In their words: Sue Langley & The neuroscience of change
Even when faced with a life-threatening situation, people tend to resist change despite knowing the repercussions. Studies reveal that when heart disease patients who had undergone traumatic bypass surgery were told if they did not adjust their lifestyle they would die, or at best undergo the life-saving procedure again, only nine percent modified their behaviour.
The core of the challenge is changing behaviour – yet our brains are extremely effective in tenaciously maintaining the status quo.
At the same time we wouldn’t be human if we couldn’t change. Human society is one of constant change and reinvention. We evolved from single cell organisms over eons, so adaptation is in our blood. As modern humans we are geared to life-long learning and growth. Our brain cells are continually forming new connections and restructuring our perceptions and physiology over time. This process of neuroplasticity happens thousands of times a day, giving us enormous potential to change if we put awareness, effort and commitment into making it happen.
Understanding how the brain works helps manage change resistance and develop strategies to maximise change potential.
The design of the brain may predispose us to taking the easy way out. The pre-frontal cortex, responsible for higher order thinking, takes more energy to function whereas the limbic system, which governs our emotions, connection with others, memory and habits, is energy efficient. That means it takes more effort to think about and do something new than react out of instinct or habit.
Much of what we do on a daily basis happens without thinking – driving a car, brushing our teeth, browsing the supermarket aisle. Very few people have to decide consciously which leg to put into their trousers first. These simple behaviours have been shaped repeatedly by training and experience and are now habitual.
Habits, rituals, and routine are formed in the basal ganglia, part of our limbic structure. It’s low energy and functions without much effort, designed to allow the pre-frontal cortex to process new information and more complex decisions. Whenever we act or think in ways we have done in the past, we reinforce neural connections in our basal ganglia.
Changing a habit or embedding a new behaviour takes effort and focused attention. This can feel physiologically uncomfortable; it’s quite literally painful to over-ride habits. It is no wonder people often avoid change or find it hard to maintain commitment. Under pressure, tired or distracted, our pre-frontal cortex can’t keep us focused and we relapse to earlier behaviour and habits.
So how can we leverage our brain’s capacity to approach change and reshape habits that no longer serve us and adopt new, more desirable attitudes and behaviours?
Recent insights point to the power of willpower, focused attention and mindful action to push through resistance and rewire habitual patterns. This process of intentionally changing our brain circuits is called ‘self-directed neuroplasticity’. It is not enough to practice every so often. We need to pay attention repeatedly to new actions and insights over a period of time until they become part of how we operate and see ourselves.
Creating rituals to embed new behaviours into daily life can be key. Reinforcing positive change with support and immediate feedback from others – a buddy, leader or coach – will help tap our reward systems and associate new behaviours with positive emotions and learning. It also helps if we find ways to make changing new habits interesting and fun.
Practice makes perfect
Each of these principles, and others, impact the way our brain fires and feels. This in turn affects our behaviour, decisions and performance. The more we practice these skills, the more we will allow those neurons to connect and through neuroplasticity create the new connections we need to regulate our emotional and instinctual reactions more effectively.
I often use the analogy of driving through a national park. If I drive my 4WD down the same track every day, that track will get deeper and more open and be easy to drive down while the others will become overgrown with weeds sprouting up through the middle and trees encroaching on the sides. Our neurons work in the same way. The more we drive down one particular path the easier it becomes – whether that path is effective (like practicing mindfulness) or ineffective (like yelling at someone when we’re angry).
It may take effort initially to choose to drive down a new path – it’s overgrown and takes more concentration, especially when we are under pressure. But with a bit of effort we can knock back the weeds and overgrowth and create a new path that is easy to navigate. Our neurons fire together quicker and with time they become embedded as habits in our basal ganglia, just like cleaning our teeth in the morning. Once this happens, less effort is required in our pre-frontal cortex to maintain focus and attention, and we can regulate our emotions and behave, decide and perform more effectively.