brain science

Why is change so difficult?

I’m pretty sure Thomas Jefferson wasn’t citing research into brain science and the neurobiology of behavior when he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence:

“…accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

His was a political and governmental musing, but it’s a spot-on observation into human behavior. In today’s language, what he’s basically saying is that people are more likely to stay the same (even if it sucks), as long as it’s survivable, than they are to change.

Because change is hard. Really hard.

In the last post, I outlined why your brain can actually be an impediment when it comes to change. Because your brain is charged with the responsibility of guaranteeing your survival, it is suspicious of any new behavior that deviates from behavior that has kept you alive until now. Undertaking unfamiliar and uncomfortable action in the pursuit of improvement sends a red flag to your brain. It can’t discern between good/bad or healthy/unhealthy when it comes to habits, it’s mostly looking for “what action will guarantee survival RIGHT NOW” versus “what action could potentially kill me RIGHT NOW.” Your amygdala lives in the moment. And it likes to be able to predict outcomes. With repeated rituals, the brain feels confident that it can foresee the future.

But there is another reason why your brain isn’t necessarily on board with behavior change and it has to do with energy expenditure.

Keep in mind, when considering the brain and how it functions, that it evolved over tens of thousands of years in which human beings (and their earlier ancestors) lived in a dangerous, resource-scarce environment. Today it is still operating as if we are hunter-gatherers living before the development of agriculture (about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago), in an environment in which death by starvation, famine, disease, weather and predators was a genuine possibility. In that setting it made sense for our amygdala to be hyper-vigilant, ceaselessly scanning for potential threats. It also made perfect sense to be very, very judicious in how we spent our energy, our calories, because we were in a constant race to simply collect and consume as many calories as possible to make it to the next meal long enough to reproduce and propagate the species.

We take calories for granted today. We live in a resource-abundant environment in which we are surrounded by Trader Joe’s, 7-11 and Uber Eats. There are, in fact, TOO MANY calories available to us now. But the instinctive, evolutionary-based brain we have can’t process that fact. It is still minding it’s “calorie expenditure” role, dutifully considering the value of every calorie ingested and spent.

Why is calorie-expenditure relevant to behavior change?

Habits are amazing. They can, by human standards, be “healthy” or “unhealthy,” they can be “good” or “bad.” But that is the rational part of our brain judging each of them. As a system, habits are incredibly useful, efficient and amazing. In fact, up to 45% of our daily activities may be attributable to habits.

A habit is an action or behavior that has been repeated so many times that it has become automatic. This happens when repetition creates neural pathways in the brain, and the brain memorizes it, packages it, downloads it to a part of the brain that categorizes and manages it (the basal ganglia), and then relies on that portion of the brain to operate that habit virtually automatically, without conscious thought or effort.

A habit, then, is an automated behavior that essentially operates on auto-pilot like an app running silently in the background on your computer. And, because it is automated, it requires very little energy to operate.

Remember, your brain is an energy auditor. It considers the survival value of every calorie spent. So, habits, which are routines that have become automated, require fewer calories to operate.

Change, on the other hand, requires a lot of resources. And by “resources,” I mean “effort” and I mean “calories.”

“…the brain always defaults to what is easiest.” – Kelly McGonigal

If you want to change your behavior or create a new habit, you have to engage different parts of the brain than the part that manages automated routines. This process requires more energy. The development of a new, conscious behavior takes more effort, focus and intention (energy) than a behavior that is automated and managed on auto pilot by the basal ganglia.

Your brain doesn’t like this fact.

Given the choice between two options, the brain will choose the one which requires less energy unless the action is a matter of life or death. It is constantly performing a cost-benefit analysis because it considers every calorie used to be a matter of life or death! Remember; your brain still believes calories to be rare, scarce and hard-won, and for starvation to be an imminent possibility at all times.

This is an environmental mismatch; a mismatch between the environment the brain believes us to be living in and the environment that we are actually living in. And it will likely take thousands of generations for the brain to adapt accordingly.

But we need to cut the brain some slack. Besides the fact that it is, well, really awesome, it’s also just doing what it believes to be in your best interest. It’s not the bad guy here. It’s just kind of acting like the overprotective father of a daughter who wants to date. The poor girl wants to grow up, dad just doesn’t like it.

In the meantime, we just have to make the most of the situation by understanding why we behave the way we do and how we can manage it more effectively.

So, as I stated in the last post, if you struggle with change, there’s nothing wrong with you.

It’s time to stop berating yourself and to start being strategic.

Stay tuned….

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Jonathan Aluzas is co-owner of Arena Fitness, a fitness center that offers group training in Encino as well as personal training in Northridge.