Thursday, 18 November 2010

Changing behaviour

Your brain is the driving force behind every thought, memory, emotion and behaviour that you have ever had, or will ever have, throughout your life. I guess that makes it worth understanding a bit about how it works both for and against you. There’s one golden nugget of knowledge about your brain that you can use to change the way you choose to respond in difficult situations. So what’s the secret?

Brains are extremely complex networks of rather simple cells – your neurones. Neurones create complex networks in the brain that take in new information, interpret it in light of previous information, and then store the new learning in the network. The neurones that do this are microscopically small, and there are 10,000,000,000 of them! Each of these can make connections (synapses) with hundreds of other neurones. You therefore might imagine that setting up this array of inter-connections is a complex task, yet we know that the first phase of this process takes only 9 months for humans since babies are born with functional brains.

The master plan for designing these complex networks of neurones happens in two stages: the first stage involves setting up a preliminary network that is common across most people. We use genes to determine how to connect up this first network. And, to give the first network a bit of an extra boost, the genetic code constructs twice as many neural connections as we actually need. When each baby is born, his or her experiences are stored in this network. Connections that are used within an individual brain are strengthened while unused connections disappear over about the first 3 years of life. This first process of overproduction and elimination of connections is used to learn about events that can be expected on the basis of our common evolution. For example, most of us will see light, and colour, we will feel hard and soft, rough and smooth surfaces, and we will feel pain, we will hear soft sounds and loud sounds, high sounds and low sounds and, for humans, we will hear language. All of these new experiences are unconsciously stored by keeping connections that have been previously created in anticipation of these events.

If this was the only way that new information could be stored in our brains, then adults would not be able to learn new information or to create new ideas. So there has to be a second mechanism: This is where we create new connections as they are needed. When we hear language, we cannot know if it is going to be English or French or Japanese. The brain creates new networks to store the language it hears. Each new word will be stored in a new connection, which will connect with lots of other words stored in other connections in a complex network of information. Just to demonstrate this, I would like you to think about grass. Take a moment and create a really strong image of grass. Now – what else is in that image? My image is of a meadow of grass, and I can see poppies in the meadow too. There might even be sheep or cows grazing. Your image is likely to be completely different from mine. Each of the other details in the image that you have created is there because of the interconnections that have been made unconsciously and effortlessly in your brain to represent your memory of grass. And these will be different for every one of us! While this learning happened unconsciously, it can be compared with something that you worked hard to learn either at school or as part of your business. In this case, you considered it important enough to learn this new material that you consciously worked to create new connections.

How can understanding these two processes change the way you behave? The secret comes from the consequences of this design! I’d like you to think back to a strong, childhood memory. For me, it is walking across beautiful heather clad hills on the west coast of Scotland at sunset. I did not choose to remember this, and I have forgotten most of the other things that happened around this time. I know, however, that many of my current behaviours must arise from experiences that took place during my childhood. This inability to remember events from our early life helps to demonstrate how many of our responses are completely unconscious and routed in the unremembered past. As a result, most of these behaviours will never have been subjected to conscious reflection, or consciously chosen as behaviours that are useful and that we want to keep.

An example of one of my unconscious, unwanted responses is the behaviour that I fall into whenever my mother is present. Through no fault of hers, I revert to being a child when she is around. I never lose my keys and get locked out of the house – except when my mother is present. I never burn the dinner – except when my mother is present. Something about my mother’s presence activates behaviours that I really do not want or need! This happens because many of my competencies were not developed until after I left home (I had a fantastic mother who stayed home and looked after me and my sisters!) So, I need make a conscious effort to be competent to prevent me from reverting to incompetent behaviours that I find extremely frustrating. I know that behaviours are coded in connections in my brain, and that I can make new connections consciously when I want (with a bit of effort to make sure I change the behaviour regularly and consistently), so I know that I can choose NOT to do the things that frustrates me so much.

This is true of any response that we have that doesn’t help us. We can choose to develop a new network of connections to use for this situation, and thus change the behaviour.

If you want to make use of this idea, what might be useful to remember is:

  • All our behaviours are coded in neural circuits and synapses
  • Many of our responses to situations were coded unconsciously – especially when we were young and in the early stages of brain development
  • Not all of these continue to suit us
  • Adults can make new connections too
  • By creating new connections and networks, we can replace inappropriate responses with new responses that are much more useful!

Call to action

What inappropriate behaviours do you have that have been coded as unconscious responses to particular situations? What responses would suit you better? When would now be a good time to change them?

Think of 2 or 3 responses that you have that you would like to change. Choose a new response that would be more appropriate for the situation. Practice using the new response as often as you can. Don’t worry if you occasionally fall back to the old response – the network you are using is pretty hard wired and it will take a bit of time, and lots of practice, to make the new network equally accessible and easy to use. If you persist in the new behaviour, you will find that the old response is completely replaced by the new one.

Source: Kaizen Training

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Methods there are many, principles but few, methods often change, principles never do