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  • Jeremy Stunt

Ontological Coaching and Neuroscience

By Jeremy Stunt

“Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.” – Albert Einstein

Philosophers and scientists have been grappling with the workings of the human mind for over 2,000 years but more recently neuroscience has begun to make real progress in explaining how our brains operate.1 This has contributed to a surge of interest in the application of neuroscience to coaching and leadership development in business. In this article I want to examine what neuroscience has to offer Ontological Coaching.

Through coaching to Way of Being, Ontological Coaching seeks to expand the cognitive ability of clients. Human cognition is much more than what happens in the brain – it is what happens in the nervous system, which is throughout the body. The nervous system is that part of our biology that is responsible for how we perceive and behave. Emotions and physiology cannot be divorced from the functioning of the nervous system and change. Sustainable perceptual and behavioural change requires the long-term consolidation of change in the nervous system. Based on Maturana and Varela’s ground breaking Biology of Cognition (Maturana and Varela, 1987), Ontological Coaching integrates language, mood and physiology to facilitate significant perceptual and behavioural change for clients.

Neuroscience typically focuses on the activity of clusters of brain cells allowing us to draw out insights about specific areas of brain functionality. This is very helpful but it is limited because it is a reductionist approach and does not encompass a holistic approach to understanding the process of cognition (Maturana, 1970).

In spite of its reductionist approach, neuroscience contributes to coaching in general, and Ontological Coaching specifically, in a number of ways.

Grappling with enemies of learning

In the business community, many of us have been groomed in a world of rational rules and processes. We are analytical, careful and require a precise, logical rationale for action and may resist intuitive hypotheses. We want to be correct and prefer to work with “hard facts” rather than “soft skills”. Neuroscience contributes to the development of a sound theoretical and empirical basis for coaching to validate it as a method of learning and support in the worlds of business and government.

Neuroscience is beginning to explain a wide range of issues relevant to coaching including:

  • differences between current self and future self (Mitchell et al, 2010);

  • emotions and subjectivity in interpretation and memory processing (Phelps & Sharot, 2008);

  • reframing and its impact on emotional regulation (Berkman & Lieberman, 2009b);

  • the pursuit of goals (Berkman & Lieberman, 2009a); and

  • mentally practising an action rewires the brain (Alvaro et al, 2005)

Ontological Coaching can be a particular challenge for the so-called left-brained amongst us because we may not understand how a discussion about moods (let alone physiology) can be relevant or appropriate in the workplace. Our “already listening” about flaky holistic methodologies and untrustworthy practitioners can leave us in the grip of strong emotional enemies to our learning. One way to overcome such barriers is to acknowledge that some of us are reluctant as experiential learners – we need to be able to make more sense of it before we can try it; we need some “why” and “how” before we can engage. I see this regularly in my work with bankers, accountants, lawyers and engineers. It can be useful to reference the ontological framework with peer-reviewed neuroscientific research to provide well thought through rationale and acceptable evidence. Although this may not dismantle the enemy of learning, it does address their concern for validity. This can then open up constructive engagement with them to explore taking action with moods and posture at work.

Inter-relationship between language, emotions and physiology

Neuroscience is extending our knowledge about the connection between language and action. Experiments show that understanding action verbs (like “eat”, “grasp” or “kick”) requires activity in relevant motor areas of the brain (mouth, hand, foot). This works both ways: activity in motor areas of the brain predisposes language choices related to relevant motor action. Sometimes meaning can only be determined by utilising the motor system such as via gestures. Emotions are linked too: being in an emotional state congruent with sentence content facilitates sentence comprehension (Glenberg, 2007)

Why emotions and body matter

Neuroscience confirms the inextricable link between emotions and body. It also provides a helpful explanation for understanding why we are not always aware of what is going on within us and why attending to our body can be critical for effectively changing entrenched and unhelpful behaviour.

When things are not going as we would like it is always an emotional issue. We have “autonomic sensory-motor repertoires” that generate “emotional action tendencies”, which are linked to sensory processing feedback from the body and the brain (Gordon, 2008). Bechara and Damasio (2005) describe an emotion as a response to one’s perceptions that manifests itself physiologically in ways that “range from changes in internal milieu and viscera that may not be perceptible to an external observer (e.g., endocrine release, heart rate, smooth muscle contraction) to changes in the musculoskeletal system that may be obvious to an external observer (e.g., posture, facial expression…and so on)”. Some physiological changes may combine to have consequences that are noticeable even if only subtly: elevated heart rate and respiration, the diversion of blood from the gut; the constricted intestinal and urinary sphincters, perspiration.

It takes about half a second from the start of the brain’s involvement in an action to its physical execution but for at least the first half of this time we are not consciously aware of it. In practice, we are rarely consciously aware of anyof our actions – we just do them without awareness; in other words we are in action before we are aware of it. Just reflect on the complexity of the neurological activity that sits behind any routine interaction you may have with a staff member or a client. But we can (and sometimes do) pay attention to our thinking and feeling as it emerges from our pre-conscious processes.

Becoming a different observer and taking more effective action can be enhanced by fine-tuning our observations of what is happening with our emotions and physiology. Simple but very useful strategies such as moderating breathing or adjusting posture allow for perceptual reappraisal and emotional change. Even the act of focusing our attention can regulate the amygdala’s emotional and the insula’s visceral processing (Ochsner and Gross, 2007) and adjustments to posture can impact mood via neuroendocrine levels (Carney et al, 2010).

Closing thoughts

Maturana and Varela (1987) have provided a compelling rationale for an integrated approach to cognition. It is encouraging that neuroscience is beginning to build on its reductionist approach by moving towards more integrated frameworks, acknowledging “mechanisms with time courses of activity that span milliseconds to years” (Gordon 2003) and exploring complex interactivity across the brain (Craig 2009). In this way neuroscience complements the ontological approach, opening up new realities for us as learners and helping us to avoid being trapped in less resourceful ways of being.


Alvaro, P., Amir, A., Felipe, F., and Lotfi, B. M. (2005). The Plastic Human Brain Cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28, 377-402. Bechara, A. and Damasio, A.R. (2005). The somatic marker hypothesis: A neural theory of economic decision. Games and Economic Behavior 52: 336–372. Berkman, E. T. and Lieberman, M. D. (2009a). The neuroscience of goal pursuit: Bridging gaps between theory and data. In G. Moskowitz and H. Grant (Eds.), The Psychology of Goals (pp. 98-126). New York, NY: Guilford Press. Berkman, E. T., and Lieberman, M. D. (2009b). Using neuroscience to broaden emotion regulation: Theoretical and methodological considerations. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(3), 475-493. Carney, D.R., Cuddy, A.J.C., and Yap, A.J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 10, 1363-1368. Craig A. D. (Bud) (2009). How do you feel — now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10, 59-70. Glenberg, A. M. (2007). Language and action: creating sensible combinations of ideas. In G. Gaskell (Ed.) The Oxford handbook of psycholinguistics (pp.361-370). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Gordon, E. (2003). Integrative Neuroscience, Neuropsychopharmacology (2003) 28, S2–S8. Gordon, E. (2008). NeuroLeadership and integrative neuroscience: "It's about validation stupid!" NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 71-80. Maturana H. (1970). Biology of Cognition. Research Report BCL 9.0. Biological Computer Laboratory Urbana IL. Maturana, H. and Varela, F. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambala. Mitchell, J. P., Schirmer, J., Ames, D. L., and Gilbert, D. T. (2010). Medial prefrontal cortex predicts intertemporal choice. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23, 857–866. Ochsner, K. N. and Gross, J. J. (2007). The neural architecture of emotion regulation. In: Gross, J. J., and Buck, R. (Eds). The Handbook of Emotion Regulation (pp. 87-109). New York: Guilford Press. Phelps, E.A. and Sharot, T.S. (2008). How (and why) emotion enhances the subjective sense of recollection. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 147-52.


1 I am using the word “neuroscience” to cover studies of the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord) and the autonomic nervous systems (sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric) as well as the extension of this work into social cognitive neuroscience. See Kevin Ochsner’s definition of social cognitive neuroscience at

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