Breakthroughs in brain research explain why Change hurts

Success in life isn’t possible without adapting your day-to-day behavior. Scientists have known that for years that change induces a physiological reaction in the brain that results in stress, discomfort and pain. Changing behavior is hard, even when new habits can mean the difference between life and death. In studies of people who have undergone coronary bypass surgery, only one in nine people, adopts healthier day-to-day habits. They clearly see the value of changing their behavior….But they don’t follow through.

Scientists have gained a new, far more accurate view of human nature and behavior because of the combination of psychology (the study of the human mind and human behavior) and neuroscience (the study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain).

Why do people resist change so stubbornly, even when it’s in their own interest?

When people encounter something new, working memory is frequently engaged. Working memory is the brain’s “holding area”, located in the prefrontal cortex, where perceptions and ideas can first be compared to other information. When you see a new product on a supermarket shelf and compare it to a product you already use, it’s your working memory that takes in the new information and matches it against the old. Working memory activates the prefrontal cortex, an energy-intensive part of the brain.

The basal ganglia, on the other hand, part of the brain located near the core, is where neural circuits of long-standing habit are formed and held. They are invoked by routine and familiar activity, like putting a product you buy all the time into a shopping cart without consciously paying attention. The basal ganglia requires much less energy to function than working memory does, in part because it links simple behaviors from the brain that have already been shaped by extensive experience and training.

The basal ganglia can function exceedingly well without conscious thought in any routine activity. In contrast, working memory fatigues easily and can hold only a limited amount of information “on hand” at any one time. So any activity conducted repetitively will tend to get pushed down into the basal ganglia, the habit-center part of the brain. This frees up the processing resources of the working memory.

After just a few years of driving a car, people can typically drive “without thinking”. If they then try to drive on the other side of the road, in another country, driving suddenly becomes much more difficult. The prefrontal cortex, where the working memory presides, must now be used to keep track of the action. It’s the same with going back and forth between automatic and standard transmissions when you were younger and had lots of used cars….Dude..I used to have a Green AMC Gremlin and a friend of mine had a Pacer..we never wanted it to Change…but I digress…

Trying to change any habit requires a lot of effort within the prefrontal cortex. This often leads to a feeling that many people find uncomfortable. So they do what they can to avoid change.

Another huge reason ‘change is hard’ relates to basic brain functioning. Human brains have evolved a strong capacity to detect what neuroscientists call “errors”. These are perceived differences between expectation and actuality. When a child is promised a sweet-tasting treat and then discovers it tastes salty or bitter, the brain emits strong signals that use a lot of energy. Edmund Rolls first illustrated this at Oxford University in the early 1980s, with a study involving monkeys. Dr. Rolls found that “errors” in the environment produced intense bursts of neural firing, much stronger than the firing caused by the expected.

When these error signals are activated, they draw metabolic energy away from the prefrontal region (working memory) which includes some areas which promote and support higher intellectual function. (The prefrontal region is particularly well developed in humans, and doesn’t exist at all below the higher primates.) Error detection signals can thus push people to become emotional and to act more impulsively…That’s why some people go ballistic…Animal instincts take over.

But if the person comes up with a way to cope with a new demand, he can get the “Aha!” feeling. A moment of insight creates enough positive energy in the brain to counter the negative feelings.

We all refuse to change our ways for reasons that are often hard to explain.

But wait…start looking at it from a scientific perspective.

In the past few years, improvements in brain analysis technology have allowed researchers to track the energy of a thought coursing through the brain in much the same way that they can track blood flowing through the circulatory system. Watching different areas of the brain light up in response to specific thoughts has brought a new understanding to the mechanics of human (and animal) psychology and to our response to change.

Another interesting finding is that by focusing attention on something, a person will develop new neural connections which if reinforced enough will become part of his subconscious. If a person starts focusing on a “problem”, he will start developing new connections for why the problem occurs. This will not change a person’s behavior because it focuses on the problems that are causing the behavior instead of the solutions. People who specialize in certain fields will develop brain connections to handle their job with the least amount of energy possible. That means that a finance person and an engineer have their brains wired differently. They will never look at the world the same way!

Change hurts. Actual physical and psychological discomfort. And the brain pictures prove it.

Change lights up an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is like your brains RAM memory. The prefrontal cortex is fast and able to hold multiple threads of logic at once to enable quick calculations. But it can deal comfortably with only a handful of concepts before crashing into limits. That crashing generates a real sense of discomfort and produces fatigue and anger.

The prefrontal cortex crashes easily because it burns lots of fuel of the high-octane variety, glucose and/or blood sugar, which is metabolically expensive for the body to produce.

Given that it takes so much fuel to run the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive (basal ganglia) which has a much larger storage capacity and doesn’t use fuel as rapidly. Remember?…this is the part of the brain that stores old Habits.

Nobody likes Change…Change affects you physically.