Let’s look at the performance improvement process through the lens of New Year’s resolutions and see what neuroscience can teach us to make both more successful.
The Brain on Change
So why is change so hard? In a previous post, we explored applications of neuroscience to change management and consulting. One of the key points in that article is that our brain is structured with one primary purpose: to keep us alive so that we can transmit our genes to the next generation. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, is a classic work on the subject.
Historically, change has often been dangerous. So we have become hard-wired to avoid and resist it at every turn. And yet, when faced with a change that has the potential to make us more likely to survive, some brains are able to adapt more easily than others. It turns out that health and lifestyle choices have a significant effect on the brain’s ability to change.
Changing the Brain to Change Behavior
Daniel Amen has studied over 63,000 brains using brain imaging to study blood flow and activity patterns. He studies the connection between brain health and success in life and overall happiness. One interesting conclusion of his studies is that a healthy brain is much better equipped to make positive changes and stick to them. Want to lose weight, make more money, or spend more time with your family? The answer is the same: start by ensuring that your brain is healthy.
Rich Brain/Poor Brain
While taking up only 2 percent of our average body weight, the brain consumes more than 20 percent of the body’s energy. This energy is transmitted through the blood, along with everything else we eat, drink, breathe or are exposed to in our environment. In her book, Starting Strong: A Mentoring Fable, Lois Zachary and Lory Fischler tells the story of a mentor and mentee. Along the way, the mentor learns that she must address the whole person if she is going to help her client achieve lasting changes in performance and behavior. Some of the brain health issues that she eventually addresses with her mentee include:
- examining preconceptions and negative thoughts
- maintaining healthy activity levels and diet
- making learning new things a daily habit
- unlearning (also called pruning) unproductive thoughts or conceptions.
Give Learners the Gift of Brain Health
The discovery of brain plasticity has proven that you can help people change their brains almost immediately, by providing an environment to support learning. Since the brain learns better when it is healthy, adopting a healthier lifestyle can help learners develop brains that are more receptive to change and new ideas. Some of these lifestyle changes include:
- Limit alcohol use. Even a few drinks a week can reduce overall brain function and create areas of reduced brain function.
- Maintain a healthy weight. As your weight goes up, the physical size and function of your brain goes down.
- Stop smoking. Smoke inhalation blocks the carotid artery, restricting blood flow to the brain.
- Manage high blood pressure. Prolonged exposure to high blood pressure not only restricts blood flow to the brain, but increase the risk of dementia, heart attack and stroke.
- Stop negative thoughts and cultivate positive ones. When we formulate an idea, such as “I’ll never be able to lose weight,” or “I’m good with people,” a physical pattern, in the form of neural connections, is formed in the brain. Every time we go over this pattern by revisiting this thought, we make the behavior stronger.
- Learn something new every day. Brains with a high degree of new activity tend to stay that way. Brains that are slow to learn new things gradually lose some of their ability to change. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be learned.
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep each night. In our sleep-deprived world, the average adult is walking around in a brain-induced fog. The brain uses sleep to rebuild and reorganize. Sleep deprivation can result in lower brain performance and less ability to change.
- Meditate. Counter to previous beliefs, meditation has been shown to activate the cerebral cortex, which is the seat of conscious thought. A meditating brain is highly functioning brain.
- Exercise. Thirty minutes of physical exercise increases brain plasticity, making it more receptive to learning and change.
If you are a trainer, a mentor, a leader or educator, don’t neglect the role of brain health in the process of learning. If you’ve been struggling with making some changes in your own life, take a look at your lifestyle and nutrition choices. You may need to make some changes there to get your brain ready for change