How to change your brain (and why it’s so hard)

A few years ago I was fortunate to interview American  neuropsychologist and author Dr. Rick Hanson.  He has written a number of best-selling books that draw on his scientific and clinical knowledge of how the brain works combined with Buddhist concepts to teach people how to shape their brain for greater contentment, love, and wisdom.

Essentially, he teaches how neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways – can be used to create change in our lives. One of his comments stuck with me as it is a fundamental concept for understanding human behaviour.

Our brains have a constant tension between flexibility and speed. Perhaps the easiest way to understand it is when we move to a new house but two weeks later find ourselves driving to our old home.

If our brains were super flexible, says Dr. Hanson, we would have to constantly relearn everything we do on a daily basis. So our brain sets up patterns of behaviour so we don’t have to learn our way home every day. Over time, these patterns become unconscious such as automatically driving home, biting our nails when we are nervous or preferring certain attributes in a romantic partner. So much so, that we may not even be aware of how they originally formed, or even why we do the things we do.

However, if the brain was too rigid, we would never learn anything new, so our brain is doing a constant juggling act between established patterns and learning new things.

Added to that is energy conservation. Our brains draw enormous amounts of energy, using 20 per cent of our body’s energy output. Recently, I resumed my Masters and I’m amazed at how exhausted I feel by the end of the week and the insane cravings I have for sugar while I’m studying. The brain demands fuel!

Patterns or habits help our brains conserve energy because it doesn’t have to create a new neural pathway everytime something happens. No matter what we do, the brain will soon fall into a pattern of doing it. Think of the last time you attended a conference or seminar. At first, you feel nervous – the brain’s flight/fight/freeze response is activated by something new. You search for a chair, find one at the back of the room and settle in. At the first break, you come back to the same chair. I guarantee by the end of the day you will have kept returning to the same chair and even feel annoyed if someone else has taken it. The brain has already set up a pattern of behaviour called: “That is my chair.”

Of course it can be overcome but our brain resists change – after all, it’s always easier to go down a familiar path. Think of it as walking in the bush – in fact, you can readily see how it happens. Crashing through the undergrowth is hard work the first time, and you have to break and push your way through. But the next time it is a little easier, and after many times the track is worn into the ground. Even if you stop using the track, the traces are always there. The brain works the same way. The first time we encounter something new it searches through our memory to match it to something – anything! If it can’t find a memory, it starts to create a new neural pathway. This is why learning techniques that map to known information make it easier to learn as a brain has something it can relate it to.

Imagine explaining a platypus to someone for the first time. What does it look like? If I say it looks a duck crossed with an otter with a beaver’s tail, you can picture it straight away!

A platypus – the duck, otter, beaver ensemble

Another complicating factor makes change hard for us. We’re not living in the world our brains evolved to manage. Early man had a simple life – forage and hunt for food, eat, sleep and procreate. Food was scarce at times so we would fast until we had more, sugar and processed food were non-existent and life was seasonal. We rose with the sun, slept with the night and followed the seasons. Winter was time to sleep and rest, spring and summer to gather food and hunt, and we lived in small family and social groups where we knew everyone.

Our brains needed to react to anything that might attack or eat us so new things were treated as dangerous until we knew that rustle in the bushes wasn’t a lion waiting to pounce. This need for vigilance creates a negativity bias in our brains, says Dr Hanson, describing our brains as teflon for positive thoughts and velco for negative ones.

This is simplifying things and the way I understand it, so neurobiologists may disagree.

In essence, our brain says any new experience as fearful until proven otherwise, so resists change.  When we learn something new, it sets up a pattern within the brain to protect us. One that pattern is entrenched, it is difficult to reset. Moreover, our brain’s negativity bias means bad experiences are retained in long-term memory more than good ones.

I realised how entrenched this was last year when I moved to Wellington to live. The weather was different, the people were different, it was hard to find my way around and nothing felt “right”.

As soon as I came back home to Auckland, an underlying feeling of unease disappeared and I attribute that to my brain no longer feeling threatened by an unfamiliar environment. Over time, as I learnt my way around, it began to ease, but never underestimate the disruption of moving to a new city. We think we are the ones in charge, but the brain really does have a mind of its own.

Compounding all of this is that millennia on from our cavemen days, we have an overabundance of sugar and processed food, we move from bed to the office to the chair to the bed and, instead of the occasional fear response, a noisy stressful world keeps people in a constant fright/fight state. We don’t move enough, we eat too much and we are constantly scared. No wonder so many of us are unhealthy, overweight and depressed.

But it was only once I started to really understand myself how my brain works that I could create lasting positive change in my own life. It’s not easy – I scoffed half a packet of biscuits writing this blog and I’m struggling to get into the habit of exercising every day. But now, when I’m feeling anxious, I can step back and ask “what’s going on? What is it about this situation my brain doesn’t like?”

The way our brain operates permeates everything we do, but so often we are working in direct opposition to it and wondering why we feel like we are failing.

Recommencing study, I can almost feel the resistance in my brain to learning new things – it’s really hard! To succeed, I have to give myself longer to learn new information than I at first thought and time to rest and recharge.

It’s natural to feel fearful in new situations, crave sugar and carbohydrates when you are tired, find it hard to change old habits, focus on the negative rather than the positive. It’s what our brains were designed to do.

We need light during the day so we sleep better at night, we have more energy in summer than in winter, rain makes us sad, sunshine makes us happy.

The trick is to understand that and then work with it, but so many self-help gurus seem to lack this fundamental understanding! A lot of the world’s ills are the direct consequence of the fear of new things, be it strangers, places or ideas.

For example, understand people need time to adjust and settle when they come to a new place, and don’t have an over-abundance of sweet treats around when you are tired or working hard. It takes time to change and form new habits so get support and accept that relapse and regression are normal. Not giving up and pushing through is the key to success. People need access to natural light and time in nature, sitting all day is terrible for us – we were designed to move. Our bodies need movement and our brains need challenge to grow.

Working with our brain rather than against it is the key, so we need a life and society that recognizes what we are, and design our life and work around that.

Here are some resources that I have found invaluable for creating meaningful change. I can’t recommend Dr. Hanson enough and he has many strategies for creating positive change that works with our brain’s neural structure.

Dr. Rick Hanson – great website with lots of resources. I highly recommend his book “Hardwiring Happiness.”

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – a brilliant book on understanding how our brain forms habits and how to change them.

Prof Robert Sapolsky – if you want to understand neurobiology and why we are the way we are, Robert Sapolsky is your man. Great books, talks and lectures.

Brain Bugs – How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Life by Dean Buonomano. A great read about how our brain’s evolved and why it works the way it does.



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