The neuroscience of change: why it's difficult and what makes it easier
Written on the 23 May 2012 by Sue Langley and Sophie Francis
Why do people find it so hard to change when they know it’s good for them?
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 9% modified their behaviour . We see this every day in organisations experiencing change. Mount Eliza Business School found that over 70% of change initiatives fail because of people resistance – not because they weren’t good business ideas, driven by sound analysis, systems and facts.
The core of the challenge is changing behaviour—and 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.
Neuroscientists divide the brain into X-system (reflexive) and C-system (reflective) functions. UCLA professor Matt Lieberman defines the X-system as energy efficient, reacting automatically and fast. Tuned in to immediate goals and past emotions, memory, habits and beliefs, it matches perceptions with patterns on the fly. The C-system takes more energy to function and processes information more slowly, one step at a time. Governing higher order thinking, the C-system’s job is to consciously reflect on, challenge and correct the X-system .
To keep it simple we often use the triune brain analogy. The triune brain has three parts: the reptilian brain which is responsible for our primary drivers such as eating, sleeping and sex; the limbic system which includes our emotions, connection with others, memory and habits; the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for higher order thinking. The pre-frontal cortex takes more energy to function whereas the limbic system is energy efficient. What that means is 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, running a meeting. 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 (X-system) structure. It is low energy and functions without much effort, designed to allow the pre-frontal cortex (C-system) 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 focussed attention. This can feel physiologically uncomfortable and quite literally painful to over-ride habits. Its 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 behaviours and habits.
Another function of the brain may predispose us to resist change. Survival depends on our capacity to detect errors in our environment and react quickly and instinctively to avoid threat. When our brains perceive a difference between what we expect and what occurs, a rapid-fire signal is produced. This error detection mechanism is located in the orbital cortex just above the eyes, and is closely connected to the amygdala, one of the oldest areas of the brain. The amygdala draws energy away from the prefrontal cortex, activating the surge of fear or anger we need to mobilise instinctively into action.
Imagine you are on a walking safari in Africa, your orbital cortex notices an error – a bush moving to your left – and immediately triggers the amygdala. You go into high alert, adrenaline courses through your body. Was it the wind or a lion stalking you? You want your brain to pick up on these things, to notice potentially dangerous changes in your environment, so you do not become the lion’s dinner. You also want your brain and body to shift back to normal when danger has passed because sustained stress is damaging.
That is when the brain’s tendency towards homeostasis kicks in. We look for ways to create certainty again, perhaps by checking the bushes or running back to camp. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz define homeostasis as “the natural movement of any organism towards equilibrium and away from change”. We are hyper-vigilant to detect and act on changes in our environment—and we like to get back to what is familiar as soon as possible. Even the act of trying to fix an ‘erroneous’ behaviour can send a message that something is wrong.
Threat or reward
When change is happening around us—in our relationships, society and workplaces—we can feel threatened. One way to understand this is by looking at our brain’s threat-reward system. The motivation behind much of our behaviour is driven by the desire to minimise threat and maximise reward (Gordon, 2000). Neuroscientists call this fundamental principle the ‘walk towards, run away’ theory.
When we feel threatened, due to a proposed merger or restructure in the organisation or a presentation we have to give to a large audience, we are inclined to avoid what seems threatening, rather than embrace it. We feel uncertain, focus on the negative and disengage. Our pre-frontal cortex also has less reserves of energy (oxygen and glucose) so we are less likely to make good decisions, take on new ideas and appreciate the big picture.
The opposite happens when the reward system is activated. Our presentation goes well and we receive great feedback or our team successfully manages a challenging new project. We want to make the most of our positive emotions and experience and are more ready to engage with people, ideas and solutions. Our brains release dopamine and feel better and we are therefore likely to repeat the behaviour.
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, focussed 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 our new habits interesting and fun.
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 are angry).
It may take effort initially to choose to drive down a new path – it is overgrown and takes more concentration, especially when we are under pressure. 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.
We’ll explore more of these themes and change strategies in future articles and white papers.