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Harnessing Neuroplasticity (Marisa Murray) Transcript

Neuroscience of Coaching – Episode 10

Harnessing Neuroplasticity (Marisa Murray) Transcript

Marisa Murray: Are they well? Do they have energy? Fundamentally, starting point. And then secondly, how do we stimulate the awareness? How do you stimulate the focus in the practice for them to develop a new pattern? And I think that’s neuroplasticity.

Dr. Irena O’Brien: Hi, I’m Dr. Irena O’Brien, and you’re listening to Neuroscience of Coaching. I’m a cognitive neuroscientist with almost 30 years of study and practice in psychology and neuroscience. And as the founder of the Neuroscience School, I teach coaches and other wellness professionals practical evidence-based strategies to use in their own practices.

In each episode, I invite a seasoned coach to discuss a topic that clients struggle with, and together, we provide you with science-based tools to help your clients reach their goals by working with their brains to create results that last. Today, we’re going to talk about neuroplasticity. Now this is something we’ve all heard of, but may not quite know what it is.

So, let’s start with a simple definition. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt due to experience. You may have heard someone say, lay down new neural pathways. That’s neuroplasticity. The brain can change, reorganize, and grow neural networks. Researchers used to think that the creation of new neurons stopped shortly after birth, but now we know that’s just not true. You really can change your brain.

There are two different types of neuroplasticity. The first is functional, where certain functions of the brain are moved from damaged areas to undamaged areas. This might occur after someone has a stroke or a traumatic brain injury. The other type is what we’ll talk about today, structural neuroplasticity. This is the brain’s ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning.

The human brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons. And by the age of three, we have about 15, 000 synapses per neuron. Synapses are the small gaps between neurons where nerve impulses are relayed. When we’re very young, we have a proverbial blank slate where we have the potential to do or be nearly anything.

As we grow up, we gain new experiences, strengthening some connections between neurons and eliminating others. Neurons that are rarely or never used eventually die. By developing new connections and pruning away weak ones, the brain can adapt to the changing environment. Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections.

This is the science behind common phrases such as, use it or lose it, or what you focus on grows. We adults have half the number of synapses we had as a toddler, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost anything. We’ve just become more of who we are, and the brain never stops changing in response to learning. I think this is very exciting for coaches and helping professionals, as we’re in the business of changing brains. All behavior change is brain change.

So how can we help our brain to adapt and change? Number one, enrich your environment. Create opportunities for focused attention, novelty, and challenge, but keep a few things in mind. We learned a lot from a research study of London taxi drivers who passed the very rigorous three-to-four-year training program of London’s 25,000 streets. Those who passed ended up increasing their gray matter volume in their hippocampus. The hippocampus acts as a storage site for spatial information.

So what did we learn from this study? Well, to change your brain, there needs to be a goal. For taxi drivers, it was passing the test. But having a goal is not enough. You must put effort into the learning. If it’s easy, your brain has already been wired for that. You also need repetition over a period of time. You’ve surely seen this.

Successful coaching outcomes require consistent action through practice over time. This could be through performance enhancing techniques, belief change, and other cognitive change strategies. Finally, if you don’t use it, you can lose it. The brain changes may be reversed if you stop using your newly acquired skills. Other factors that help the brain’s plasticity include getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, travel, reading fiction, learning a new language, practicing mindfulness, play and so on. In short, engage in a variety of activities.

So we really have just gotten started on this topic, so let’s dive deeper with my guest, Marisa Murray. Marisa is a leadership development expert and the CEO of Leaderley International, an organization dedicated to helping executives become better leaders. She is a professional certified coach with the International Coach Federation and has numerous certifications, including one from the Neuroscience School.

She’s an author of three Amazon bestselling leadership development books, Work Smart: Your Formula for Unprecedented Professional Success, Iterate! How Turbulent Times Are Changing Leadership and How to Pivot, Blind Spots: How Great Leaders Uncover Problems and Unlock Performance, as well as co-author of the USA Today bestseller, The Younger Self Letters.

Thank you so much for being with us today, Marisa. Before we start talking about neuroplasticity, will you tell us a little bit about your work and how you came to be doing it?

Marisa: Oh, absolutely. Well, I’m so pleased to be together again, Irena. Of course, I was in your program and benefited greatly from it. It really solidified so many amazing neuroscience concepts for me. So I’m excited to be here.

In terms of a little bit about the work I do and why I got into it, I guess I feel like I’m a late comer to executive coaching and leadership development. I started my career as an engineer and doing all kinds of kind of technical roles. I did my MBA and joined Accenture and did management consulting, lots of business transformations, and also was a vice president at Bell Canada in an operations leadership role.

I always think about like the beginning of my career was very much about technical mastery. And then as I became advancing leadership positions, it was about business mastery. But something happened in me sort of later in my career around 20 or more so years in where I realized that it’s really about leadership mastery. Because as you continue to try to maximize your impact in the world, It’s not about you anymore. It’s really about the way in which you’re able to engage your collaborators and the people that you’re on a mission with.

And I became really fascinated in this thing called leadership. So much so that I, I myself had done a lot of leadership training and also had executive coaches and I decided I was kind of inspired to do my own executive coaching certification. And when I was on the other side of the table learning about this, I was like, wow, I’m This is what I didn’t get. I kind of was in my own way sometimes with my coaches. I didn’t think they understood my world. And once I started learning more about what my coaches were trying to do, I was like, oh, I’ve got to bring this to everybody.

So then I, this is all I want to do is just learn about leadership, learn about transformation and learn about maximizing the positive impact people can have on each other and on the world.

Irena: So you also have a great interest in neuroscience yourself, so tell us about that.

Marisa: Well, I guess because I sort of have a technical brain, I will call it.

I went into engineering because I loved chemistry, and I loved math, and I love figuring things out, and I love understanding the nuts and bolts behind how things work. And one of my favorite channels when I was a kid was how things work. It was just small cartoons about how your stapler works and how your toaster works.

It’s always been important for me to understand why things work and how they work for me to be able to engage with it, engage with the world. And I think the brain is something that for a long time, I think people didn’t even question how it worked or think about how it worked. And yet it’s our biggest tool in terms of driving results and outcomes. Our whole experience of living is impacted by the brain.

And so my interest in neuroscience stems from that, just like we all have this tool and we don’t really know how to operate it and we don’t really know how it works. And I find that when we start to understand those things, it just makes it so much easier to develop strategies to navigate the ups and downs of life.

Irena: So it was a natural progression for you then, right, to start learning about how the brain works, right? Because you like to learn about how things work and the brain is the ultimate, really?

Marisa: Absolutely. I feel like figuring out how the brain works is the ultimate how does it work inquiry. And I think that’s us as humans, we’re new on that path. Neuroscience is exploding and continues to bring all kinds of new surprising. That’s what I love about your work, Irena, is that you’re constantly looking for what’s new and what are the new studies and how do we keep learning and applying because this is, you know, we’ve only just begun this journey of understanding.

Irena: Exactly. And I can identify with your progression too. I used to be a tax accountant. And so tax accounting is all about digging into the law to finding and interpreting it to determine what it really means. And so I’m doing the same thing now with neuroscience. So I just keep digging to get to the nugget. Yeah. So I like to match my guests with topics that especially matter to them. So why did you want to talk about neuroplasticity in particular?

Marisa: Well, I mean, you said it in your intro, all change is brain change, you know, behavioral change is brain change, coaching change is brain change. And I see that and neuroplasticity, the outcomes I’m able to drive with my clients is dependent on me stimulating their neuroplasticity.

And I’ve seen that happen brilliantly with many clients and more slowly with others. So I’m always really interested in figuring out what’s the most optimal way to stimulate that natural capability we all have to shift and to learn and to adjust when things aren’t working for us anymore.

Irena: So when you’re working with clients, are you actively thinking about how to apply neuroplastic change?

Marisa: Yes, actually because I’m so fascinated by it. When I’m working with clients, I’m listening to their struggles. I’m listening to their challenges. I’m listening to their reference points, and I’m thinking about some of the things you just mentioned.

Like, are they rested? Are they well? Do they have energy? Fundamentally, starting point. And then secondly, how do we stimulate the awareness? How do you stimulate the focus and the practice for them to develop a new pattern? And I think that’s neuroplasticity.

Irena: Yeah. So do you have any particular tools that you use with your clients?

Marisa: Yeah. So I think reflective inquiry is what coaching is all about, just helping clients really see the patterns, really build that awareness. So I think as a tool, a lot of coaching conversations have embedded in them enhancing the awareness. And then I think it shifts into kind of building up that motivation to change the pattern. And then in terms of getting them to change the pattern, it’s a combination between changing their beliefs and giving them experiences and quick wins and sort of that, what you call in other episodes, maybe that sort of dopamine trajectory of seeing results.

But one of the things that I do think when it comes to beliefs is we do work really hard at understanding like when you’re in a pattern, what is the underlying belief for that pattern and what is a more empowering belief or a different belief that they can lean into and step into. And that’s something that I do with them in particular by scripting their own affirmations, by scripting what they know they need to believe to be able to motivate their brain.

Actually, I don’t know if I took this from you when I was studying neuroscience, I think about the brain is kind of lazy and sort of optimized and kind of being like, is it really worth it to build a neural pathway? It’s kind of asking, can’t we just stay the way we are? And so I think a lot about how do we motivate the brain to stimulate this change.

Irena: So, what I’m hearing from you is that you’re really applying those three rules of a neuroplastic change that you’re developing a goal. Let’s say it’s belief change. There has to be effort in it, and then there has to be practice over time.

Marisa: Yeah, absolutely. Well said.

Irena: Can you share a client’s success story that illustrates what this looks like?

Marisa: Yeah, absolutely. I could talk about any of them, but one of my favorite ones to talk about is David the Difference Maker. So all my clients in my book, Blind Spots, I talk about 21 client stories and each of them have sort of pet names.

So David, the Difference Maker is a very, very senior, amazing partner at a professional services firm. And they call him the Difference Maker because he typically makes the difference on a deal. So if he’s on the project, the client, the deal sells. The delivery is very smooth. The client becomes one of their best credentials and these are large multi month transformations.

Now when I started working with him, although he was the difference maker, he was burning out. He was grumpy. He was sick of his job. He was mad at his fellow partners. And when I interviewed people, they were just like, we don’t know why he sort of shifted. We don’t understand what’s going on with him. And what happened with him is he was running a pattern where they had grown very, very large, and he had this idea that he had to do it all himself.

And so, on the one hand, it was true, he was the difference maker, but on the other hand, his brain had quarter generalized that to, I’m the only one that can do this. And what we started to work on is we were like, how can you actually not be the single difference maker, but how can you be the creator of difference makers? In other words, how can you engage your team or how can you elevate your team or how can you coach and mentor and create?

So in this case, he had to sort of change his perception. He had a tendency, for instance, to jump in, in a sales call and do most of the talking. And he had to proactively change that into positioning his team to do the talking, coaching his team after. The behavior change was phenomenal in terms of what he needed to be aware of and how he needed to basically become a creator of difference makers rather than being the difference maker.

So, that journey took about, we worked together for about 18 months. And what happened is, over time, his people elevated, he was able to scale the business, he started loving his job. But basically, he had to transform almost every single way he executed a meeting, being much more focused on elevating others versus on doing the work himself.

Irena: It must have been really hard for him to bite his tongue during the meeting.

Marisa: Absolutely. Yes. Yes. And that’s the thing with coaching is I think you have to hold your clients a little bit in. And you’re going to do it well one day, and then you’re going to forget. You’re going to fall off the wagon. And then it’s like bringing that intention every single time. I would bring the neuroscience into the conversation and say, you’re building a new neural pathway. You’ve done it once, which is great, but it’s a little weak dirt road versus a highway.

So how do we do it again and do it again until we kind of pave that road into like a superhighway so that that’s your immediate instinct? And I’d say for David, four years later, now that’s his superhighway. He’s always focused on elevating others. And he’s not focused on him being the difference maker in the room, but his people being that.

Irena: So I’m wondering, do you find that they’re using these same techniques that they’re learning with you? Or are they using it in other areas of their lives too?

Marisa: Yeah. I think whenever there’s always awareness, whenever you sort of shine a light in some area, it benefits every aspect of their lives. I always think about a lot of times I’m working on leadership topics and it usually improves their parenting, in particular, because I think like parenting is the mother of all leadership tasks. So the awareness that we bring around parenting, also their friendships, their collaborations, the way in which they can hold space and be more intentional with their relationships. I encourage my clients to practice it in every context. Like the more practice and repetition you can get, the better.

Irena: That’s what’s truly amazing about coaching and neuroscience is that it can affect every aspect of your life.

Marisa: Absolutely.

Irena: Yeah. Once you learn how to do it.

Marisa: Yeah.

Irena: Yeah. So as I mentioned in the intro, in addition to your coaching work with clients, you’ve written a number of books and I just recently read Blind Spots and I thought it was really insightful. So tell us a little bit more about it.

Marisa: I’m not a natural writer, but I write to really organize my thinking and kind of solidify my understanding of things. And so Work Smart is mostly about some of the fundamental things that leaders need to get right. And so I wanted to write that down about three years into my practice. I’ve been doing this now for nine years.

And then for Iterate, I realized there’s a lot of rapid change that’s throwing people off. So I wanted to write down sort of how do you navigate rapid change. And then I never thought I’d write another book again until about two years ago when I was like, oh, there’s this thing, there’s this thing where I want to make it safe for people to recognize that it’s normal to have blind spots and to see that your blind spots could actually be the link to your breakthrough.

Like the thing that if you lean in and try to look, cause sometimes we don’t want to look at our blind spots. We don’t want to hear difficult feedback. But if we think about how that’s probably a guide to your breakthrough, then we have sort of a little more incentive. And so with Blind Spots, it’s my attempt of sort of organizing the types of blind spots I see most frequently with my clients and what transformation is possible for them. So there are seven key areas that I outline in the book. I can outline them if you want, Irena, or go somewhere different.

Irena: Sure. Why don’t you outline them? That would be good. Yeah.

Marisa: Yeah. So the first one is called false assumptions. And, of course, that sounds really straightforward to everybody. False assumptions are quite normal, but false assumptions running in the subconscious can really get in our way in terms of the collaboration.

So I’ll just give you a little example. Allison, the advocate, one of the caricatures in the book. And she was very well respected on an accelerated career path, but she had this habit of picking battles all the time. On the one hand, she was advocating for good things, but she was always making people feel really bad by bringing up things that other people were doing poorly and that was a real blind spot for her and it was diminishing the relationships and sponsorship around her.

And so that again was going to be habit change of how do you not do that in public? How do you ask if people want feedback? How do you decide what’s worth it? So that’s an example of a false assumption. Her false assumption was, I need to call out every single thing that happens. And that was damaging her career.

The second one’s unhealthy detachment. Unhealthy detachment is when there’s something really important that you’re ignoring, and it’s important to other people and it’s really bad that you’re ignoring it. So one example might be Gary, the guardian. He was a really great leader, very protective, very supportive of his people, but his people wanted more challenge, more visibility, more exposure to upper leadership. And he kept sort of telling them like, oh no, you want to be kind of safe. It’s too stressful. And so as a result, he was ignoring that. And he had kind of an unhealthy detachment to the desires of his people, which was getting in his way. And so that’s another example of a blind spot.

The third one is differing views of success. That’s when you are headed for something that maybe not everybody else wants. And you talked about the importance of goals. If you have a goal in your mind as a leader and you’re singularly focused on it and it’s very different than maybe what an important colleague or a boss or et cetera needs, then it can be really problematic. The balance of them are outdated core beliefs, that’s where we’re trying to find a belief that’s driving certain behaviors.

Like Xavier the extra miler was somebody who just had incredible work ethic, always thought he had to go not a mile more, but like 5, 000 miles more. And he was working so hard. He was literally damaging his health and his company sent him to coaching because they were afraid, he was going to have a heart attack and they really wanted him to be safe. So he had this outdated core belief that I have to work harder than everybody else and that might work when you’re quite young. But it certainly gets a lot more difficult when you’re more senior and older.

And then there’s unconscious habits. Those are things that we do that annoy people that we don’t even realize we’re doing. Triggers from past pain can be things where, actually, I believe you spoke about the predictive brain. I think triggers from past pain is a little bit of that. The brain is predicting that something from the past is happening again. And so it’s causing you to behave in a certain way. And again, we have to sort of be like, it’s a new environment, it’s a new situation and teach the brain to not just predict poorly.

And then finally mismatch mindset. And that’s about over your career as a leader, there’s sort of an arc of you leading yourself, leading others and leading change or leading the enterprise. And a lot of times, there are different mindsets for each of those levels. And sometimes we get stuck in one. So an example would be we’re very focused on being the best, which is a leader self kind of thing. I want to be the best and it’s good. It makes you want to learn and grow. But then when you’re starting to lead others, it’s not about you being the best anymore. It’s about you creating the best out of your team.

And if you’re in that mindset, if you’re stuck, if your neural pathway is so solid on you being the best, then you will sacrifice what that role needs of you in terms of leading others and getting them to be the best. So, those are some examples.

Irena: Thank you. So I like how you illustrated all the blind spots with stories. Stories make it fun to read, and stories activate the default mode network. One of the things that the default mode network is important for is self-reflection, and actually change happens in the default mode network. So thank you for that.

Marisa: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I didn’t know that.

Irena: Well, because that’s where we do all the self-reflection and that’s a precursor to change.

Marisa: Yeah, no, for sure. I mean, I find that reflective inquiry, obviously through coaching is reflection, but stories, I feel like the mind noodles on them for longer. There’s more intrigue. There’s more curiosity. There’s more of a lasting piece. So definitely collecting our stories as coaches, collecting our stories of transformations we’ve seen and also just metaphors, those are often very, very powerful ways to activate and accelerate the change in our clients.

Irena: People will be able to see themselves in one or more of the stories. Yeah.

Marisa: Yeah. What I love about, and it’s new for me, and it’s always hard to shift a pattern because I’m sort of a natural teacher and I want to kind of teach the methodology versus telling the stories. But with this book, I really challenged myself to tell, to do the teaching through story. And I think what’s amazing about it too, when you tell a story is that people take the learning that’s very customized to what they need out of a story, as opposed to us guessing what is most important about that story.

Irena: I thought you did a great job.

Marisa: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

Irena: Okay. So finally, is there anything else you’d like to say to our listeners?

Marisa: Well, I’m excited about this listener group because I think we’re all passionate and focused on helping people evolve into their next greatest version of themselves. And I think investing in programs like yours and also just continuing to be curious about the brain and how it works and how we can use this beautiful tool is such an important piece of being a good coach

Irena: So, what’s the best way for listeners to find out more about you and your work?

Marisa: Yeah, absolutely. So, is my website and it’s L-E-Y, so it’s And I am on all the social platforms, but I mostly hang out on LinkedIn. And you can find me at just Marisa Murray. You can check out my TED talk and a bunch of other video clips and things that are online. So I’d love to hear questions, interest, and also just reach out to the coaching community.

I’m surprised actually and delighted that a lot of coaches are really loving Blind Spot, too, because it gives them lots of really great reflection areas around their clients. So I encourage them to also pick up the book.

Irena: We didn’t talk about your TED Talk.

Marisa: It’s fine.

Irena: What would you like to say about your TED Talk? What was it about?

Marisa: Iterate was my second book and I wrote Iterate because my TED Talk was only 14 minutes long and I had a lot more to say about it, but it’s about navigating change. And success without stress is sort of what it’s about and everything to do with how do you live in a mode where you are constantly sort of appreciating where you are, aligning with what’s coming, but then activating your aspirations and kind of looping your way to your success as opposed to trying to white knuckle everything or control everything.

So check it out. It’s worth a listen. It doesn’t take long. You can put me at double speed. Like my children put everything on double speed and it’ll take you seven minutes.

Irena: Apparently there is research that we retain it better at double speed.

Marisa: It’s fascinating. Well, when they’re doing stuff at double speed, they’re really focused. Like a bomb can go off and they won’t notice. You must activate a real focus because I see that. It’s impossible to interrupt them when they’re listening at double speed.

Irena: Okay. So thank you so much, Marisa. This has been a really great conversation. So, thank you all for listening, and remember that you really can change your brain regardless of your age. Find things that require focused attention, that are new or novel in your experience, and that challenge you. Have a goal. Practice, practice, practice, and make it challenging, but also make it fun. And when you’re working with your clients, remember that to help them change behavior, they need to have a goal, they need to practice the new behavior over time. And if they stop practicing the new behavior, it will reverse.

I’m Dr. Irena O’Brien, and you’ve been listening to Neuroscience of Coaching. You can find out more about me at The Neuroscience of Coaching is a part of the Mirasee FM podcast network, which also includes such shows as Just Between Coaches and To Lead as Human. This episode is produced by Cynthia Lamb. Danny Iny is our executive producer and post production was by Marvin Del Rosario.

To make sure you don’t miss great episodes coming up on Neuroscience of Coaching, please follow us on Mirasee FM’s YouTube channel or your favorite podcast player. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a comment or a starred review. It’s the best way to help us get those ideas out there to more people. Thanks and we’ll see you next time.