Why the resistance?
The process of cortical remapping can be explained with the analogy of driving through a national park. If I drive my 4WD down the same track every day, that track will get deeper and more open and be easy to move down while the others will become overrun, with weeds sprouting up through the middle and trees encroaching on the sides. Our neurons work in the same way. The more we drive down one particular path the easier it becomes – whether that path is effective (like practicing mindfulness) or ineffective (like yelling at someone when we are angry).
It may take effort initially to choose to drive down a new path – it is overgrown and takes more concentration, especially when we are under pressure. With a bit of effort, we can knock back the weeds and overgrowth and create a new path that, over time, is easy to navigate. Our neurons fire together quicker and with repetition they become embedded as habits in our internal control centres. Yet, as the saying goes, old habits die hard.
Even when faced with a life-threatening situation, people tend to resist change despite knowing the repercussions. Studies reveal that when heart disease patients who had undergone traumatic bypass surgery were told if they did not adjust their lifestyle they would die, or at best undergo the life-saving procedure again, only 9% modified their behaviour .
We also see this resistance every day in organisations experiencing change. Research has found that over 70% of organisational change initiatives fail because of people resistance – not because they weren’t good business ideas.
Comfortable behaviours are easy
Our brains are predisposed to take the easy option, which is why change requires effort and persistence.
Neuroscientists divide the brain into X-system (reflexive) and C-system (reflective) functions. UCLA professor Matt Lieberman defines the X-system as energy-efficient, reacting automatically and fast. Tuned in to immediate goals and past emotions, memory, habits, and beliefs, it matches perceptions with patterns on the fly.
The C-system takes more energy to function and processes information more slowly, one step at a time. Governing higher-order thinking, the C-system’s job is to consciously reflect on, challenge and correct the X-system .
The limbic system (System X) – which includes our emotions, connection with others, memory, and habits. The limbic system acts as a control centre for conscious and unconscious functions, regulating much of what the body does. It could be seen as the well-paved road.
The pre-frontal cortex (System C) – which is responsible for higher order thinking such as decision making, problem solving, planning, paying attention, self-regulation, intentionally changing a habit and social behaviours.
The pre-frontal cortex takes more energy to function whereas the limbic system is energy efficient. What that means is, it takes more effort and energy to think about and do something new than to react out of instinct or habit.
Whenever we act or think in ways we have done in the past, we reinforce neural connections in our limbic system. We rely on old patterns and already formed pathways. Some examples of things we do daily that happen without much thinking are brushing our teeth, riding a bicycle, or getting dressed. Very few people must decide consciously which leg to put into their trousers first. These simple behaviours have been shaped repeatedly by training and experience and are now habitual and low energy. Similarly, the limbic system operates on autopilot to some degree, remembering the route to the office, waving hello to the receptionist on your way through, and understanding how to start up your computer.
When it comes to conscious decision making according to our motivations, the pre-frontal cortex is called upon to use or create new pathways and patterns. Our perception of the situation considers which type of behaviour we would like to use. If we want to inhibit our impulses or actively influence where we place our attention – it can be hard work, even when we know that these behaviours will lead to positive changes.
Considering that changing a habit or embedding a new behaviour can put the pre-frontal cortex under pressure, we can see how we might relapse and favour reverting to earlier behaviours. Our brain will opt for familiar patterns that are easier to follow. Our physiology plays a part in avoiding change and finding it hard to maintain commitment towards overriding a habit