, tools and techniques for managers, with 52 chapters that help managers bring out the best in their people and improve business results. Each chapter is designed to give an informative read and practical application through exercises, reflection, methods and templates. The book has three parts:

Part I is about mindsets that bring about trust and openness, and how to develop them

Part II is about practicing skills which enable you to connect with people

Part III is about using applications that create engagement and participation

I also think it is a great reference book if you attend any Line Manager training as sometimes that covers a lot quite quickly, so hopefully this book will help you consolidate and build on that training. It’s not a book to read cover to cover but it is designed for people to dip into when they are wondering ‘How do I …’. The feedback so far has been encouraging.

Also, it contains useful exercises to help coaches with their coachees. There are chapters on building relationships, maintaining momentum and working with others. So, lots for everyone, I hope.

Secondly, I gave my first formal university conference presentation at the UWTSD inaugural Coaching Conference and it was very well received. Now I can officially say that I am a conference speaker. I was pleased with the feedback from people and noted that one lady had a cram-packed page full of notes, like a mind-map of circles with my name in the centre.

It was really useful to present. I was anxious although I was also very excited to share the story I had put together of how I use neuroscience within my coaching practice. I think that that was the most valuable thing – being forced to think about how to do that and to have to do it. I am somewhat kicking myself as when I practiced it, it fitted into the time slot but in reality I had to cut it short. At least I now know how it goes: I am going to rearrange a few sections then the key parts get said regardless of time slippage. I liked my slide deck too – Ok I admit I am biased – but university faculty seem to think that text heavy, black and white slides work. Although I think they use them as their script, whereas I have a separate script. I also learned that if someone is going to wave helpful yellow (5mins left) and red (2 mins left) flags at me, then they need to be sitting directly in front of me, not at the side as I missed them completely. Anyway, it was great to hear that so many people found it fascinating to listen to: What a great word to hear.

The Coaching Conference itself, was insightful with a rich variety of speakers and topics, including Prof Stephen Palmer and Dr Peggy Marshall who successfully embedded a coaching culture within her US Fortune 66 company. Also Dr Annette Fillery-Travis has started a Coaching Society based from the university and her aim is to create a vibrant community of practice and research.

On the DProf, things have been quiet as work has been hectic – in a rich and energising way – and it has allowed me to think about how I more overtly bring neuroscience into my coaching. I thought about how I need to broach it in a way that doesn’t sound strange or as if I want to show how much I know. In the end, when relevant, I decided to ask them how their brain knows it needs to create that emotion. Usually they look rather quizzically at me and then I say, ‘in there (pointing to my head and theirs), how does your brain know to make that emotion?’ Usually they are curious and it allows me to talk about their brain and how the emotion they are feeling may not have much to do with the current situation on its own but that it is linked to lots of other memories. In this way, I find they are ok to have a conversation that doesn’t feel like therapy but one that allows us to talk about ‘that feeling’ in a more detached manner and how to handle it.

Now I am doing the correct Literature review I am exploring if there is anything else on Self-hindering coachees. This is both exciting and nerve-racking as you’re always worried about finding someone who’s already done the research. So, I was a bit apprehensive in reading Stephen Palmer’s work on Procrastination. However, after reading some research papers I decided that procrastination doesn’t describe the coachees that I have described as self-hindering and I feel able to defend my argument on that. Phew!

I am hoping to get through the Ethics committee soon though as I’d like to start again in January.

I loved this article, “Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD” as it rang so true. I particularly liked number 5 about needing to record everything and even if you think you’ve done that enough, like her, I have found I haven’t. And I now agree with number 14 about presenting your work. It has helped me structure my thoughts and turn data into information.

And I am finally on Twitter (@DeniLyall) as I wanted to follow someone who Tweets on leading digital transformations. My tweets mainly fall into: ones on neuroscience and ones on digital transformation. I am trying to keep them relevant and I really like how easy it is to pass stuff on.

On that theme, these couple of articles caught my eye:

Nature: How automation is changing work

‘Frontiers in Psychology’ article on Neuro Myths

Enjoy 😊

To philosophy and back again

1 cubic mm of brain tissue has tens of thousands of neurons, a billion connectivity sites and 4km of connections (Churchland, 2013). Wow, I still struggle to comprehend that even though I’ve been reading about it for over 4 years now. I think struggling to comprehend the scale of what the brain truly is just from that perspective is partly why we view it as magical, but simplicity at that scale could create the complex behaviours that are us. When it comes down to that level, computers are pretty simple although that simplicity is exquisitely woven together and the end result is pretty impressive.

I’ve enjoyed reading Patricia Churchland’s book “Touching a nerve”. As she is a neurophilosopher it has some interesting discussions which intrigue me. She bravely tackles the conversation about the soul whilst illustrating her points with related information about what the brain actually has to do to get us to behave as coherent human beings. I like how she concludes the soul chapter with “brain science seems to have the leg up on soul science” which cleverly allows for the possibility that soul science may catch-up at some stage. She also covers morality, aggression & sex and warring tendencies with some interesting diversions and thoughts. I agree with her thought that if a criminal pleads that his brain did it and he wasn’t in control, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be locked up for everyone’s safety. In fact, I felt that that type of argument would make it worse for the criminal as he’s effectively saying “I can’t control this problem I have within me”. Currently, with little chance of changing these brain issues, then surely the criminal is effectively saying, I should be locked up. Strange how we’ve taken “It wasn’t me. It was my brain” to imply that the person should be set free regardless of what harm they may cause to others.

However, I found the chapter on consciousness a little unsatisfactory as I felt she didn’t distinguish that well between being conscious and knowing you are conscious. Someone put it as ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing you know’. Which without language are pretty hard to research. She did talk about being conscious through images rather than auditory (that voice in your head). I gave it a go but unfortunately, I needed the voice, like a narration about the images. Although a colleague gave a different perspective on that today. She said that at times she had a feeling about someone that, say, she didn’t trust. We then debated whether she needed to name the feeling with language and what it meant, or whether it remained just a known feeling.

Also, if you can ‘know you know’ without language then it makes me wonder whether an animal knows there is a tomorrow or that it’s going to die? Perhaps that’s too far but do they know another animal in their group has just died, which doesn’t require a sense of time. It’s an intriguing puzzle to ponder on: whether different animals have various greater or lesser forms of being conscious depending on how much ‘processing ability’ and ‘storage’ they have.

Just attempting to think about what that would be like was difficult. I can do ‘just being’, where I am just getting on with stuff and time seems to not be on my mind – I am just doing, absorbed. But having a lesser form of ‘knowing I know’ was hard to compute. For a seemingly objective subject neuroscience certainly wanders into the subjective.

On another note, I am developing my presentation at the UWTSD Coaching conference in November: What angle am I going to take from my research? My supervisor suggested that people would probably like to understand, as a coach how am I using the neuroscience knowledge that I am learning? Good question, very good question. The essence of the question is “well it’s great that you know a lot about the brain, but how does that help your coachees?”

Anyway, fear and determination made me really think about pulling something together and a new coachee provided just the catalyst I needed. This coachee is successful and a cautious decision-maker; they like enough information and time to reflect. When they think about having to make a decision faster than they would like and with less facts, then they feel anxious. Perfect.

So, once we’d explored the situation and set the outcomes etc, I sat down and proffered that I believed it would be useful to know what we might be up against – how they might be self-hindering and thwart their own progress. I’d thought beforehand about doing this and decided to only explain as little as I needed to. I’ve never believed in needing to use lots of big neuroscience words when ‘a part of the brain’ will suffice. Also, I decided to start by asking them if they’d really thought about how the surge of anxiety was actually generated and why? It seemed a good way to raise their awareness to needing to understand this a bit more with respect to their coaching goals.

We discussed neural pathways being shaped by experience and the need to navigate life when younger; how strong emotions from years back are triggered in current situations; how those neurochemicals affect threat level and cognitive ability. To understand the seemingly conflicting dynamic that a surge of anxiety may not be appropriate for the current situation, but it will drive your actions unless you can start to erode into that emotional response. It allowed us to explored quite targeted actions for reducing anxiety and therefore have a chance of experimenting with faster, less-informed decision-making.

I also felt that they then knew what I knew; that we both understand the task ahead and what may hinder its progress. Also, as it was more factual, it didn’t feel at all like a therapy session or became uncomfortable: It was insightful for them.

Hope or Hype – what a difference a letter can make

Recently a colleague introduced me to the work of Sarah McKay, a neuroscientist in Australia who has decided to use her knowledge for practical application rather than just research. Her focus is mainly around being healthy towards your neurobiology which I think is starting to become a big topic. If there’s one thing that all this focus on neuroscience seems to have done, it is to bring attention to the detrimental effects of some of our workplaces and working habits. Otherwise it is a hidden consequence that we may well realise when it’s too late.

Sarah has a wealth of useful and pragmatic articles and links as well as running a distance learning programme herself, which I was thinking of doing although I’m a bit tied up with work and DProf at the moment. I have found the articles to be balanced around hype and hope which is refreshing. I’m definitely more cautious on neuroplasticity conversations and it is interesting to ask people what they mean when they say ‘neuroplasticity’, as many aren’t sure.

On the other hand, I am getting much more comfortable with people’s diverse views/ opinions when they are quite sure they are right (and therefore you are not right). I’ve had to rewrite my Ontology/ Epistemology (what information is appropriate for this research) section in several versions requiring different word limits and I am really embracing Interpretivism, as every time I rewrite the section I think about it some more. (And I wish universities would consolidate their forms – is 500 vs 300 words really that big a deal for the form, as it really is for the writer especially when it’s already been cut from 1500.)

Somewhere along the rewrites and thinking about how much neuroscience really is an interpretation – an educated guess – at the moment, a shift happened. I’ve realised that many of the articles and neuroscience TEDTalk presenters I’ve allowed myself to interpret as being very certain and sure about what they are espousing. Although it’s easy for that to happen if you choose to leave out (given the time constraints or word limits) the aspects that are less certain or cast doubt. I’ve read enough material now which includes the left-out aspects to remain hopeful but not hyped and I believe overtime firmer ground will be established.

So overall, I am now much happier with someone’s opinion really being just an opinion no matter how it’s stated. It’s quite liberating and I can see the difference it makes as I am less phased by those conversations now – I am much less affected by their certainty in how right they are. In fact, I had one yesterday during a coaching session where I might have backed off but I waited calmly whilst the coachee finished and then just as calmly stated my thoughts. It was much easier to wait and listen knowing it was just a view, an interpretation and I didn’t need to rush with my version. Both views ‘sat on the table’ with equal weight and I could see the coachee reflecting on each and contrasting them both. I don’t think he was used to people giving unconditional opinions and it allowed us to have a more balanced conversation afterwards.

For my first Literature Review book, I have read “The Power of Habit” (Charles Duhigg) which is very readable and is quite different to Kotter’s 8 Steps of Change. He does occasionally mention parts of the brain but I wondered why he bothered. In the end I decided that it helped support his premises surrounding habits and habit change. He focuses on ‘Cue – Routine – Reward’ and has these thoughts on changing a habit:

  • It’s vital to find the Cue – and use it to trigger a different habit or to avoid it
  • Experiment to understand what the Reward actually is – going to buy a cookie could be for the sugar rush or a break from boredom or to chat to friends
  • Practice, practice, practice the new Routine – it won’t change otherwise as you’ve practised the old routine a lot (Do coachees try to cheat this step??)
  • Change the Reward in some way if required especially if it’s unhelpful
  • Plan upfront on how to handle when it gets difficult and what might make you give up on the new Routine (I think this could be so useful in the coaching I do)
  • Wrap something new in the familiar as we like familiar (Interesting thought for my coaching too)
  • Enlist support and involve others, as making it social helps
  • Recording what actually happens can in itself cause change to happen. Apparently, people who consistently over time record what they really eat, lose weight much faster. It seems that they can plan ahead so the changes have a better success rate

For organisational change it was interesting to read about how the strong and weak ties between people and groups can also enable change. Weak ties cause habits to spread to more groups easier. Strong ties make it more compelling for people to want to or to have to change. He uses different well-known cases studies to illustrate the point and I found those as fascinating as the point they were illuminating.

On a final note, (UWTSD) the Wales Institute for Work Based Learning (WIWBL) is delighted to announce its inaugural one-day Conference on Coaching and Mentoring in the Workplace: Linking performance with wellbeing. It will be an interesting day. Please take a look at it here.

The personal development side of a doctorate

August has been about the Literature Review. Typically, this is Chapter 2 of the Thesis and I decided to approach it as I had done with Chapter 3 and understand its purpose first before I launched into just reading things. Now I have realised that each part of the thesis is about proving yourself as a researcher and not just peripheral stuff to the research, I am looking at things differently. Would I have done a DProf if I’d known it was about ‘training’ to become a researcher? Not sure although it is counterbalanced by the access to, and need for, some interesting conversations and reading material.

The literature review is important as it basically sets out to see if anyone else has answered your question before and why it’s worth doing. Although I have been reading lots on neuroscience, what has become clear is that my literature review needs to be about ‘coaching change-hesitant clients’, which I am less keen on doing, it has to be said. One reason why most of us were nervous about doing the Lit Review is because we were worried that someone else had in fact worked on our beloved mission. This unfortunately guides you to prove yourself right (this research is needed) rather than reviewing what has been done on the subject already.

As with chapter 3, the value and purpose of doing a literature review was useful to consider. I have now taken a step back from my topic and I’ve thought about it from the reader’s or examiner’s viewpoint: If I was them what questions would I have regarding the credibility of the research and the need to do it. Or ‘What’s the landscape around this?’ So, my questions are looking to explore what coaching literature there is on change-hesitant clients and how to work with them. Also, what mind/brain models are there in the coaching literature and what makes them useful. I also felt it was beneficial to widen my reading into related fields such as therapy and personal change.

The second aspect is around neuroscience and coaching. For example, how has neuroscience come into the coaching literature; is it adding value or not; how is it being used to help practitioners and whether there are neuroscience models/ partial models of the brain being used. I think this is a comprehensive review although I am a bit worried that it is a bit too comprehensive.

Just writing out these questions and putting myself in the shoes of the reader has really helped with detaching myself from the topic. It took a bit of doing, to let go, but the shift came from thinking about what I would want to know about my colleagues’ DProf topics. That was easy and it made me really curious about what the answers would be for my topic, which surprised me.

I wondered how this would be helpful to my coachees. How could we explore the same issue elsewhere/ for others without creating caveats when they returned to themselves? I think for some, getting that mental shift, to being calmer, would be helpful although you really have to have detached rather than think you have – this is worth striving for. Having done that myself has re-demonstrated the power of doing it. This is why I think it is important for a coach to be coached or to do some form of experiential CPD as you ‘feel’ the effect it has rather than just theorising about it. (Reconnecting to the magic of coaching)

Have we got carried away with ‘everything must be digital’ and ‘quick’ – “that’s want people want”? There are a few articles appearing which are exploring the consequences of that. Here are two that grabbed my attention: Exam results and Social interactions

I’m also transcribing the interviews conducted in July, which has been quite an eye-opener. Like most people I dread listening to myself and facing-up to how that comes across. Added to this – my system also recorded the video! So when I replay the recording, I get to see myself and the interviewee! Luckily the transcribing software (Express Scribe), if minimised, has a small video window. And when I am transcribing I look mostly at the keyboard and focus on the talking. However, once I got into it, I started to peek at the video and saw myself as the interviewee would have done – that was very useful and I have already made some adjustments from it. Again, detaching myself and seeing myself as if I was the other person was very helpful. Somehow when I am Skyping, because it is live, I don’t get that same experience. I am so glad I had to do it and glad I could do it privately.

But I couldn’t escape hearing myself: I was certainly nervous on the first interview – unbelievable how many times you can get ‘kinda’ into a paragraph 😊. On the upside, it wasn’t just me, the interviewees had their own ones as well, especially as they were having to think on their feet in answering my questions. The one striking thing is that almost 90% of the sentences, mine or theirs, started with ‘so’ or ‘and’. Yet, I didn’t notice it during the interview, it just flowed.

Transcribing is slow and a 40min interview is taking around 10hrs. I have a foot pedal for stopping/ starting the recording and the software allows me to slow down the speech so I can type more continuously. However, despite my diligence – as I thought – when I played the recording back through to check I had everything, I was stunned at some major parts I had left out. Sometimes up to 5 or 6 words. It was an impactful demonstration of what I thought and what actually happened. Also getting the punctuation is difficult and can really change the meaning of the text. I now have much more admiration for people who do this, particularly if they were not involved in the conversation.

Researching at last

July has been a refreshing DProf month for researching and reading. I have now completed two sets of pilot interviews. The first set were people known to my supervisor. They weren’t totally in my area but they were really valuable for learning about the interview process. Apart from valuable research information, they also gave feedback on the process and logistical aspects. The second set of pilots were with two neuroscience Professors who responded to my invitation email – 2 from 35 invitations isn’t bad.

My learning so far: The embedded link to Skype-for-Business isn’t as user friendly as I thought but I need to use it as the recording facility is reliable. With 3 out of 4 interviewees struggling with it initially I’ll need to put in some simple guidelines on connecting to it. Actually, I could do a side piece of research on the profile of who can and can’t easily use the link in the invitation! I reckon you can all guess which stereotype finds it easiest as it’s the one I think we’d all guess it to be when it comes to being tech-savvy.

I also refined opening the interview by reiterating the invitation email and situating my research in the coaching of change-hesitant coachees. The latter helped me focus the conversation much better so I am glad I was forced to get my head around it. In fact, both the Professors referred to it which helped to guide and anchor the discussion.

Everyone was very generous with their time. Having asked for just 20 minutes, all gave around 40-45. I was very grateful for that as 20 minutes on this topic only just gets people warmed up. I am going to regret it when I type up the transcripts though. I have found that initially the conversation is quite conceptual and I have had to push it down in to ‘So how does that actually happen in the brain?’. I then noticed a little pause – almost of surprise – and then they give me what I am really looking for and talk about a variety of mechanisms and caveats. I am really pleased that I read that Neuroscience textbook last year as it made the conversations much easier.

There are two things I have really loved about having these conversations so far: Firstly, it is just a conversation where ideas are given, explored and questions are proffered and answered. As someone commented, it must be nice not to have to talk in words of just one syllable – so right (lol). Secondly, they are very down to earth people and are clear about the constraints of their research and how animal research is difficult to use for hypothesizing about human aspects. A refreshing change from all the neuro-hype.

On the down-to-earth and refreshing reading side, my supervisor recommended ‘Neuro’ by Rose and Abi-Rached. A very different book as it is about the history of neuroscience blended with a critical review of some of its emerging themes, directions and assertions. It picks up on some of my favourite themes – medical hypes that have little foundation, neuroscience as court evidence, lab settings affecting experiments that deal with the brain and the blurring of the use of the words ‘the self’. Although I need to be careful here otherwise I might undermine the very research that I am conducting but it does bring home that neuroscience is a very interpretivistic science at the moment. (A useful reference for my Chapter 3 claims on epistemology and methodology.) One of the sadder facts is where it says that most research aimed at helping with mental illness has in fact not generated many new medical practices. Thus we are still using drugs from many years ago as they are the best we have.

Another book, which will provoke outcries, is called ‘How emotions are made’ (Lisa Feldman-Barrett) although I enjoyed it. Basically, she is differentiating between us labelling something as ‘fear’ verses it being a collection of responses due to a stimulus. It is the same as LeDoux where he splits apart the feeling of fear from the threat response. Part of their thinking is that a mouse, for example, has a threat response but we don’t know if it feels fear as we can’t ask it. We tend to ascribe fear to the mouse through our interpretation of what we see it doing but that is us ‘humanising’ things. What was fascinating is that she talks about more recent research verses older research on archetypal emotional faces. Effectively it appears that the older research which concluded that there were universal emotional faces which everyone recognised isn’t entirely true, well not true at all if you concur with Lisa. Here it links back to the ‘Neuro’ book and Lisa talks about how the research wasn’t actually as ‘clean’ as it espoused.

She believes that we learn during childhood that a certain collection of responses are labelled as ‘fear’ or ‘joy’ or ‘sadness’ and that the actual reactions for a feeling are quite diverse: Think of different joy responses such as a big smile or wide-eyed and open-mouthed. She feels that the standard faces are unusable just as the average family having 2.4 children is fairly meaningless. She also covers how feelings affect the decisions we make (don’t get a court appearance just before lunch/ make sure the interviewer holds a warm drink) and our behaviours which is worth a read. She also discusses how much the brain uses concepts to group things together such as colours in a rainbow. Most of us see it as 6 distinct bands when really it is a gradient. Russians view it as 7 distinct bands as culturally they view light blue as a different colour to dark blue, as green and blue are viewed differently. This she suggests makes colour a cultural thing not a reality.

This links nicely to an article discussing how children beat computers on some tasks and how far computers have yet to go.

Being honest: Learning or just watching?

Well you’ll be pleased to hear that I have conducted the first interview for my Delphi study. I was very appreciative as well that the participant gave me some useful feedback. I have my second one next week and again the participant has kindly agreed to talk to me afterwards about the interview process. Then the week after I have a third interview with a neuroscientist who responded to my invitation. As a Course Director at Oxford put it: “If they are interested in the topic Deni they will agree to participate”. It was said in a very matter of fact way, which made me think that we are rarely like that in the world of business. Their sub text was, ‘let go of trying to persuade them to participate and concentrate on making it interesting to them’. Maybe we should do more of that in business: How much effort do we put into persuading rather than attracting – push rather than pull. Deep down we know that the latter is more effective and yet we continue with the former far too much.

Now I am sourcing the equipment for transcribing the recording as my DProf colleagues are united in the advice that doing it yourself is really valuable in helping you appreciate what was said. Which leads me nicely into the ‘A Brain for business: a brain for life’ book I mentioned last time. O’Mara has pulled together an overview of many neuroscience concepts and texts in a useful way. It also means that if you haven’t previously read much on the topic then he brings it altogether for you, citing the most pertinent aspects. I was reassured to see that he is referencing many of the books and papers that I have read. His referencing is excellent so if you want to read more you can.

I’ve got to chapter 8 on Performance and Expertise and I felt it was worth sharing. I think I have written about this before but feel the need to reiterate the message. From O’Mara’s book, the ‘Making it stick’ book (which he also references) and other papers on learning, there are some strong themes coming out:

  • Learning is not about reading and reciting. To strengthen the synaptic pathways and embed the learning, it needs to be retrieved and used and consolidated.


  • It needs practice, especially if you are changing something. We appear to mean something quite distinct when we mention ‘learning’ and yet the brain learns all the time – it practices all the time. Then we seem to think that a 30-minute online presentation means we have ‘learned something’.


  • Sleeping on it really helps.


  • Little and often works best especially when the learning is mixed up rather than completed in logical order. At first this seems counterintuitive but it makes you work harder at retrieving the information from your memory and that helps you learn better. Of course, I am assuming that long term understanding and application are your goal rather than ticking a box to say you have watched an online presentation.

Yesterday I found it useful to position the change my coachee was attempting to make akin to learning to drive. In many ways it is very applicable to many things we attempt to learn through training courses. Also most of us would agree you are unlikely to pass your driving test if we employed the same learning strategy we take with management development training.

I also think that this style of learning might suit Millennials better and to be fair, having watched two boys grow up, I think they have been saying for a long time that the way we learn at school is out dated. Self-teaching through finding out stuff on the internet and using forums etc seems to be much more prevalent.

The other thing about driving is that it has a go/ no-go point so there is a real consequence to how much effort you do or don’t put in. This is the same with undergraduates. It has always intrigued me how undergraduates are pretty much self-directed in their learning and development at University. Then at work they soon fall into the passive ‘do it for me’ style of development where others organise development and maybe some of it is taken in and used. I reckon it is about consequences again – no effort, no degree. Maybe we should think more about creating that in work and, as managers, save ourselves a lot of effort and frustration. I suppose the hard part is letting go of those consequences too as we might end up having to recruit again or have difficult conversations.

I think the doctorate certainly falls into the ‘you sort it’ category. Not just from my experiences but also from others’ experience as well. I had a ‘ah-ha’ moment about 3 weeks ago when my supervisor made a chance comment. She said “we’ll make a researcher of you yet”. Lots of pennies dropping – so that is what this is about; it is about being trained to be a researcher and not really about the research I am doing. Now all this other stuff makes more sense. To become a seasoned, credible researcher you need to be able to review other literature and synthesis what it is and isn’t saying; you need to understand the context in which your research sits – what knowledge is appropriate; you need to understand what specific question you are answering and have rigour that your method delivers that; and that you are being ethical and robust in what you do. All the thesis chapters now make sense rather than being annoying side avenues. It would have been helpful to have ‘got this’ two years ago but I suppose ‘better late than never’ comes to mind. So, once you have the Dprof then the real focus on research opens up – because you’ve demonstrated that your research is likely to be trustworthy as you know how to do it.

Are popular applied neuroscience-based books turning a corner?

I’m beginning to see a change in non-academic neuroscience-based books – thankfully. When I first became interested in neuroscience the non-academic books seemed to be peppered with ones jumping on the band-wagon rather than for true practical use: The hyped ‘applicable’ ones often fell short of their promises and erred towards what felt like NLP (just my personal opinion). Most neuroscientists hate the hyped out-of-context claims that we routinely see in the press, as they understand all too well how young, fragmented and rapidly-evolving their field is. I have managed to find some very readable books by neuroscientists which are more scientifically based. These helped to explain the brain’s workings and magic but are less practical.

However, in the last year there seems to be a new breed of book appearing and partly this is because those previous books have brought brain terminology into everyday life. This new breed doesn’t have chapters explaining brain areas, etc, they just use the terms and expect you to know or Google them. They are also starting to credibly attempt and, in many ways, succeed in making neuroscience-based aspects more useful for applying to ourselves.

If you want to get beyond the hype and understand how awesome and yet fallible the brain is, read four books: The tell-tale brain (Ramachandran); How the mind works (Pinker); The myth of mirror neurons (Hickok) and the Future of the brain (Marcus and Freeman).  If you’re interested in the next level down which starts to give you a real insight into the workings of the brain and how that affects behaviour in specific aspects, then LaDoux’s ‘Synaptic self’ and ‘Anxious’ are good as is Deheane’s ‘Consciousness’. If you are very serious about understanding this topic then I would definitely recommend reading a neuroscience textbook such as the ’Principles of neurobiology’ (Lou) as you get a real insight into the busy world inside a seemingly static white-grey mass. And YouTube has a lot of good videos as well such as this ‘home-made’ one on a day in the life of a neurotransmitter.

The new breed of books are, for me, ‘Why we sleep’ (Walker); Cozolino’s ‘The neuroscience of psychotherapy’ and ‘The Business brain’ by Prof Shane O’Mara – which looks good although I’ve only just started it. The authors treat their audience as having a general knowledge about the brain as we do with other systems in the body. I think this change is coupled to the significant improvement in what neuroscience has been able to do in the last 5 years due to its new-found popularity and advances in technology. I think this change in style will go a long way to taking neuroscience literature out of hype and into application. Maybe that’s a bit of food for thought on change programmes in organisations – stop ‘selling it’ and start ‘using it’ as your daily work-life.

I was also sent this link to an article about the (still) common myths of the brain which I wish I could have shown at a meeting I went to last week. A number of these myths were espoused and nodded to wisely by others. Although to be fair to the sports coaches in the article, I think a number of these were pretty firmly held neuroscience concepts 20 years ago. Like Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, when new evidence puts doubt into a well held concept then it can be hard to change public opinion, especially when it appears rationally true – even if the scientific evidence undermines that.

Conversely, I also liked this article written by Dr Mark Stokes, putting the case against the ‘attention-grabbing headlines slating neuroscience and throwing proverbial babies out with the bathwater’: Good on him.  Many neuroscientists must wish that the neuroscience-fad band wagon would move on to something else. When I went to a neuroscience and ethics seminar last year, they focussed on how lawyers were coming to neuroscientists to understand what is and isn’t credible when the defence or prosecution starts using neuroscience to aid their case. Many lawyers do workshops with neuroscientists to help them sort hype from more valid facts and to understand how ‘robust’ those facts may be currently.

On the DProf front things are hotting up. From notes, articles and working through people in university labs, I have around 247 potential neuroscientists whittled down to a top 71 and an initial 21 all from different universities predominately in Europe and the US. The invitation email has been sharpened up now I am actually about to use it and we’ve honed the questions for my interviews to help keep the conversation flowing on a topic most people probably haven’t given much consideration to. This has sparked a multitude of other work to do with logging people and tracking and confidentially and recording and piloting. There’s nothing like having to actually do something to make you understand what you really need to do (back to Change Projects again). Or maybe it’s just good old distraction techniques as I am a bit nervous about response rates given how difficult a colleague of mine found it was to get interviews with surgeons. It can also become a moveable feast as my supervisor has suggested I might, as an aside, in my thesis discuss whether neuroscientists whose native language doesn’t include an option for the Self, biases their thinking. I thought I’d distanced myself from that conversation but clearly not. It’s like Alice Through The Looking Glass, where in walking away from it, I move closer to it.

Also due to how I created my list, I have to write that up. Sometimes I wish I’d just randomly chosen the first 20 names I found as that would take less effort. Conversely, I reckon some DProffers give detailed explanations for their participant choices when in reality that’s all they could get – take it or leave it. Although I have to admit that my 247 includes some ‘they’ll do if no one else will talk to me’ options – lol.


The ‘…isms’ of research

I’ve finally cracked Epistemology: Finding straightforward literature which resonated with me helped greatly. Epistemology is basically about what information you think is adequate and legitimate and I finally grasped that my own epistemological stance was blocking my way forward on this topic: I had been looking for an objective definition of each ‘…ism’ and I realised that this topic is actually quite subjective. Crotty says that there are numerous methods and methodologies and that terminology is inconsistently used and defined – what a light bulb moment. In essence the muddle is how it is and there is no one consistent definition for each “..ism” because it is being treated very subjectively – as long as you can state your case it seems to goes. For example, Constructionalism and Constructivism appear the same in some texts and different in others. Crotty’s Constructionalism overlaps Objectivism and Subjectivism, concluding things are a blend of fact and opinion.

Realising the muddle was ok and I didn’t have to look for a Holy Grail was a liberation: I just needed to pick the ones to underpin my research. So now instead of ending up confused and fraught (which you may be after having just read that section) I’m just going with Crotty’s Constructionalism, as having to choose between being totally Objective or Subjective hadn’t sat well with me so finding something that blends them was a relief. Also, if there’s one thing I understand about Neuroscience at the moment, it is that it’s full of interpretation and in many cases, it can only be constructed, although hopefully it’s doing that using objective research.

So, Epistemology worked on, now time for my Theoretical Perspective which drives your research methodology and is about how you look at the world and make sense of things. Again, it seemed that the main options were quite compartmentalised – now I know why interdisciplinary research is hard work. So, digging further I unearthed Critical Realism. One author has it at the ‘facts might be tainted by research bias’ end of Post-positivism and another author has it at the ‘some things are much more fact based’ end of Interpretivism – perfect. So, I am deciding it is where the two overlap as both definitions are similar: ‘Whilst science can attempt to describe the world factually, that within doing so the researcher brings their own biases and interpretations. Therefore, things can only be known within the bounds of probability.’ Worth keeping in mind when you are reading neuroscience articles.

Having started out by wondering ‘what is the value in doing all this epistemology stuff’, I have discovered that it has helped me become more realistic about the nature of the information I am gathering and creating. And being blocked by my own epistemological bias made me realise that even when you think you clock your own biases that all you actually do is uncover the next layer and there is another one below waiting for you to discover in the future. Tara Swart talking on ‘Neuroscience and Nationalism’ has hope that our ‘in/out group’ biases can be changed, although to date they have been useful for our survival so will changing that be useful or not to our future? Interestingly, I read in Cozolino’s latest book that oxytocin is positively corelated with in-group biases so I wonder how far you can stretch that ‘in-group’ definition.

I think a big part of a doctorate is about making you find your own solid ground and being congruent with your reasons for that. One of the outcomes from this is that I am finding I am much more comfortable with asking people what is behind the question they just asked before I answer it. That has been quite an eye opener as their answers are often different to what I had assumed. That has affected how I have answered the question and, in many cases, how congruent I have been in my answer.

As I have been writing this blog, it’s also made me ponder on some of the realities around coaching. One thought that came to mind was the comment about leaving our biases outside the coaching room. I think the reality is probably closer to, we can do that to some extent although we can only ever be biased. Given we have all had different experiences, and these affect our neural pathways, we can only see things through our own perspective. We can attempt to look at it through others’ eyes, but ultimately, we can never truly do that and being more honest about that could be in service of our coaching.

We also talk about helping clients ‘reach their full potential’ but I wonder who’s ‘full potential’ we are talking about or what we mean by that. I feel that many clients would be happy with just properly embedding the things they want to work on, to improve or deal with their situation. Maybe in many cases the role of coaching is about helping clients to navigate their life now, much of which they didn’t have to handle in their upbringing. Given that much of the brain development happens in our childhood, Cozolino suggests the role of a therapist is akin to that of a parent, in aiding the person to purposefully adapt their neural pathways and make changes. His is also the first book I have read where it seems that the neuroscience is going to be in service of the topic in a meaningful way.

In his video “Nothing magical about consciousness!” Stanislas Dehaene similarly talks about how non-conscious processing influences our actions. It is also a good demonstration of how the same words are used to mean different things: I wonder how many articles on consciousness are really on conscious access? I’m sure that’s nothing to do with gaining reading figures! He mentions how new technology has enhanced neuroscience research and this includes wearable brain scanners which could be a game changer.

The layer below the hype is worth getting to.