Mind Over Matters

Change Your Mind and Your Brain

by David Krueger, MD

The Psychology of Change

A child reads Goodnight, Moon, gets it the first time or two, then reads it ninety-eight more times. Or sees the same movie over and over until being able to say the lines. An adult will repeat behavior that doesn’t work, often do it harder, and expect a different result—even when it leads to debt, plateaued careers, or disappointing relationships.

Why is repetition so compelling to intelligent people while it is so illogical? Why is it not obvious to the adult that trying to exit an old story by simply writing a “better ending” only recreates the same story, and ensures that someone remains in it?

Part of the answer to these questions is in our minds: There is something secure and familiar about repetition. We repeat the same story because we know what the outcome will be. Predictability masquerades as effectiveness. The invisible decisions that we make daily become camouflaged as habits, our collection of repetitions. We are always loyal to the central theme, the plot, of our lives, always returning to it. Any departure, even temporary, causes uncertainty and trepidation. Being in new territory–developing a new story–creates anxiety. The easiest and fastest way to end this anxiety is to go back to the familiar: the old story.

Someone may not be able to simply break out of a behavior cycle–or launch a new business that they’ve dreamed often and planned well—because it’s not just a matter of intellect or willpower. Or shifting to another frame of mind. Or stepping into a substitute story. A new story has to be gradually constructed by a person who must, in the process, give up what is known, secure, and predictable. Even when eagerly anticipated and welcomed, interruption of the familiar is uncomfortable.

We know from developmental psychology that the most basic motivation we have as human beings is effectiveness—to be a cause. We know from psychoanalysis that the fundamental drive is for mastery. We know from social psychology that certain needs are universal and remain present throughout adulthood: attachment, validation, support, intellectual stimulation. And all these needs have greater valence at times of change.

The Neuroscience of Change

And part of the answer to why change is difficult is in our brains.

In the fall of 2004, some voters voted twice in the presidential election. Their first time was a stopover at the laboratory of Neuroscientist Dr. Drew Westen to be hooked up to functional MRI brain scans. He presented them with a variety of new material. He found that people emotionally committed to particular ideas manage to ignore factual material that contradicts their own preconceptions. The participants simply did not register data opposing a belief system. He also found that three separate areas in the brain acted in concert to ignore everything except what fit a preconceived idea. His research reminds us that there are truths we refuse to see, and that incorrect assumptions will be validated. We see what we believe.

The same thing happens in the brain in another circumstance: the arrival of an old friend re-lights the brain cells’ configuration of that relationship, however many years have intervened since the last encounter.

Here’s what both have in common:

Familiar experiences travel along well-established neuronal connections with their predictable neural networks. A neural network contains the information of a particular way of relating, a habitual pattern of response based on past experience.

Reactions become automatic so we don’t have to make a new decision in each situation. This default mode of operating can mistakenly be read as “fate” when it is simply a kind of learning neuroscientists call long-term potentiation. We call them habits. In Professional Coaching, to facilitate change, I sometimes highlight a habit to illuminate that it is a choice–a decision. Or can be.

Old habits and accustomed behaviors are like being on a daily commute. Though repetitive, it is familiar. To change is like coming to the end of that usual path to suddenly enter uncharted territory with no assuring landmarks. This is what is literally happening in the brain as a grooved neuronal pathway and network–the default mode–is changed to generate new experience. The result is feeling lost, with temptation to end the discomfort of uncertainty by returning to the familiar–the old story. No one is comfortable in the beginning to proceed in new territory.

The Good News

But we are not hard-wired for life. With new experiences, new neuronal pathways are created. This reprogramming can shift to more adaptive and successful modes. New research shows that we can rearrange brain cell connections (neuroplasticity) as well as produce new brain cells (neurogenesis) throughout our lives. In other words, by creating new experiences consistently, we can generate new neuronal pathways and neural networks. And, some remarkable new research shows, consistently repeating new experiences even alters gene expression. When we change our minds and our behaviors, we change our brains.

The methods and tools exist to effectively catalyze and accelerate the process of change: many have been discussed in my previous columns. There is an infinite sea of new possibilities to be created for new goals. The caveat: You have to take action to diminish preprogrammed responses; to write new script for new experiences. And there are no short cuts, since long term change requires consistent practice to groove new neural patterns–until it becomes the default mode–as automatic as the old story.


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Author Geneen Roth lost everything to Bernie Madoff. Read her comments about The Secret Language of Money.