Change Your Brain, Change Your Mind

We humans have a difficult time with change, even when it’s good for us.  We stay in unsatisfying jobs, unfulfilling relationships and unhealthy situations far longer than necessary.  The irony is that our brains love change.

Our brains want to be stimulated while our minds scream “NO”!  We struggle with dueling needs: novelty vs. stability. Our brain likes shiny new things; we feel happy when we have a new object, a new idea or a new experience. Marketers have known this for eons.  They have us with: “new and improved.” 

Novelty vs. Stability

But what prevents us all from becoming novelty junkies is the competing need for stability and security.  We get stuck in ruts because we love the feeling of the dirt around us.  We know the best route to our job, gym, meeting…why give all that up? 

You’re likely familiar with the expression, better the devil you know than the one you don’t (or some variation of that). This saying expresses the sentiment that it’s safer to deal with a bad, familiar person (or thing) than someone (or something) who could be worse.  Risk aversion keeps people stuck in all kinds of unsatisfactory relationships and situations.

When we get wedded to the notion that things should stay the same, disappointment is sure to follow.  Just because an idea worked well a decade ago, doesn’t guarantee it works well now.  The annals of history are filled with companies that had a good idea at one time but failed to change (think: Kodak and Blockbuster).

Rewiring Your Brain

The field of neuroscience has exploded over the past few decades and is helping us lay folks understand that change is good.  The term, neuroplasticity, in fact, has become somewhat of a buzzword.  Simply put, it means we can rewire our brains by learning a new skill or a new way of behaving or thinking about things.

Not long ago, scientists believed that the brain developed up to a certain age and it was all downhill after that.  The research has revealed, however, that the brain has the ability to grow (neurogenesis) at any age, albeit at a slower pace. These new findings impact the way we see aging and provides evidence that memory loss and dementia can be mitigated.

The rub is that we must challenge ourselves by trying new things.  Eleanor Roosevelt knew this to be true when she said, “You must do the thing that you think you cannot do.” The more you challenge yourself by deliberately doing what’s scary, the more prepared you are to deal with the scary, involuntary changes that come your way.

Mental Agility

The experts now suggest that finding new ways of doing things and learning new skills (such as a new language or a musical instrument) lead to neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.  Memorization is good exercise for the brain.  Doing the same things over and over again may help you improve a skill but doesn’t change your brain. By doing crossword puzzles, for example, one gets better at crossword puzzles but this activity doesn’t challenge the brain to rearrange itself.

Mental and emotional flexibility also help us stretch our brains…and change our minds.  Looking at a situation from a different angle, expanding our circle of friends, attending a class or social function that may intimidate are examples of how we can flex our brains.   If we think of the brain as a muscle that needs exercising, we may be able to better cope with life’s ups and downs and keep our wits about us.