Change & Neuroplasticity

We live in uncertain times. A lot of you would have read a recent article about the possibility of Accenture acquiring some of the worlds largest communication agency networks.  A few days back, the papers have also mentioned the possibility of more than a 100,000 software engineers losing their jobs by year-end. Many of their skills, some garnered over years, suddenly appear all too redundant. Tough times for an industry often lead to the dreaded mass layoffs. Uncertainty of one’s future and feeling insecure go hand in hand. Yet rather than wait, wondering if the guillotine will or won’t come hurtling down, the only way forward is to push oneself out of the comfort zone, upgrade skills, embrace change and get ready to ever so often do the same all over again! After all, change is the only constant.

But why is it that most of us find it so difficult to embrace and adapt to change? One possible theory is the brain’s neuroplasticity. Our brains contain billions of brain cells that are wired in different ways. To study the brain and its activities scientists use functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI which allows them to detect changes in blood-flow to the brain while performing a task. When performing a particular task, such as playing a new instrument or a video game the fMRI indicates where blood flow within the brain is the highest. This indicates which cells are busy working and at which part of the brain.

A study done by Nathan Spreng, a neuroscientist from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y, revealed interesting facts about how the brain changes when we learn new things.  His research showed that while learning a new task, areas of the brain that allow people to pay more attention become very active. Later, once the subject learnt the task well, these same attention-centres became less active. Interestingly, areas of the brain related to day-dreaming and mind-wandering became more active as people became more familiar with a task. “At the beginning, you require a lot of focused attention,” Spreng says. Learning to swing a bat requires a great deal of focus when you first try to hit a ball. But the more you practice, Spreng says, the less you have to think about what you’re doing. So every time we learn something new our brains get wired to make us capable of executing that task seamlessly over time. The more we do the task the stronger the brain gets wired and the tasks become easier and easier till a point where we may not even be conscious of it. When we reach this point we get into what we call the comfort zone.  So why is it difficult to get out of the comfort zone?

This is because when we hardwire our brain to do a certain task it can make our brains very resilient and the learning becomes a permanent one. Try learning a new instrument, and play the major chords a 1000 times in rhythm and chances are you will remember it for a lifetime. Which is why when we want to change a habit built over years it becomes close to impossible. To make it worse, the plasticity and the ability of the brain to change itself greatly decreases with age. Thus people who have learnt and mastered a certain task over years find it very difficult to do the same task again in a different way.

While it may be difficult to change what has already been wired it is not impossible. The option of rewiring your brain to do a task differently is always open and depends a lot on a deep sense of purpose or motivation. Research has shown that the more motivated you are the more chances you create to successfully learn new things. Innumerable examples illustrate the brain’s malleability allowing individuals to adapt to a changing environment. Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, explores the paradoxical nature of change through real-life stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things – all linked to the neuroplasticity of the brain. However without developing the right habits, even a sense of purpose will not go far in helping rewire the brain.

Charles Duhigg, in his book the Power of Habits, mentions the three elements that form the basis of habits. The first two have been long known – the trigger or Cue and the action or Routine. Changing a habit is achieved when one learns to perform a different Routine even though experiencing the same Cue. To do this effectively, Charles says, the third element of Reward is key. If one repeatedly allows themselves a tangible reward that they genuinely value when performing the changed routine, a habit is successfully changed. When this is done time and time again, the Cue and Routine take hold until eventually the tangible reward is no longer needed. The brain has hardwired itself to the new act or habit.

I find a similar challenge even while managing a team of digital marketing professionals. In our industry change is the only constant and those who embrace change and take on challenges thrown at them grow well and the other usually drop off at some point. As we progress though our careers, climbing up the ladder from handling operational tasks, to managing projects, to leading teams, to managing people, to managing ‘bigger’ projects, to ideating strategy and eventually leading the vision, do we often forget to simply take a step back and observe all the changes we go through? Across all these stages through our careers and in our lives we will inadvertently face challenges that will push us out of our comfort zones and get us to learn new things or do the same things in a different way. The good news is that our brains are built to adapt to change – from new skills we may choose to pick up, to small behavioural changes, or sweeping changes in our personalities – changes that consciously or subconsciously rewire our cognitive framework. Every change offers us an opportunity to reinvent ourselves in ways big and small. The most amazing fact is that more often than not, we do!

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