Selfhood triumvirate - links between coaching and neuroscience


- Tapio Saarinen-

Heads up for a very interesting paper by Fingelkurts, Fingelkurts and Kallio-Tamminen: Selfhood triumvirate: From phenomenology to brain activity and back again.

This paper, as the title suggests, is about how (sychronous, hierarchically nested) brain activity in certain regions of the brain is connected with the experienced selfhood. In the paper, the selfhood is divided into three mutually interacting components and their neural correlates. Corners cut, these facets of the self can be described as:

  1. Sense of being the witnessing observer of one's experience, "Self"
  2. Sense of bodily self, "Me" and
  3. The reflective agency, "I", which includes having narrative thoughts and inner speech

Why am I so excited about this study? For several reasons. First, it clearly shows that our phenomenological experience, the way we see the world, correlates with what is going on in the brain. In this paper this is probed by purposefully up- and down-regulating each of the three facets of experienced selfhood in turn. This is achieved e.g. by asking the test subjects to focus on their body ("Me" up-regulation) or expand the focus to open space without bodily dimensions ("Me" down-regulation).

During the experiments, EEG recordings were made and the subjective reports of the experience collected. The results nicely confirm an old saying:

"We do not see the world as it is, but as we are ourselves"
-from Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth, Folio 55b

This kind of flexible way of seeing the world is at odds with the harmful, fixed way of looking at things, beliefs in singular, absolute truths.

Second, this study highlights how we can alter the way we see the world. From studies with long-term meditators (among other research), we already know that long-term practice of meditation changes the structure of the brain: states held during meditation turn into long-term traits. As a result, we literally start to see the world through different kinds of filters. There's a fitting saying to this, too:

"We are what we frequently do"
- Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (1926)

Engineering is about poking things to hear them squeak - we try and understand how systems work to be able to change their state for better outcomes. Coaching, too, deals with change. To change what we experience - how we feel - in any given situation, we have basically two alternatives. We can either change where we focus our attention and how we interpret what we see, or we can change how we act in relation to what is going on, thus changing the situation.

One of the synergistic links between coaching and meditation lies in how they facilitate taking alternative perspectives into what is going on. In solution focused coaching, the coach invites the coachee to turn her attention from what is wrong to what can be done. Meditation, mechanistically thinking, facilitates conscious direction of attention. With meditation practice, it becomes easier to focus on wished-for outcomes among the static of distraction our work-life is saturated with. Further, meditation facilitates staying consciously present also in unpleasant situations, a prerequisite of being able to do something about them.

Some of the techniques presented in this study are rather demanding, but some, such as focusing on the body, are more approachable also for beginners. It would be very interesting to see what kind of changes typical coaching questions that aim at changing perspective might cause in the experienced selfhood. What kind of questions, for instance, might best help in taking distance ("I" down-regulation) from harmful rumination (elevated "I") that is known to keep problems well-fed and co-exists with depression? Or the other way around, could we make the mind more receptive for a change by inducing a beneficial state of mind prior to coaching. I think we can, as even shortish settling down practice before a coaching session seems to have a very positive response to how the session goes.

Disclaimer: Whereas I do not have any financial ties with the researchers of this study, I have previously been a test subject in their meditation research (albeit not this one). At the moment, I'm partaking as a subject of a study on the effectiveness of qigong training on brain functioning and experienced health.