Over the past few years, humans have experienced changes to their lives that shifted their thinking and way of life. COVID-19 saw people living and working from home, children being schooled online and people came up with new and inventive ways to interact – online. We called it the new normal but what was the normal in the first place? Let’s look at the neuroscience of change.
What part of the brain is responsible for change?
The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) is a highly connected part of the brain and plays a major role in directing our attention.
Stimulation of the PCC can lead to changes in routine behaviour. When stimulated, messages would be sent from this region to other areas of the brain, perhaps where memory or knowledge of benefits are found. This is done through the massive neural network hence indicating that the PCC does not work in isolation.
Why is change so hard for some?
Your brain is wired to jump into action in case of danger. The brain (specifically the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) is more likely to assume failure than success to protect us from impending threats. As such, change is interpreted by the brain as pain. I don’t mean like a sprain or a pinch but rather as something to avoid. In other words, we are wired to reject change.
What happens in the brain for change to occur?
Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term referring to the brain’s ability to change, reorganise, grow neural networks, and adapt due to experience. This can involve functional changes due to brain damage or structural changes due to learning a new way of being. As was the case over the past few years.
As we choose (or are forced) to make change, new neural pathways are formed and the more we use those neural pathways, the stronger and thicker those pathways become. Before long, something that once felt unnatural, becomes second nature.
We all know someone (might even be yourself) that had never taken part in a zoom call prior to Covid-19 lockdowns but can now do so as easily as picking up the phone.
How do you train your brain to accept change?
A simple trick to rebalance the brain is to focus on the gains from the change. It sounds simple but actively reminding ourselves of the positive is critical as our brain naturally tends to focus more on negative than positive.
Try this simple activity …
- Interlace your fingers and take note of where your thumb and little finger sits.
- Now interlace the other way.
- How does that feel? Uncomfortable, awkward? Strange? That’s how change feels.
Neuroscience states that our thoughts are connections between our brain cells. That being the case, to create change, we need to be able to catch our thoughts, particularly those negative ones and swap them for more positive ones. How do we do that?
By slowing our brain, just slightly, to give your prefrontal cortex time to catch those thoughts. There are several ways we can do this such as…
- Take a moment to breathe, that’s right, make a conscious effort to be aware of your breathing and slow the pace down to a rhythm. An even rhythm to the count of 3 for example. In for 3 hold for 3 and out for 3, wait and then repeat. Doing this will adjust not only your breath but your thoughts.
- Practice mindfulness daily – just 3 minutes a day of sitting and grounding yourself and monitoring your breath or if you are an active person and enjoy a jog or a run, do it to a count of maybe 3.
- Gratitude journalling – taking time to stop and focus on what you are grateful for allows your brain time to rest and focus on positive aspects.
- Yoga can be a fantastic way to put your brain into a relaxed state.
Change is possible and it is necessary to practice the new way of behaving until it becomes the normal way for you. After all, to achieve our goals, we must change something to get a different result.
“If you want what you do not have, you must do what you have not done.”
How long will that take? How long is a piece of string? For some it may only take a couple of weeks, for others a couple of months. It really depends on how strong those old neural pathways are and how quickly you can form new ones.
If the new way of behaving has benefits for you, you will be more inclined to keep the practice up.
I’d love to hear what you’d like to change.
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