Old Dogs – New Tricks
15 octobre 2011

Old Dogs – New Trickspar Robert McFadden

Within the coaching profession, as in its wider Euro-American milieu, learning is often understood as synonymous with cognitive mastery.  The coaching competencies, for example, tend to stress learning as a developmental outcome of awareness, with the somatic aspects of learning processes – particularly the physiology of memory – left out of the picture.  The science of learning suggests we may want to reconsider this view, particularly in cases where the aim is to instil new abilities and habits.

Mention the name of Ivan Pavlov at your next martini soirée and watch noses curl in horror of brainwashing techniques and pain thresholds. Pavlov’s concept of the conditioned response attained international notoriety through works of fiction such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. Yes, thought control techniques were subsequently built upon the findings of Pavlov's work. And yes, the nature and possible uses of pain have been studied in numerous labs, though pain was never a part of Pavlov's repertoire. While his name and techniques of these kinds have become indistinguishable worldwide, the goal behind Pavlov's experiments remains obscured: to understand the processes underpinning learning and memory.

One of Pavlov's Dogs Rklawton

Pavlov's lesson is simple enough: bring together an innate response - like the salivation of a dog at the arrival of food - with an unrelated object - say, the ringing of a bell - and, with enough regular repetitions, you'll have the dog salivating to the bell with no food in sight. We can each build conditioned responses in our own brains simply by consistently rehearsing desired skills within a set context. Jai-alai players, carpet weavers, jazz musicians, and all such masters of the interplay between “muscle memory” skills and sensory flow - kinetic and tonal patterns, relationships of harmony and rhythm, and the like - are familiar with this phenomenon. 

Meditation is another practice that works this way, as are other techniques for the long-term acquisition of life skills. Developing a profound cognitive appreciation for the benefits arising from empathy, creative thinking, and the like may seem excellent incentives to the cultivation of such abilities, but eventual mastery depends firstly upon the experience of their actual performance honed through repeated practice in daily application. 

The application of the conditioned response process has been given a new twist with recent clinical work in neuroplasticity. Previously incurable conditions - including total blindness, severe brain damage, and phantom limb pain - are now being treated with techniques redirecting the acquisition process for unavailable stimuli through entirely different sensory channels. With repetitive practice, patients are learning to see with their tongues, reactivate “lost” motor activities, and release sensations of severe cramping in limbs long gone. Our brains, we now know, are in a life-long process of adaptation to the world around us, and conditioned responses play an important role in this development.

Learn more about neuroplasticity in Norman Doige's The Brain That Changes Itself.  View a CBC documentary based on Doige's book

The task of explaining the learning and memory aspects of conditioned responses was completed in 1949 by Montreal psychologist Donald Hebb.  Almost half a century after Pavlov's original experiments, Hebb detailed the remarkable ability for a connection between two neurons to change in strength with his theory of synaptic plasticity. Hebb proposed that associations between individual cells are intensified by repeated, persistent use - a concept we know through the catchphrase “use it or lose it”. As subsequent research showed, synaptic plasticity is indeed fundamental to the processes of learning – the means by which neural connections are strengthened - and memory – the interconnection of disparate information markers to form a cohesive recollection. These two functions – learning and memory – set the stage for what has long been championed through western academic and professional practices – coaching included - as the epitome of our specie’s achievements: the ability to form an idea.

How might these findings from neurobiology apply to coaching?  Folding lessons from neuroscience into coaching practices will certainly occur; new theories and techniques developing to the pace of new findings and enquiries. Still, as leading researchers like Antonio Damasio and Gerald Edelman are quick to point out, our understanding of the brain and its processes is still in its infancy. Perhaps, for now, an equally important step is simply to appreciate the contributions of Pavlov, Hebb, and the rest; adapting our current tools to new applications as our appreciation of our clients – and ourselves - deepens.  In this regard, a final lesson originating from Donald Hebb’s lab at McGill University during the 1950s might be instructive. Unlike Pavlov, Hebb did conduct brainwashing-related sensory depravation research. The equipment he used in these experiments to induce the sense of isolation - isolation chambers containing buoyant salt water maintained at body temperature – have today been adopted for entirely different purposes: flotation tanks for rest and meditation.

Robert McFadden Performance coach