‘That’s the way we used to do things around here’ is a great article that explores the link between how the brain works and how we can change, personally and as an organisation.
To summarise some of the key points from the article:
- Habits are hard to change because of the way the brain manages them, but
- Neural connections are highly plastic, so even the most entrenched thought patterns can be changed
- Attention can re-wire people’s thinking habits
- In focussing attention, positive reinforcement has power
- Cultivating cognitive veto-power can override our impulses
- Our capability to pay attention needs to be built over time
Here’s a quick description of the parts of the brain that we act on without conscious attention. The basal ganglia, sometimes called the ‘habit-centre’, manages our semi-automatic activities. The amygdala is a source of strong emotions and the hypothalamus manages our instinctive drives.
The basal ganglia functions extremely quickly and when we process information in this way it even feels rewarding. To emphasise this point, it makes us feel good to revert to entrenched habits and ways of thinking. Also every time we think in this way we embed the neural pathways further and connect them to other areas of the brain that together generate our ‘action repertoire’. This means that our limiting thought becomes stronger.
Permanent change comes from embedding new choices in the basal ganglia. This learning often feels uncomfortable because we are overriding our old ways of thinking. It also requires more effort and energy as it accesses our higher brain functions where we can be logical, visualise and plan.
Also being forced to do something new can activate our amygdala and we experience the fight or flight response. In this case our brain pharmacy (clearly described by James Borg in his book Mind Power) takes over and releases adrenaline, cortisol and other ‘stress chemicals’. All of this means that we’re left temporarily limited in our ability to respond or act. It’s no wonder that people resist change!
So what does that mean for personal & organisational change?
We use a variety of techniques to help people make the changes they want for themselves and for their organisation. Here are a few examples of tools that work with the brain to allow us all to embed new behaviours.
As teachers of the martial arts we repeatedly recognise that people have the capacity to change their actions when they bring their attention to bear in the present moment. The practise of the martial arts, as well as other traditions like buddhism and yoga, have recognised this fact for thousands of years. Neuroscience is now able to validate this understanding. For example, research from the University of Toronto shows that this kind of mindfull attention specifically activates executive planning areas of the brain.
How do we cultivate an ability to watch our thinking? One technique is disassociation. Usually we are so caught up in our everyday actions and emotions that we operate on autopilot. If we mentally step back from our situation, for example as if we were watching ourselves in a movie, we can separate ourselves from the emotions of the present and build a more objective sense of what actions are appropriate. This skill is readily accessible for all of us, all it takes is an awareness of what is possible and some practise.
Mindfulness can also help us to spot the symptoms of an amygdala hijack before we are fully lost to the over-riding emotions of the situation. Disassociation then makes it possible to withdraw from the potentially damaging impulses and reactions that arise in the heat of the moment. By pulling away from the situation mentally and watching the situation clearly, we can cool down and take a more objective approach.
The brain doesn’t do negatives very easily. Take a moment, breath and then:
Do not think about a tree
In most cases, the tree pops in there, unless we consciously think of something else.
If we build a clear idea of what it is that we really want, [a well-formed outcome] we can help our brain to find ways of making it happen. Focussing on this desired state strengthens neural pathways associated with the new behaviour. For example, the BBC filmed an experiment where a dancer’s brain activity was monitored while she imagined a dance. Her brain activity had more than 90% in common with when she was actually dancing.
Building clear expectations of what we want has been proven to reinforce productive neural patterns. In an experiment at the University of Florida, an expectation of pain relief had the same effect as a 6mg dose of morphine, an incredible experiment in demonstrating how thought can effect our reactions, even in painful situations.
The clearer the outcome, the easier it is to measure progress. In this way we can hold ourselves accountable for the changes we wish for and help other’s on the same path.
When it comes to helping others engage in new behaviours, ‘catching them doing things right’ is more powerful than telling them what they’re doing wrong. When the people around us find it difficult to do something new, it’s likely that they’re caught up in ‘not doing the old thing’, which only cements the old thing into their thinking further.
Re-framing helps individuals to make the journey from where they were, to where they want to be. As a technique it also helps us to engage our imagination and learn from our mistakes.
It’s not enough that we talk about our goals; we have to act on them too, being role models for what we want to create. This means spotting opportunities to behave in a way that is aligned. The Logical Levels model helps our clients to build a rich representation of the new ways of thinking and acting that they wish to embody. An exploration of their thoughts, feelings and physiology creates new mental pathways which, when used together with well-formed outcomes, helps them to engage in new behaviours.
Practise Makes Permanent
When we pay repeated attention to our actions and related goals, our thoughts stabilise and move to the basal ganglia to become a new semi-automatic response. Neuroscience calls this focus ‘attention density’ and it enables new behaviours to become part of our default action repertoire. In the same way in the martial arts, ‘Practise’ enables us to have unconscious access to the state, awareness and techniques that enable us to live in a peaceful way.
Innovative imaging methodologies and technologies are resulting in new discoveries in the field of neuroscience at an ever-increasing pace. The speed of technological and commercial development is driving many of us to adapt and re-organise our behaviour to succeed in the face of these unprecedented events.
It’s refreshing to know that those same drivers for change, are now increasing our understanding of how we work at a deeper level. By working with the natural neurological physiology of change, we can accelerate our own understanding, learning and development.
Mark West, RA Leadership Consultant
E: info@.raconsultancy.com T: +44(0)1344 872026