It is likely that more than in one occasion you proposed yourself to change. Change of ifestyle, change of those thoughts that make you feel bad, change the way you interact with the others... But it is also likely that after a short “trial” period you have surrendered and recovered the old habits, which usually generates a lot of frustration. What happened?
In reality, we are habit people. It’s not our fault, we are programmed in this way. Our brain is an energy saver born, it wants to do as much as possible with the minimal effort. Moreover, is not so bad, habits save time and energy you can devote to more important things. But the problem arises when we become victims of these habits and ways of thinking, when we don’t leave room for change. So we end up working perpetually with the autopilot on and begin to die slowly.
How are working our two minds?
We have not one, but two brains working together through an ascending and descending neural wiring. There is a subcortical brain, which is more primitive and uses the upward way to communicate with the neocortex, which is the highest level of the brain and is connected to the informed decision making, the thought and the emotional self-control. This brain uses the downward path to communicate with the subcortical area.
Therefore, it is as if there were two minds working as one. The subcortical mind is always active, faster, involuntary and automatic. It is motivated by impulses and emotions, it takes care of our usual routine and guides our actions when we have to make a decision in a matter of milliseconds.
The neocortex is slower because it works on a voluntary basis. Its task is to satisfy the routine, mute the emotional impulses, learn new models, outline projects and make decisions of which we weighed up, more or less, the pros and cons of the various alternatives.
The interesting thing is that every time we learn something new the neocortex is activated. But to the extent that we begin to master the new activity, as a mere matter of energy saving, the balance begins to lean towards the descending part. So, the more we repeat a certain routine, the more the neocortex will disconnect and will be activated the subcortical area.
The brain works in this way to save energy. With this distribution of tasks, the brain tries to achieve the maximum results with minimum effort. Of course, it is not something negative, on the contrary, in this way the rest of our cognitive resources are liberated.
In fact, the automated system works quite well for most of the time, but it also has “weaknesses”. Our emotions, motivations and prejudices, cause inclinations and misalignments of which we are unaware. Therefore, if from time to time we don’t activate the neocortex, we run the risk of getting stuck in the comfort zone created by our brain.
Choosing the change can be scary but essential
Change means innovation, and all the new stimuli pass before through the subcortical area. However, when our mind worked too long on an habit basis, this change generates an alarm response. The amygdala considers it a danger that could destabilize the balance achieved, then sounds the alarm.
If we are not able to overcome this stage, we will remain paralyzed, overwhelmed by fear. We will remain stuck in our comfort zone, where we feel more comfortable, but sooner or later, when the world changes, we will realize that we are not able to adapt and change our habits. And it is in that very moment that our comfort zone will become an uncomfortable place in which we’ll feel bad.
Therefore, it is important not to rely too much on our subcortical area and maintain active our neocortex. This means that we must:
- Develop full attention, become more aware of what we have around, our habits, thoughts and emotions.
- Search innovation and new experiences, so that the subcortical brain is not afraid of anything that is new.
- Reflect on our habits and beliefs, wondering if they are still functional or have lost their raison d'etre.
The key to change is simple: make the decision, with our neocortex, and thus involve the subcortical region, so that its function is limited to keep us motivated. Do that is easier when you understand that these fears, insecurities and strengths come actually from the part of the brain that wants to keep you tied to old habits.
Remember that only when you have the courage to do what you usually don’t do will get you different results, often extraordinary.
Goleman, D. (2013) Focus. Desarrollar la atención para alcanzar la excelencia. Barcelona: Editorial Kairós.
We change when we decide to do what we usually don’tJennifer Delgado