How Brains Decide: why we get resistance during change initiatives

Think about the number of stars in the sky. Let’s say you’ve been told that 500 of them would provide elements of a good resolution to one of your problems, although some would be better than others. You’re offered a spaceship to bring you to just one of them. How would you know which star to choose given you can’t know where they’re located or what, specifically, they can provide?

Now, let’s parallel your brain with the stars, although there are more synapses, neurons, and circuits in your brain than there are stars in the sky! The problem above is the exact problem your brain faces whenever you want to do or decide something: you have a wish, an aspiration; you want to make a new decision; your team needs to figure out how to approach a new initiative.

To make your decision, your brain must send the ‘request’ to one grouping of your 1,000 trillion synapses, neural pathways, circuits (etc.) for translation into action. How does it choose? And how do you know it’s the best possible choice?

In this article I’d like to explain how your neural circuitry (abbreviated here as ‘circuits’) creates and biases everything you experience, and why you get resistance during a change initiative.

BRAINS MERELY INTERPRET SIGNALS

Let me begin with a bit of background on brains. See, they are merely electro-chemical interpretation devices, devoid of thought or meaning. That’s right: you think with your mind, but the instruction to act come from brain circuits that (simplistically) get chosen and triggered by the vibrations of the incoming content. You think or hear something, your brain captures the corresponding vibrations, dispatches the subsequent signals for interpretation, and the results are sent to your mind for action.

Without the mind-brain interaction, you wouldn’t feel, see, hear, or do anything. And here is where a problem emerges: few of us realize that our self-talk – our fears and annoyances, rejections and excitement, plans and rationalizations – as well as our actions, comes from instructions sent by our brain and might not accurately represent a full fact pattern.

When you make a decision, see a color or listen to a concert, you assume what you experience is an accurate representation of what’s happening. And sometimes it is. But sometimes your lazy brain has chosen the nearest superhighway (sequence of circuits) to translate the experience and it’s only a good-enough choice among a thousand other possibilities. Since it’s the only option you were given, how would you know there are better ones available?

See, your brain can’t tell the difference between good or bad – it only sorts for matching signals to interpret an input: meaning, intent, importance are not accounted for. Imagine if it were possible to consciously choose or create the exact circuits to provide your best choices!

YOUR BRAIN IS A PREDICTIVE MACHINE

Your brain is merely a predictive machine, comprised of vast numbers of elements (synapses, neural pathways, axons, etc.) that hold your history. To achieve an outcome, it employs thousands of biological, physiological, electrical, and chemical interactions that interpret incoming messaging into output action: input from the mind and setting (requests, conversations, thoughts, music, etc.), goes through some internal processing that filters the incoming to make sure it’s congruent, and eventually provides meaning and action (output).

In other words, everything you experience is directly from an instruction in your brain. Even words have no meaning until a brain circuit interprets them for you. In fact, many of the books I’ve read call words puffs of air!

Indeed, your mind has no way to understand or act, hear or see, unless your brain interprets it. Here’s what happens: the brain

  • filters incoming vibrations (inputs) from thoughts, feelings, sounds and words
  • through your Beliefs,
  • turns what remains into electro-chemical signals, and
  • dispatches them to ‘similar-enough’ circuits (among your 1,000 trillion)
  • that exit in your historic neural circuitry and
  • translates them into outputs/meaning or action (behaviors, decisions),

all in five one-hundredths of a second. Here is a simplistic diagram using the language of neuroscience:

INPUT (VIBRATIONS, WORDS) -> FILTERS (BELIEFS, MENTAL MODELS) -> CUE (CREATES SIGNALS) -> CEN (DISPATCH) -> OUTPUT (INTERPRETATION – WHAT WE THINK WAS SAID)

The process is automatic, devoid of meaning, and unconscious; you have no choice but to operate from the meaning your brain has provided. Sadly, the conscious ‘you’ is largely out of control: Once you provide an input message, and these vibrations have been turned into signals that become outputs, it’s too late to change their destination.

WE’RE APPROACHING CHANGE IN THE WRONG PLACE

Unfortunately, today’s standard practices for change management ignore the brain change element and focus on modifying the behaviors, decisions, actions – the outputs – AFTER they’ve been generated and therefore difficult to alter.

You end up with resistance or return to an unwanted habit when you try to change a behavior by trying to change a behavior. This is the reason Behavior Modification and other behavior-change models fail 97% of the time. Have you ever tried turning a chair into a table? You can’t, but it’s possible to reprogram the machine (input) to get a table (output)!

For change management, it’s possible to begin by getting a whole team to design the input: the norms of the new system for the proposed outcome, the stakeholders to include (not always obvious), the values and criteria to be met, the goal that everyone agrees to, and then send the brain the full set of criteria to process. This avoids resistance as the group develops suitable neural pathways that generate new responses.

Here’s a very simplistic example of the difference between using an input leading to an existing circuit, and a new input instruction that provides a new output:

“I’m a fat cow now! I need to go on a diet. I’ll start Monday.”

Vs

“I’m a healthy person who will do the necessary research to find the best foods and nutrition to help my body attain and maintain my best weight over time.”

In the first instruction, the brain sends the input to an historic neural pathway used for past diets and provides the same outcome. But the new input carries instructions that don’t have existing circuits and will create a wholly new pathway for permanent weight loss. I call this conscious choice.

THE ROLE OF SYSTEMS IN CHANGE

I’m not a scientist, but as someone with Asperger’s, figuring out how to get into my brain to have conscious choice has been my ‘topic’ since around 1957 when I became annoyed that I couldn’t hear exactly what someone meant or do precisely what I wanted.

I’ve devoted my life and intense curiosity to reading, thinking, designing, unpacking, writing, and inventing new skills and programs to create conscious routes into the unconscious for making personal decisions, serving Others by enabling their personal discovery and change, and for change initiatives that ensure buy-in and collaboration without resistance. I believe this is a Servant Leader route: how to enable Others to discover and design their own version of Excellence. Great for coaches and leaders.

Over the decades I’ve realized that change is a systems problem since everything you do must be congruent with who you are. And by judging incoming messages in relation to how ithey maintain your system, your brain is the arbiter of keeping you congruent.

Using systems as the foundation, here are what I consider to be the norms that all change follow as it relates to the brain:

  1. Every person (or group) is a unique, idiosyncratic system made up of norms, history, Beliefs and mental models that define it uniquely and must remain congruent to keep the system whole. Each action, thought, behavior, choice must match the norms, Beliefs, and mental models of the system. Turns out that behaviors are Beliefs in action. I call this the System of Me (SOM).
  2. Whatever you think see, hear, think, ‘know’, feel is what occurs after your brain has chosen interpretation circuits. Your world is restricted according to what you already know and believe; your understanding of unknown concepts is restricted accordingly. This makes curiosity, innovation, understanding new ideas, and accepting direction with new initiatives difficult.
  3. Before your brain changes what is historically built-in, anything new must match the SOM (For those scientists reading this, this is Systems Congruence.) or it will be rejected or resisted. This is true for both individuals and groups.
  4. All existing circuits (of which there are 1,000 trillion) predict the data it will accept. According to Jordi Cami and Luis M. Martinez in The Illusionist Brain,

“When the brain perceives, it generates a prediction…by inferring and anticipating reality based on past experiences.” (pg 102) Over time we generate a codification system…. And through experience we learn to store only what is most relevant (to us) … and eliminate details that we do not process.” (page 182).

In other words, your choices, how you interpret what you hear someone say, what you want to do, is pretty restricted to what’s already ‘in there’. We’re all restricted and unwittingly biased. And yes, there is neurogenesis, and brains constantly evolve. But the evolution is based on the existing neurology, physiology, and biology. How, then, is it possible to cause change and maintain Systems Congruence?

CONGRUENT CHANGE WITHOUT RESISTANCE

When you attempt to make a change without discovering and reorienting those parts of the brain that represent the status quo – regardless of how necessary or effective the new might be – resistance results.

In We Know It When We See It, Richard Masland says neurons get fired together automatically in response to an input used frequently, causing the brain to see these elements together even if only a portion of the same signals are sent (page 137)! He goes on to say:

“Our brain has trillions of cell assemblies that fire together automatically. When anything incoming bears even some of the characteristics [of operational circuits], the brain automatically fires the same set of synapses…There are very few inputs in our world that are not redundant.” (pg 143)

When you attempt to make a change using similar input as you’ve used before (i.e. without involving new input, new circuitry), your brain – acting mechanically and automatically – will seek existing circuitry so long as even a portion of the same signals are sent. And this is how you end up with resistance.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. I’ve developed models that make it possible to recognize the circuitry causing the activity and enable the brain to develop new circuits or change existing ones as needed.

Note: my models don’t use conventional thinking so you may not have the circuitry to translate my ideas completely. But if you’re interested in the topic, and don’t fully understand the article, contact me and I’ll lead you through it. It’s my life’s work and I’m here to serve you.

WHAT TO DO?

Knowing that your brain is an unreliable servant, how, then, can you create a new output? Here is what must be included:

  1. We must create input messages that include the proper wording and word placement, the correct hierarchy of criteria, the full set of instructions that captures the outcome as well as the route to get there.
  2. By following the natural path the brain takes to make a new decision, it’s possible to create successful initiatives/outputs very efficiently, without resistance. I’ve unpacked the 13 steps to change/decisions that match the flow of systems.
  3. The criteria (often unconscious) that hold the current problem in place (and have been maintained) must be matched when anything new is generated. Resistance follows when this is omitted. I have developed a 5 hour program that makes it possible to unpack a current habit and design new circuits for permanent habit/behavior change.
  4. To know which circuits are involved I invented a new form of question that directs the brain to the exact circuits (i.e. they are NOT information gathering).
  5. It’s vital to capture the full set of norms in the status quo so the underlying Beliefs, mental models, and history remains intact through the change. Without this, there is resistance as the system faces incongruence.

For those of you interested in leading congruent change without resistance, posing questions that enable Others to discover their actual answers, changing habits permanently, please 1. Go to www.sharon-drew.com and read some of the 1000 articles (clearly labelled in categories) on these subjects; 2. Connect with me and we’ll chat: sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com.

For those seeking the tools to change habits and behaviors, I’ve developed a HOW of Change™ model. For those seeking to enable Others to generate change without resistance, I’ve developed a generic Change Facilitation® model frequently used in sales to facilitate buying.

For those who would like to create their own systemic change models that enable the unconscious to generate effective outputs, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What criteria will you use to generate new messaging that incorporates the SOM for new behaviors and new decisions?
  • How can direct your conscious mind to the relevant access points in your unconscious without bias?
  • How can you influence the choice of circuits to best translate your input?
  • How will you know when there are more appropriate choices if your brain doesn’t offer them?
  • How will you generate the instructions and triggers that cause permanent behavior change that avoids resistance?
  • When creating a new initiative, how will you maintain Systems Congruence?

These are a few of the questions I’ve asked myself for decades and helped lead my thinking. I invite you to join me in discovering all the conscious routes into the unconscious for permanent, congruent, values-based change.

___________________

Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com.  

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