About a decade ago I began reading books about the brain. Neuroscience was starting to become popular (largely because of massive advances in the field) and writers (scientists, psychologists and those who were discovering the science) were beginning to connect the academic with our day-to-day lives. My employer at the time was working with several neuroscientists to explore how the emerging science might influence the way we were approaching our work as a learning and motivation company. It was thrilling to begin to make these connections.
Now, as I reflect on a decade of reading and thinking about this research, I realize that there are a couple of big ideas that have changed the way I think about what it means to be human in a complex world. Taken together, these two big ideas have a great deal to offer as we think about how to increase our agility and resilience amid this complexity.
Here’s the first big idea: Our brains are exceptionally well-designed for a reality different from the one we live in.
Our brains are still wired to be hyper-attuned to threats, and nearly as well-attuned to rewards. This orientation derives from a time, not long ago in evolutionary terms, when hyper-attunement was critical for our very survival. Responding quickly to a threat to our physical safety is the best thing a person can do. The problem is that, today, most threats are social, not physical, and the same response that once worked so well, can often drag us down.
We are constantly in surveillance mode—reading our environment for threats and discerning them with great speed. This is happening so quickly that our conscious brain often doesn’t have time to get in on the conversation and remind our unconscious brain that these threats are not necessarily real. We find ourselves making decisions and judgments that do not serve us or others well.
Here are a couple examples:
We quickly judge someone as a foe (because our brains want to judge friend or foe in an instant), assign them the label of “other,” and are no longer open to what they say. This happens without our conscious awareness.
We perceive a relatively minor piece of what we interpret as negative feedback as a major threat, and weave entire stories about the feedback giver (our boss, perhaps) and the impact of the feedback, deciding (despite all evidence to the contrary) that our job is on the line. That response will then start a series of actions and thoughts that are anything but helpful, and are possibly quite damaging.
The same can be true, to a slightly lesser degree, in the way that we interpret rewards. For example, certainty is rewarding (as measured by dopamine in our brains). The sense of knowing something and being right is interpreted as a reward.
The problem? We are often quite sure of things that are either wholly or partially inaccurate or untrue. We hold onto opinions—and even versions of reality—that can be proven wrong. We don’t hear others who have different perspectives and versions of truth. The result of our need to be certain—to be right—can at times be quite dangerous. And, under stress, our need to be right grows.
I would argue that some of the polarization that we see in politics stems from two sides being committed to being right (which gets more pronounced under threat conditions). Our inability to solve complex and challenging problems often stems from the two sides’ absolute commitment to their “rightness.”
To dig deeper into this first big idea, I recommend both On Being Certain, written in 2008 by Robert Burton, or his 2013 book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind. David Rock’s article, Managing with the Brain in Mind, digs more deeply into the social threats that we are constantly scanning for—along with strategies for managing them.
So, if the first big idea is that our brains are not all that well-designed for a reality that isn’t primarily focused on physical threats and rewards, the second big idea is the good news: We can change our brains.
Jeffrey Schwartz, co-author of The Mind and the Brain, a book written in 2002 that stands the test of time, introduced me to the term neuroplasticity. Nothing was ever the same. The myth that our brains stopped changing when we “grew up” was completely undone.
Our brains change all the time and we can influence the way our brains change by choosing what we attend to. While there are some real challenges—our brains really want to keep doing the things they are used to doing—if we redirect our attention and make different choices, we can make lasting change in our wiring. We can learn, through “self-directed neuroplasticity,” (a concept derived from Schwartz’s research) to be less reactive.
What does self-directed neuroplasticity mean, in practice? One example is gratitude. We now know that by practicing gratitude we expand our capacity for positivity and happiness—I like this summary of the research on gratitude. Similarly, by practicing mindfulness meditation, we can learn to respond, rather than react to the triggers in our lives. And by focusing on moments when we are happy, as described by Rick Hanson in Hardwiring Happiness, we can increase our overall sense of well-being, and be happier each day.
If we adopt these practices it doesn’t mean we will no longer be challenged or threatened—it does mean that we will increase our ability to face challenges and threats with greater skill and respond to threats in a less destructive manner.
Dan Siegel, in his wonderful book Mindsight, describes patients in their 90s who, through mindfulness practices, make changes that make them easier to live with, happier, and more at peace with themselves. Our capacity to change our brains never ends.
So, on the one hand, we were wired for a time when threats were more immediate, more existential, and more transient. On the other, our nervous systems can, with practice and attention, shift. This capacity for change exists in every one of us, at every moment. Becoming aware of these ideas, and harnessing the power of neuroscience to be more aware of our reactions to the world, allows us to become increasingly resilient in a world that demands agility and adaptability.