In this “Neuroscience at Work” post we’re looking at the brain’s ability to change. To do that, we must first look at how the brain moves information from place to place – information that generates the thoughts, feelings and actions we do everyday.
The brain is like a power grid – a dynamic network of neurons and synapses that send information to keep our mind and body humming. Information travels in our brains via connections called neural pathways.
For better or worse…our brain is programmed for habit
As recently as a few decades ago, scientists thought we only created brain pathways when we were young and that adult brains were hard-wired and immutable. This faulty assumption was a misunderstanding of our brain biology. It’s all about energy preservation. Remember from our first newsletter in this series that the brain wants to complete patterns. To preserve brain power, it finds shortcuts…and the more often the brain travels a reliable path, the more it is inclined to follow that path again. This may be where the idea that we’re hardwired comes from – our brain is programmed to take the road well-travelled.
Today, we know that it is possible to develop new paths and patterns in our brain. The brain’s ability to build new pathways is called neuroplasticity. Think of it like riding a bike through an overgrown field. At first, it is hard, but the more you travel that path, the easier it gets. With frequent use, you can breeze across the field. You may even create new paths nearby. Conversely, if you stop using that path, the brush will grow over and the path you etched won’t be as easy to find.
The ability to form new pathways is an important discovery – it means we don’t have to be stuck with bad habits and can learn new skills (and attitudes) throughout our lifetime. No one is stuck.
You don’t have to be stuck
With neuroplasticity, we can leverage the networks in our brains to establish new habits that will help facilitate change. It can be powerful to recognize that the brain is undergoing a physical change in the process of learning – whether that learning is good or bad. It’s also encouraging to know that while it’s true that younger people’s brains are more pliable, thanks to neuroplasticity we can continue to learn and develop new skills throughout our lives.
Those pathways get more ingrained over time. If you practice violin for one day you’re hardly a master violinist. If you practice violin every day from age eight to age forty, you will carve a whole network of pathways into your brain for music-making. But patterns can work for or against us. If you tell yourself “I’m not good at math” in 3rd grade, that’s an easy pathway to change. If you tell yourself “I’m not good at math” repeatedly from 3rd grade into adulthood it’s a whole different story. Yet even those long held beliefs can change with conscious and persistent effort.
Related Viewing: From Math Failure to Math Genius: Shinzen the Mindful Math Geek
Neuroplasticity is essentially the cornerstone of the work we do at The Wunderlin Company. As Jeff Nally put it,
” No behavior change happens without a mindset change first.“
If you believe your mind or your organization is fixed, the work we do will have no effect. On the other hand, you can leverage a change mindset in coaching, organizational change or facilitation. When we look at scientific study that tells us we have the freedom to create change – it can be incredibly empowering.
From bored to blooming
For example, one coaching client agreed to try a new tactic. Rather than tell his employees what to do, he began bringing his team into decision-making. One of his direct reports, a finance executive in his 50s, reported later that he’d learned more since being included in decision-making than in the 25 preceding years. He was thrilled to learn you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Another client felt the best way to demonstrate her credibility was to focus her efforts on proving what she knew – but she was having trouble ‘being in the room.’ We worked on a new strategy for meetings. Before she contributed she would take a breath and ask herself a series of 2-3 questions. By using this new technique, she developed new pathways – and proved to herself that she could contribute more by being present than by being the subject-matter expert. She began to enjoy her work more and contribute in deeper ways than she’d thought possible before.
While the possibilities of brain change are exciting, it is important to remember that there is only one person you can control: you. If you work in a climate that feels very fixed, the most effective strategy is to focus on unfixing the part of the organization that you can control. Look around: where can you explicitly integrate possibility thinking in your team or group? Start small. You’ll be surprised at what you can do.
Laying out a plan to rewire a group
On the other hand, when we recognize the natural brain patterns that occur in individuals we can better serve the group. If your brain is wired to repeat patterns over and over, a group of brains is also wired that way. A new initiative at work triggers discomfort – even alarm bells that something is wrong. It is important to remember that habits of a group have the same roots as habits of an individual. Managers must recognize that it is important to change the mindset first. This can be particularly challenging in an organization that has failed at change before. Ron Carucci writes in the Harvard Business Review that achieving success with a group starts with authentic acknowledgement of the past – including past pain and failure. Only then can you proceed to laying out an evidence-based plan for change.
Remember, too, that we’re here when you need help. At the Wunderlin Company, creating change through purposeful actions is what we do.
Let us know how you’re doing with the techniques we covered in the series. Try them with your intractable uncle at your holiday dinner or at the end of year planning meeting. If you get stuck, give us a shout. And don’t forget to share your successes with us, too.
All the best,
Extended Practice Could Be How We Build New Neural Pathways – what happens to the brain when we try to learn new skills?
Success Gets into Your Head – and Changes It – Failure has little to no effect on the brain – but success changes us.
Synaptic Transmission A fun 2-minute video that explains how messages move in our brains.
The Brain That Changes Itself – fascinating documentary featuring people who used scientific techniques to rewire their brains and do seemingly impossible things.
Practicing a Fixed vs. Growth mindset is a proven way to move your brain in a better direction. A growth mindset “creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval.”