the neuroscience of change

In a recent article in strategy+business, (issue 43) David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz explore "The Neuroscience of Leadership." Their conclusions on why and how people change their minds (and their brains!) explain much of the effectiveness of the practice of strengthening attention and intention through integrated thinking. Here's what they say about why insight is more important than information:

"For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions. That's true for several reasons. First, people will experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they go through the process of making connections themselves. The moment of insight is well-known to be a positive and energizing experience."

You cannot always set up the moment of insight for yourself: a teacher or guide can engineer experiences that allow you to focus your attention and enjoy the rush of insight. In between, the process is the antithesis of what we have come to expect from education. It involves not only actual confusion (to breakdown old neural pathways) but also discomfort (the brain naturally resists change and employs the amygdala to issue emotional warnings as it occurs). Motivated individuals will trust a guide to keep them safe until they spot their own route through the quicksand.

This period of confusion and discomfort is, Rock and Schwartz propose, not only the fastest and most effective way to learn: it might be the only way we can give up long held habits and presuppositions in order to move forward in new ways. We have to learn to pay attention to something without the normal neurological markers that will later signal our attention is necessary and beneficial. From the point of view of the brain, it is a situation of "no pain, no gain."

On the other hand, the pain is less noticeable because the learning must be driven by attention to what is desired: the long wallowing in problems gives way to a focus on creating and practicing new behaviours. These behaviours feel good, particularly when they are supported by a coach or a class. As Rock and Schwartz remind us, "The power truly is in the focus, and in the attention that is paid." That power feels good and does good.


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