Why It Is So Hard To Change - The Neuroscience Made Simple
Everywhere you go there is a new piece of advice on how to change your life “for the better”. Often I read the advice and I roll my eyes, thinking "no way, I'm not doing that". Other times though, I think… "this is for me". Yet when I try, the change sticks only for a short time then falls to the wayside. Does this ring a bell? Does it make you think about the New Year’s Resolutions you try each year, the ones that end up on repeat? Or does it make you think about the change you have tried to make to minimise stress, anxiety, anger or other emotions?
Whatever examples you are thinking about, one question looms in most of our minds.... Why is it so hard to change our behaviour, beliefs or thought patterns in a sustainable way?
Here is the explanation from a (simplified) neuroscientific perspective.
Neural networks 101
Your brain is made up of approximately 100 billion neurons (brain cells). These neurons store and transmit more information than you can ever imagine. Every time you learn a new word, a new piece of information or an activity, these neurons change their connections with other neurons.
For example, when you learn to ride a bike: you learn new information about the bike and how it works, you learn the physical movements used to make it go and make it stop, you then learn how to read your environment to predict where to, and when to ride. All these separate pieces of information activate different parts of the brain (and the neurons in that area). Once that pattern of activity has been activated a few times, new connections between those areas (and their neurons) are made. A new pathway is created.
It’s almost like you have created a ‘bike riding’ pathway in your brain, which includes (and links together) neurons from the visual field, the sensory and motor (movement) cortices and information storage/memory areas. The first time you ride a bike this pathway is weak. As you repeat the process over and over the pathway gets stronger. Your brain learns exactly what it needs to do to keep you safe while riding. It learns it so well that after a while you don’t even need to concentrate while riding (although you really should!). The pathway just activates and plays out all the parts necessary for the act without your conscious control.
What does this mean for changing behaviour?
You can visualise neural pathways by imagining a well-trodden path in a field. Every time a behaviour is repeated it is the same as someone walking over the same patch of ground in a field.
Think about a hobby or activity you have engaged in throughout your life. Think about how many times you have repeated that activity or thought process. Now imagine walking over a patch of grass in a field that amount of times. Imagine the path you would create and how deeply entrenched that path would become.
The metaphor is apt as behaviours that have been completed for a shorter time have a lighter pathway and those with longer repetition (i.e. habits) have a deeper pathway.
The path of least resistance
Now for the fun part… your brain will always try to take the path of least resistance. It likes to maintain homeostasis (read: it likes to stay the same at all times). To help with this, it creates pathways for habits that it can follow with ease.
When your brain is repeating a habit (the feeling of "running on autopilot") it doesn’t need to use much energy because it doesn’t have to engage the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is used for higher level skills like paying sustained attention to difficult tasks or decision making. It requires larger amounts of energy and has to be engaged when learning or completing new behaviours. When it is engaged we can focus on our new behaviour, the change we want for ourselves. When it isn't engaged we slip into old habits.
Knowing about this helps us understand why stress and tiredness lead us back to old habits... Stress and tiredness minimise our brain's resources. Therefore when we run out of energy, our prefrontal cortex disengages and we are shoved back down the path of habit.
What happens when we try to change?
Let’s continue the metaphor of the field and take it one step further. Imagine you are in a field full of crops. The crops are really tall. In the middle of the crops, there is a path. This path exists because you have walked it over and over again. Trampling the crops. Grinding them down so that now there is a clear walkway through the field. Now you decide to take a different route. You set off face first into the tall crops... It’s hard. Maybe you give up as the resistance from the crops are so strong, and head back to the old path. Maybe you struggle through, noticing how much more effortful this route is and how much quicker you tire.
If you make it to the other side… well done! Full marks. Now… imagine the path you left behind you, is it visible? How does it compare to the path you normally take? The answer is, the new path is barely visible but there is a trace of it. You could find it again if you looked for it but it would be hard.
This is what every time we try to change a habit. We come up against resistance. We tire more quickly as the brain uses more energy when not running on autopilot. And as soon as we are tired or stressed our brain takes away our conscious control and quickly slips us back into our old habits.
The habits that are hardest to change
- Habits linked to times of stress. If you have read my previous articles you will know that the brain doesn’t know the difference between life-or-death threats and social threats. Whenever it thinks you are under any kind of threat it activates the fight-or-flight response. A response that has been keeping our species alive for generations. Can you imagine how deep a path that is? So… changing these responses require time and effort. (For full description of the fight-or-flight response see Why Do I Feel So Bad? An Introduction to The Fight-or-Flight Response).
- Habits linked to chemical changes in the brain, i.e. addictions to alcohol or other substances. Changing these behaviours have the added difficulties of having to rebalance chemical changes in the body — I will write more about these in other articles.
- Habits that you don’t really feel motivated to change. The ones you think you ‘ought’ to or ‘should’ change. The ones you aren’t excited about engaging in. In these instances you don’t start with the emotional resources you need to battle against the resistance you will surely face.
So… What can we do about this?
How do we create change now that we know all this?
Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean change is impossible. It just shows why change is hard. It shows why we should stop beating ourselves up every time we don’t maintain change.
When you think about the changes you haven’t yet made, don’t think about failing. Think about the well worn path in your brain and your brain’s resistance to change. Change takes time and persistence. My next post will show you how to hone the next steps.
I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.