Even when faced with a life-threatening situation, people tend to resist change, even with full awareness of the repercussions. The question is: when are we to begin to change? In other words, where does one begin to bring about this fundamental change which is so essential in the social order?
Studies reveal that when heart disease patients who had undergone traumatic bypass surgery were warned that 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. Research has determined that over 70% of change initiatives fail because of a lack of self-organisation and people’s resistance to change, as they are lacking the ability to deal with the unknown and the unexpected. Hence, the core challenge is changing behaviour in the face of our brain’s tenacious desire to maintain the status quo.
Changing a habit or embedding a new behaviour takes effort and focussed attention.
Over-riding habits can feel physiologically uncomfortable and quite literally, even painful. It’s no wonder people often avoid change or find it difficult to maintain the commitment to change. Under pressure, tired or when distracted, our pre-frontal cortex can’t keep us focussed and we quickly relapse to earlier behaviours and habits. It takes substantially more effort to think about and do something new than to react out of instinct or habit. When change is happening around us — whether in our relationships, society and workplaces — we can feel threatened, insecure, anxious and fearful.
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. Neuroscientists call this fundamental principle the ‘walk towards, run away’ theory. When we feel threatened, due to a proposed merger or restructuring in the organisation, for example, or a presentation before a large audience, we are inclined to avoid that which seems threatening rather than embrace it. We feel uncertain, we focus on the negative and we disengage. Our pre-frontal cortex also has lower reserves of energy (oxygen and glucose) so we are less likely to make good decisions, take on new ideas or appreciate the big picture.
The trouble is that our brains are not made to think, but rather to seek assurance that we feel safe, secure, inspired and at ease so that we can coordinate all our human processes, so that we stay in balance, and so that we can keep appropriate distance with our sensory organs. The objective in this process is that the brain saves energy to become sustainable. Today we know that 20% of our energy is absorbed by the brain alone. To survive we need to adapt, and that requires an increase in the energy the brain needs to initiate the change. This, then, makes us feel uncomfortable and often anxious and insecure, because we are not wired this way, trained for change, or used to it. So, when we initially think of change, we project ourselves as not making any sort of transformation; rather, we attract negative feelings that maintain the status quo. Consequently, the failure of change is significantly high.
This is not from a lack of striving; in fact, it is the opposite: change is driven by purpose, meaning which makes sense after all, which literally goes under one’s skin, because we want it. Because we are driven by thought and knowledge (and both are limited) we often lack comprehension to actually see the need for wanting to change. In other words, to maintain this coherent state overwhelms us to such an extreme that we give up believing and wanting it.
That is why changes can only be successfully realised when we are in a conscious state, at ease, full of self-awareness from which we design our vision that will then make change meaningful and purpose-oriented, a vision that gives answer to purpose, values and virtues and is gives way to the big picture. Once we embrace a vison, change comes naturally and is initiated successfully, because it makes sense and is dignified.
Understanding the neuroscience of change and how the brain operates during change can help us manage (and diminish) change resistance and develop strategies to maximise our brain's capacity for neuroplasticity. Because our brain cells are continually forming new connections, restructuring our perceptions and physiology over time, this process of neuroplasticity happens thousands of times a day, giving us enormous potential to change.
Because we are driven by habit and attachment, believing we derive from this the inner security to deal with life, as soon as we are challenged with unexpected or the unknown, we flounder and fail. We find it hard to let go of something we have protected for so long and are not willing to release, as we then feel insecure and bring doubts about the ability of our habits or attachments to actually deal with change. Only later do we realise that we were wrong.
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 threats in your environment, so you do not become a lion’s dinner. Likewise, you want your brain and body to shift back to ‘normal’ when danger has passed, as sustained stress is also damaging.
The opposite happens when the reward system is activated. Let’s assume our presentation goes well and we receive great feedback, recognition, acknowledgment; we then feel secure and safe, emitting a feeling of belonging and bonding. We want to make the most of our positive emotions and experiences and are more eager to engage with people, ideas and solutions. Our brains release dopamine to 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, adopting new, more desirable attitudes and behaviours? Only willpower, focussed attention and mindful action can be used 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 this every so often. We need to pay attention repeatedly to new actions and insights over a period of time until they are inculcated into the process of how we operate and see ourselves. Creating rituals to embed new behaviours into daily life is critical.
Reinforcing positive change with support and immediate feedback from others — a buddy, leader or mentor — will 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, impacts 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. Because our neurons work in the same way, the more we drive down one particular path, the easier it becomes.