The Challenge of Change - How Neuroscience Can Help
Dr. Yashar Khosroshahi
A naturopathic doctor and a certified brain-based executive coach, Dr. Khosroshahi is the cofounder
of Mindshift Ninja. He helps train people to overcome mental and physical obstacles to reach peak
performance. He graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM) and applies his
training from the NeuroLeadership Institute and the Institute of HeartMath to help individuals advance in
business, sport, relationships, and personal health and wellbeing. While he is not working as a coach and
consultant with Mindshift Ninja, he continues to enjoy teaching health psychology at CCNM to the next
generation of naturopathic doctors, and maintains a private practice in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada.
“You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself, that values itself, that
Change is challenging. Change is universal. Change is manageable. Much like
conditioning our bodies to become stronger and more flexible, we can train our brain to
manage the challenge of change. Patients don’t come into my practice because they
think candy is better than kale; they come because they don’t know why they keep
picking candy over kale. Each of us has our own “candy” and “kale” example. Each of
us is resistant to change, even when we know change is better for us. It is helpful to
understand our individual relationship with change, how the brain processes change, to
then understand how to make successful change.
We will begin our understanding of the challenge of change with the autopilot brain.
Repeated behavioural and/or emotional patterns are due to mental processes that
are evolutionarily programmed, processes that we have rehearsed and automated,
or both. Secondly, we will explore the social brain. Understanding the neuroscience
underpinning the challenge of change from the perspective of the brain’s social needs is
paramount. Finally, we will end our discussion on the insightful brain. Creating solutionoriented
approaches allows the brain to reach meaningful insights regarding the value
and connection to the change. Understanding these three factors can help make the
challenge of change more manageable, sustainable, and meaningful for our patients
The Autopilot Brain
The evolutionary brain chooses the path of least resistance. Neuroscientist Evian Gordon
believes “the fundamental organizing principle of the brain [is to] minimize danger [and]
maximize reward.” Imagine change to be a sabre-toothed tiger jumping out from
behind the weeds. It threatens the brain, igniting us to fight or flight. This automatic
reaction is governed by very primitive brain circuitry involving different structures of the
brain, and is a mechanism the brain heavily relies upon. This primitive and automatic
hard-wiring begins to illustrate why change can be so difficult for many of us.
The brain’s embedded need is to scan our environment for “errors”—perceived
differences between expectation and actuality. These “errors” produce a cascade
of intense neuronal firing, much stronger than the firing caused by familiar stimuli.
Situations that signal a large discrepancy from one’s expectation of their environment
awakens the “sabre-toothed tiger.” The part of the brain that comes alive with intense
neuronal firing, known as the error-detection circuit, the anterior cingulate cortex, is
sensitive to both internal and external sources of error information. Whatever the
situation may be, changing one’s eating habits to being diagnosed with a disease, too
much variation in our environment puts the brain on high alert.
The error-detection circuits are also closely wired to the brain’s emotional centres. This
alone suggests that change can be an emotional process. Often, our emotional state is
automatic, causing the brain to behave more impulsively and less rationally, decreasing
the brain’s ability to implement positive change. Encouraging our patients to explore
and understand their perceptions and expectations of any particular event—especially
one that is linked to emotional triggers (e.g., disease, disability, death)—is fundamental
to counter the automatic nature of our error-detection circuit.
Our mental maps—the circuitry of neurons that run together based on our theories,
attitudes, and expectations—control our perceptions. These maps are created by
repetitious and rehearsed thoughts and actions that then become hardwired and
“buried” into a more metabolically efficient storage space of the brain, the basal
ganglia. This is the preferred state for the autopilot brain, as it can approach each day
in “cruise control,” minimizing the need for the metabolically demanding act of conscious
thinking. Changing these hardwired perceptions requires significant effort and attention;
as a consequence, patients feel discomfort and often seek to avoid change.
Emotional labeling and reappraisal strategies are two effective tools that help disrupt
the automatic nature of the brain’s response to threatening stimuli. With training, there
is diminished activity in emotion-processing areas of the brain, the amygdala and other
limbic regions, and increased activity in the executive functioning area of the brain, the
prefrontal cortex (PFC).[7, 8] This is extremely valuable, because the prefrontal cortex
is the area of the brain responsible for understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing,
and inhibiting, all of which are invaluable when trying to establish positive change and
minimize the brain’s threat response.
Emotional labelling helps patients build an inventory of words associated with their
sensations. Eventually, as the brain begins to react to an “error,” the patient can identify
their emotion and label it in a word or two. Doing this is in “real time” promotes emotional
clarity and increases PFC activation. Reappraisal techniques focus on an individual’s
subjective appraisal of an event or perceived threat—the meaning and significance that
leads to an emotional reaction, rather than the event itself. Redefining the threat as an
opportunity for personal growth, or simply a chance to do something in a different way
than originally planned, can have tremendous emotional benefits. Mastering these
techniques allows the brain to maximize its response to a challenge, while minimizing
its impulsive reaction, offering an opportunity to create new mental maps.
The Social Brain
Our brain’s threat response, due to the presence of “errors,” is not limited to fear for our
physical safety; it also includes emotional states such as sadness, anxiety, depression,
mind wandering, and at extreme states, attention deficit disorder.
Recently, researchers have discovered that social situations that trigger the threat response
provide a more intense neural fingerprint than when the brain’s reward circuitry, through
positive stimulus, is activated.Furthermore, it has been demonstrated the brain holds
onto the threat longer than the reward, perhaps indicating another “brain-reason” for
why we must repeatedly praise, acknowledge, and celebrate when patients are willing
and motivated to face their perceived challenge for change.
Traditionally, science turns to Abraham
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to
understanding how our needs motivate
our behaviour (Figure 1, right).
Maslow wrote in his 1943 paper, A Theory
of Human Motivation:
“Undoubtedly these physiological
needs are the most pre-potent of all
needs. What this means specifically
is, that in the human being who
is missing everything in life in an
extreme fashion, it is most likely that
the major motivation would be the
physiological needs rather than any
Social cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman suggests, however, that this
hierarchy misplaces “social needs” by placing it in the middle, and not at the base of
the hierarchy (Figure v2, left). According
to Lieberman, the neuronal activity that
propels us toward food and away from
predator is also stimulated by social
threats. The brain responds to being
hungry, being rejected, or adopting
change, with similar neuronal activity.
Triggers that threaten our social needs can
seem subtle, but the brain uses significant
resources in responding. The brain
is supremely sensitive to initiating any
change that threatens the brain’s social
mental maps. Perhaps this explains why
some patients justify their eating habits
with the infamous phrase: “You don’t
make friends with salad.” Making any change, in this case one’s diet, in a social setting
that is unsupportive can feel just as threatening as any physiological need not being
The Insightful Brain
Insight: an understanding of the true nature of something.
Fortunately for us, the brain and its 10,000 neuronal connections are able to change
through insight and experience, a term referred to as “neuroplasticity”: the ability to alter
our brain actively by actively focusing attention in constructive ways. Insight is the
elixir for sustainable positive change and an engaging life.
The brain’s inclination is to go from problem to habituated action based on previously
created, automatic, low-energy mental maps. Knowing this, when a patient encounters
a dilemma or recurring problem, from a neuroscience perspective, they are experiencing
conflicting mental maps. These conflicting
maps, or values, make competing
demands on the brain’s resources. The
brain must then reconfigure the existing
maps and reconcile the conflicts.
Patients can learn how to interact with a
conflict better by consciously adding a
few key steps to the process (Figure 3,
Helping prepare the brain to absorb insight, and therefore changing how the patient
thinks, is critical. Recent research suggests that when the brain suppresses irrelevant
thoughts, such as tangentially irrelevant past experiences, it allows the brain to “attack
the next problem with a ‘clean slate.’” The more repetitive this process becomes, the
more likely the patient will be able to create self-directed neuroplasticity.
Creating self-directed neuroplasticity requires exercise in the form of selective internal
focus. According to Dr. Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist, to consistently
produce insight, one must have the ability to bring awareness to their internal experience
and observe their own thinking to therefore have a better opportunity to change the
way they think. The more we train internal attention, the more it can offer. Once we
strengthen the brain to maintain attention on one point of focus, we can then use this
ability to solve various conflicts. When the brain succeeds here, a new mental map is
created, and a new perspective is born.
Self-directed and self-achieved insights make the brain come alive. It’s akin to reading
a good story or watching a good movie, and reaching a conclusion where the storyline
falls into place. Without insight, you are left with a punchline without a joke; only with
insight can you understand how you arrived at the punchline. When our brain achieves
insight, high frequency oscillations called gamma-band waves occur; these are the only
frequency found in all regions of the brain when the brain is simultaneously processing
information across different regions. This event signals that the brain is creating new
mental maps—a supermap—linking many regions of the brain together. Once the
brain achieves this, creating an action plan that is aligned with the new mental map, the
patient’s insights, makes the value of change much more attractive to the brain.
As a practitioner tool, it is helpful to ask patients to:
- Write a list of at least 25 reasons why (insert goal/change) is important or of
value to you. Make sure to draw from all areas of your life.
- How will (insert goal/change) increase your joy/engagement in your life.
- Rewrite and reread your list each day for the next two weeks. During the
same period of time, keep a journal to document opportunities that allow
you to implement (insert goal/change).
When a patient seeks to make any change, the necessary first step is to focus that
patient’s attention on their valued reasons for change and on their internal sense of
joy/engagement coming from the change. Studies have shown a strong correlation
between emotional states and insights. Increasing one’s joy or engagement, or in
this case asking patients to think about how the change will increase these feelings,
increases the likelihood of producing an insight.
Asking the patient for multiple reasons requires them to search their brain for varied
answers. This in itself requires sustained attention on the purpose for change and gives
them an opportunity to observe their own thinking. Recall the brain feels challenged to
change its hardwired mental maps, so to convince it to change, we need to persuade
it to shift its categorization of the challenge from threat to reward. By asking the patient
to repeat this activity daily further promotes selective attention, and begins embedding
their values into the preferred metabolically efficient, automatic, low-energy mental
Change is Manageable
Neuroscience has helped us understand the nuances of change. The autopilot brain’s
preferred metabolically efficient processes are evolutionarily programmed, and use
mental maps that are rehearsed and automated. The social brain’s challenge to change
may be just as threatening as any physiological need not being met. The insightful
brain demands a solution-oriented approach to reach meaningful insights regarding
the value and connection to the change, therefore minimizing the potential for change
to remain threatening. These three factors can help make the universal challenge of
change become more manageable, sustainable, and meaningful for our patients and