The Source of Our Immunities, Part 1

Brain & Behavior

As an Immunity to Change coach, I spend a lot of time thinking about how our “psychological immune systems” get in the way of achieving our goals. I began my career in psychology as a biologist – I was studying the structure and function of the brain, in the “decade of the brain” (the 1990’s). Now, in 2012, I realize that I have come full circle, because I am using my knowledge of the brain to help coach my clients. In fact, like many executive and life coaches, I now believe that there is a clear relationship between brain structures and the precise ways that we get in our own way.

Part evolutionary psychology, and part adult-development, this perspective looks at the “evolutionary economy” of the brain (in layman’s terms, this basically means “how the brain maximized the number of uses for each brain structure”). Using the relationship between adult motivation/development and the existing structures/functions of the brain helps me to use the powerful methods of transformation for which I have been trained.

Epigenetics & Development

In an August 26, 2012 NY Times article by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the field of epigenetics and its relationship to autism was explored. Epigenetics is a field that studies the effects of everything that influences our genetic expression that is “around” (hence “epi”), but not intrinsic to, the genes themselves. The main two areas of exploration are parental behaviors and environmental influences.

What is fascinating to me as a coach whose method is based on adult developmental psychology is that the article expresses something that I see reflected in my own practice. According to Velasquez-Manoff, an inflammatory response in mommy before birth, or in the infant after birth, has been implicated in the onset of autism. The inflammation severely impacts the brain of the fetus (again, whether sourced in the mother or the fetus). Technically, support cells become over-activated, a hyper-vigilance that mirrors the rigid behavioral self-protection seen in autism spectrum disorder.

Not everyone will agree on a smoking gun for autism, but one thing is clear from the evidence – inflammation is at least a big part of, if not the definitive cause of, the problem.

Can this evidence from epigenetics help coaches? Here is where things get interesting. Many scientists now believe that a hyper-vigilant immune response was very adaptive during our evolution. It was a response to microbes (bacteria, viruses, amoeba, and parasites) that had evolved chemicals to dampen our immune system so they could reproduce. Basically, we struck a truce with microbes – we turned up our immune response to keep them in check; but they got to reproduce in a few areas of our body (mainly our gut). It became symbiotic in many cases (not parasites, but we still had to deal with them using the same hyper-inflammation).

One analogy is that our normal inflammation response is like a crude form of chemotherapy. We over-respond in the short term to try and kill everything in a particular area of our body, figuring that we can turn it off later and recover. This hyper-inflammation was never meant to be used as a long-term strategy.

The microbes created a “dimmer” knob. We responded to their “dimmer” knob by increasing the amount of inflammation to try and rid our bodies of their presence. This happened over thousands, perhaps even millions of years. We learned to live with these life forms. Their growth was limited, but they wouldn’t kill us. That’s where things stood until about a few hundred years ago.

Then we transcended our technological limitations, and placed ourselves into a different world, where microbes were given even less access to the neutral zones in our bodies. But the body doesn’t know this. It is running a response that is looking for an agent.

Adaptation & Coaching

We have all inherited a psychological adaptation that mirrors the biological adaptation being studied by epigenetics. Like the body’s hyper-inflammation, this psychological response is only maladaptive because we have succeeded in changing our destiny.

Think about it – if we were still living with those microbes, we would be calling it “immune response,” not “hyper-inflammation.” (And the Times article makes exactly this argument, with good evidence.)

If I am right, then coaches have a duty to understand the impact of “epi-development” in coaching just like biologists have a duty to understand the impact of “epi-genetics” in medicine. Just as the near-absence of microbes reveals a response that is no longer appropriate (and even harmful), the near-absence of predators (animal and human) reveals a response that holds us back from change.

Our subjective and intersubjective “triggers” cause problems, especially in times we want to change. We bring with us a score of these ingrained responses when we go to yearly performance reviews with our boss; business lunches with our peers; and meetings with our direct-reports. In work and in love, we are constantly over-responding to our own thoughts and feelings and what we presume are the thoughts and feelings of others, simply because in the past those responses were actually called for.

They might still be called for, but we do not actually track the reality of this. Because “safety” trumps “reality” when it comes to the evolutionary economy.

The Immunity-to-Change coaching method gives people a way of identifying their specific psychological immune response. Like hyper-inflammation in the biological immune system, a hyper-active psychological immune response is best understood in its evolutionary context. Armed with knowledge of developmental psychology, coaches & clients who want a deeper knowledge of transformation will be well served.


Here is a takeaway that you can test yourself. Think of the last time that you first met someone (I will too). As this person said their name, we know for a fact that we were listening – maybe we even listen extra hard because we know we’ll forget their name the first time we hear it. And we still end up forgetting it!

There is a reason this happens. The reason is that we are not “safe” when we first meet someone, so we are not truly paying attention to them as a person until we feel safe with them.

In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond points out that in our collective past, when we were tribal and nomadic, if two groups of people ran into one another they had a discussion about the group to which they belonged. These “blood ties” were discussed in order to figure out if they could AVOID fighting one another (if we are related by blood, we shouldn’t fight). If they found no blood ties, they had to battle. Individual names were meaningless in those situations. They were not meaningful because all of us were thinking one thing: “Friend or Foe?”

When you meet someone new, you bring with you the “Friend or Foe” hyper-vigilance. You are in your brainstem, calculating. But you still have to function in the present. We have adapted to life with dinner parties, but this fossil of behavior remains ingrained in our brains. It is a hyper-response with which we must reckon.

This is why intelligent and charismatic people can “disarm” and “charm” us. They are extremely good at getting past this ingrained behavior (politicians, for example, are renowned for remembering the names of people they met only once, years before).

So that is your takeaway – you are bringing the entirety of socio-cultural evolution with you to every party, every conference, and every first client meeting!