Coaching, Attention Density, and the Quantum Zeno Effect

CashandCelesteWhat? You might well ask what the heck does that mean! Attention density and the Quantum Zeno effect are outputs of some of the learning that is being published from studies of the brain and how it functions. These ideas are also tightly aligned with effective coaching and, especially, with equine facilitated coaching.

David Rock, noted expert on brain-based coaching, wrote an article several years ago (International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2006) in which he interviewed Jeffrey Schwartz, a psychiatrist and researcher in brain-based behaviour. In the course of interviewing Dr. Schwartz the concepts of Attention Density and the Quantum Zeno effect are discussed. Attention density is, simply put, the concept that intensive attention or focus on a learning activity produces structural changes in the brain; the more focus we bring the more “attention density” occurs. It is this density that brings into play the Quantum Zeno Effect. The Quantum Zeno Effect states that the “mental act of focusing attention holds in place brain circuits associated with what is being focused on … enabling it to eventually become a part of the brain’s hard wiring” or  “where we put our attention, we create connections [in the brain].” Sounds like a modern definition of learning.

The Quantum Zeno effect is a fundamental principle of Appreciative Inquiry – what we focus on is what we get. This is an important concept that underlies coaching and learning, especially when taking ourselves and our organizations through change. Where coaching  brings real value is by finding and holding the focus in a way that promotes learning.

According to more of the latest brain research, our brains, working at the unconscious level, are constantly scanning the environment for change and assessing the level of threat associated with that change. It turns out that our brains are more likely to view change as a threat than as a reward. Bingo! We are indeed hard-wired to avoid change.

What then is the role of coaching and how can coaching capitalize on the way the brain really works? It would appear that ‘pure’ coaching is the best modality to support learning and change management. By pure coaching I mean focusing on the client’s agenda, asking open questions, staying in the exploration phase until the client is ready to move into solution, and staying out of advice-giving and mentoring. Brain-based coaching focuses on interacting with the brain to enhance the reward circuitry (defuse the threat assessment),  promotes attention density by bringing all the sensing apparatus to bear on the visioning phase, and supporting the actions required to enable new brain circuitry to develop. In short, according to David Rock, coaches need to assist people to “reflect more deeply” on their dilemmas/goals/issues and support them in their ability to generate connections and to arrive at their own insights.

It also turns out that equine facilitated coaching is a powerful tool in promoting the focus and attention the produces brain changes and insight. By engaging all of our bodily sense, intuition, as well as the pre-frontal cortex we are able to cement the learning in a way that is more effective than classroom learning.