Hacking the Brain: Why coaches make such good therapists

The hacker community finds short cuts, fast and effective ways around the system. Hacking has now been applied beyond computers to biology, fitness, skills development and performance enhancement. My interest is in brain hacks – fast ways to create more permanent neuroplastic changes to the brain.

Perhaps you’re attempting to hack yourself: playing Lumosity or other brain games. Maybe you’re seeing a professional to get an advantage. Certain things work better than others in this game. If you’re spending good money, you’ll want to be seeing a “talking therapist” because neuroscience now proves they produce more lasting change than anything else.

A talking therapy is a structured conversation with someone who is trained to help a person deal with their feelings, explore their thoughts, beliefs, behaviour and mood. According to the UK Mental Health Foundation some consultants, most coaches, some counsellors and psychologists fall within the definition. The client may be seeking to hack things as various as trauma recovery, stress regulation, mood stabilisation, effective communication, anxiety reduction, state change or goal attainment.

Talk to me!

Perhaps it’s time to introduce Dr. Pieter Rossouw, neuroscientist at the University of Queensland. His area of expertise is brain based talking therapies. He says, “Molecular neuroscience has demonstrated how talking therapies are the preferred strategies to facilitate neural change. New patterns of neural activation can be facilitated through the unique qualities of talking strategies,” (Rossouw, 2013). So talking therapies are the bomb when it comes to hacking the brain and changing it. But not every therapy is designed equal!

Pieter has found that, “The person of the therapist is more important than how much of a specialist they are, the knowledge base [they draw from] or the insight into bags of ‘tricks’,” (Rossouw, 2013). Great conversations with well structured questions and self-reflective learning will get great brain changes. The therapist’s ability to develop a strong relationship, consider their conduct and build trust are more important than whether they have an ultra-narrow speciality, a hundred years of experience or wield the latest personality inventory tests.

Reference study by rape therapist Matthew Atkinson (client rapport, belief in the process, life experience) Resurrection After Rape (2009).

Now for the quirky neuroscience… The research finds that “the therapeutic alliance, limbic mirror neuron effect and facilitation of safety & control are crucial to facilitate effective neural change” (Rossouw, 2013). Let’s break that down a bit:

Facilitating safety and control

Our brains have a guardian at the front door, which some refer to as the croc brain. Its highest concern is for our safety. For effective brain change the client needs to feels safe and relaxed, assured that environmental issues like: having a glass of water, room temperature, seating arrangements and equal power positions are taken care of.

Reference for safety and control (Oren Klaff)

The therapeutic alliance

Our brains are social and need to be loved, to belong and to be understood. For effective brain change there must be good making and breaking of rapport, maintaining a respectful relationship and a peer-to-peer relationship in which we co-create a conversation. We all want to make our own decisions, actions and outcomes.

Safran, J.D., Muran, J.C., and Proskurov, B. (2009) Alliance, negotiation, and rupture resolution, in Handbook of Evidence Based Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (eds R. Levy and S.J. Ablon), Humana Press, New York, pp. 201-5.

The limbic mirror neuron effect

Our brains have special neurons that cause us to unconsciously mimic one another and enable empathy. For effective brain change there must be empathy, active listening, language matching and equal breathing & body movement. This creates a strong alliance and improves learning.

Original studies done by Giacomo Rizzolatti, “The mirror neuron system and its function in humans,” Anatomy and Embryology, Dec 2005, Vol 210, Iss 5-6, pp 419-421.

Steven Kotler

Coaches are the best hackers

Brain changes are “facilitated by enhancing cortical blood flow to empower solution focused outcomes, and facilitating and strengthening new activation patterns to enhance long term patterns and reduce risk and relapse into default neural protection patterns,” (Rossouw, 2013 emphasis mine). Here then is why coaches, among all others make the best brain hackers. Other forms of therapy (e.g. counselling and psychology) predominantly go into a person’s story, repeating patterns of past pain, and often strengthen old pathways. By contrast coaching is outcome oriented, forward looking and solution focussed. This demands the growth of new neuron connections and thinking pathways.

Whilst just doing a few sessions on Lumosity, or with a therapist can create a sense of achievement, it will usually not last. The effects wear off because old pathways are still strongly embedded. Neurons that have fired together for a long time wire together. You should stick at it for at least 6-8 sessions and follow up work, to create strong new networks in the brain that stand a strong change of sustaining the chance.

Talking therapies are the preferred strategy for better brain hacking and coaches back the best therapists for that. Coaching is so effective at brain change because it is outcome oriented and solution focussed. This demands the growth of new neuron connections and thinking pathways.


Rossouw, P. “The neuroscience of talking therapies: implications for therapeutic practises,” Journal of Neuropsychotherapy in Australia, Issue 24, 2013, pg. 11