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Making behavioural changes stick

Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change.

Confucius

Many of us want to make change yet often than not we are met with failure. As a Leadership Coach and Facilitator I work with many people and organizations who want to change and yet struggle to make change stick. Why is that? What can we learn from neuroscience that can support the process?

Neuroplasticity

In many respects our brains are changing all of the time as we learn new skills, experience new sensations yet this is almost unconscious, the process of acquiring new thoughts and experiences is a natural phenomenon. Our brain’s patterns are the result of our thoughts and experiences over the years (Begley, 2009). “But the changes underlying learning and memory are of the retail variety- strengthening a few synapses here and there or sprouting a few extra dendrites so neurons can talk to more of their neighbours, like a household getting an extra line. Wholesale changes, such as expanding a region that is in charge of a mental function or altering the wiring that connects one region to another, were deemed impossible” (Begley, 2009). Neuroplasticity has been discovered in recent years – the power of the brain to be able to rewire, forge new neural connections and rezone regions that performed one task to another. In the book “The Brain that Changes Itself” (Doige, 2007), the author talks of the plastic brain is like a snowy hill “Aspects of the hill – the slop, the rocks, the consistency of the snow – are like our genes. When we slide down on a sled, we can steer it and it will end up at the bottom of the hill by following a path determined by both how we steer and the characteristics of the hill.” The author notes that the path created by the sled is like a mental track that gets laid down and the next time you ‘sled down the hill’ you will follow the path already laid down, making it faster. These mental tracks can be seen as our habits – good or bad… and when we repeat the habit we make it more efficient. In fact a fatty sheath is created around the axons; this is myelin which increases the speed of conduction (Siegel, Mindsight, 2009). So we become really fast at responding through our ‘mental tracks’ or habits – these sink into the realm of the subconscious so we get locked into stimulus- response playback, that is reacting to situations or perceived situations subconsciously – walking through life asleep!

We can create these mental tracks through our own direct experience and learn to respond in a certain way; we can also learn how to respond from others. “While almost all organisms have to actually experience the stimuli of life first hand, the human brain’s ability to learn perceptions is so advanced that we can actually acquire perceptions indirectly from teachers. Once we accept the perceptions of others as truths, their perceptions become hardwired into our brains becoming our truths” (Lipton, 2008)

Do we become addicted to our emotions?

There seems to be a number of scientists who propose that we get addicted to our emotions, just as we get addicted to nicotine or sugar. This model is originally from the world of psychology, but has been adapted to show how our repetitive subconscious thoughts lead to repetitive feelings. The cognitive behavioural model shows the link between thoughts and feelings.

The premise of this model is we get into a cycle of thoughts and emotions and behaviours and when we repeat this cycle time and time again, we become more proficient in it – we get faster and more sensitive.

This also influences our attentional deployment, so we start to look for other similar situations where we can feel the same fear and trigger the same response. So if for example we have learned that we are not good enough over the years and that has become a belief we look for situations where this is validated because it is something that we fear. Then when we perceive that we are being threatened it triggers the thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, the whole system is self-reinforcing.

This model also shows the low road and high road. The low road is about REACTION, the high road is RESPONSE and they occur simultaneously to create the emotional reaction. As a leader if you are asked into your manager’s office to receive “feedback” then, if you have previously learned that this may be a threat then immediately a message is sent in through the sensory thalamus to your amygdala – signaling immediate danger. Meanwhile the data is also sent to the higher functioning cortex to check for more information. This then sends the message to the amygdala that perhaps the feedback is positive! The amygdala will slow down activation.

This model goes someway to show how on a daily basis we are triggering responses and reactions to actual and perceived events. The mental tracks – conscious and unconscious’ are our habitual thoughts that stimulate the chemical release that we feel as subjective experience. “Each thought has its own chemical signature. The result is that our thinking becomes our feeling – actually, our every thought is a feeling. We do this constantly and unconsciously” (Dispenza, 2007).

So as creatures of habits that have repetitive thoughts do we create a chemical environment that our bodies adapt to and in fact seek out?

Anecdotally I can see clients that addicted to the drama of life, deadlines and risk – adrenalin junkies, clients who are addicted to the new, the novel and constantly seek out change – dopamine junkies, some that are addicted to self martyrdom, pushing themselves, selflessly giving to others, creating stress, frustration and resentment – adrenalin junkies of a different kind.

Our bodies do become accustomed to the chemical balance “Any interruption in the regular, consistent and comfortable level of our body’s chemical makeup with result in discomfort. We nearly do everything we can, consciously or subconsciously, based on how we feel, to restore our familiar chemical balance.” (Dispenza, 2007). In the book Evolve your Brain, Dispenza asserts that there is a feedback loop at cellular level. Id the receptor sites are not receiving their regular peptides of familiar emotions then they will send a message through the peripheral nerves, to the spinal cord and finally arriving at the brain. Similarly the feedback system between the limbic system and body monitors the chemical balance and tries to read just when levels drop, bringing our ‘self created’ chemistry back into balance.

So although the world of neuroscience has proven that we can change, is it no easy feat and managing a clients, expectations of success is really important. These ingrained thoughts and feelings are not easily changed as most of the time they run happily in our subconscious impacting our decisions and reactions. Our bodies become accustomed to our daily subjective experience and our attention becomes focused on attending to the environment to look for more situations. So how can we help clients make the change that they desire?

Share your ideas about how to make change stick?

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