Neuroscience of change

Shawn at Anecdote finds another interesting article about the neuroscience of how we change and why we resist change. I blogged about another of Shawn’s finds a few weeks ago and this new one explores similar territory.

I liked this observation near the start:

Maybe your resistance to change manifests itself in a different way or in a different setting – a refusal to throw away that old slide rule, for example, or to look while the nurse draws your blood, or to dance at weddings. We all refuse to change our ways for reasons that are often hard to articulate.

Yes, it’s easy to bemoan others unwillingness to change and not notice how much we get set in our routines without noticing.

The central point is that processing change – ie learning – involves lots of activity in the prefontal cortex, which has limited capacity. Thus…

The prefrontal cortex crashes easily because it burns lots of fuel of the high-octane variety: glucose, or blood sugar, which is metabolically expensive for the body to produce.

Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives.

Extrapolating from this finding, the authors continue

The traditional command-and-control style of management doesn’t lead to permanent changes in behavior either. Ordering people to change and then telling them how to do it fires the prefrontal cortex’s hair-trigger connection to the amygdala. “The more you try to convince people that you’re right and they’re wrong, the more they push back,” says Rock. Even well-meaning advice quickly raises warning flags in the prefrontal cortex that it is soon to become overloaded and exhausted. And just as quickly it begins to defend itself. “Our brains are so complex that it’s rare for us to be able to see any situation in exactly the same way,” says Rock. “So when we get advice from people, we’re always finding ways that the advice doesn’t match up with our own experience or expectations.”

So if bossing doesn’t work, what does? The answer is epipanies, which is delightful notion to come across in an article about change management.

The way to get past the prefrontal cortex’s defenses is to help people come to their own resolution regarding the concepts causing their prefrontal cortex to bristle. These moments of resolution or insight – call them epiphanies – appear to be as soothing to the prefrontal cortex as the unfamiliar is threatening

Well it certainly makes sense to me.

3 thoughts on “Neuroscience of change

  1. Johnnie Moore


    What this and a number of other articles on the neuro-science of change (and many before it on the psychology of change) forget to mention is that although individual change is very important, it is often not the individual epiphany that drives change, but the groups which they are part of adopting the change and support for the change over the long-term. Change is overwhelmingly a team, rather than an individual activity.

    We seem to be stuck in an out-dated Descartian model of I being more important than we.

    Graham Hill


    Hi Graham: I think this is a case for Yes, And. Teams are, after all, made up of these individuals. We’re all interconnected, so a small change in one person can have iterative effects on others. I am wary of the notion of “driving change” by the way, I think it fits with an idealistic view of change rather than naturalistic, and can be limiting. (See my earlier post for more on that distinction.)

  2. Phil Dourado


    Thanks for that post on the neuroscience of change. The article you point to unlocked something for me – gave me my own epiphany if you like. I’ve been writing a boring chapter on Change for a book on leadership and have included with no enthusiasm the usual reference to John Kotter’s framework for change and some of Edgar Schein’s work, and that emergent change is the braver bottom-up approach. But, your post prompted me to re-work the chapter to include the need for epiphanies. You sparked off this formula in my head:

    “An epiphany is felt rather than thought. It is a Eureka! moment, but of the heart, not the head,”

    …which is making the chapter much more interesting! I shall credit you and the article you cite as my source.

    Thanks for that insight!


  3. Kevin Carson

    It’s important to distinguish whether the *substance* of the change is good or not. Workers often resist change from above because the management’s ideas are bad ones, or because the changes are aimed at squeezing more work out of fewer people for less pay.


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