How to use your plastic brain to change your behaviour

Were you the sort of kid who liked to pull things like radios apart to see how they worked? If you did, you probably also discovered that they had to be reconnected in a specific way to get them to work again. Changing the configuration would only result in the radio being silent.

Thankfully, the neural connections in our brain aren’t so precise and rigid. In fact, they are plastic. We can reshape them to suit different needs. The more we use any connection, the stronger it gets and the harder it becomes to reshape. When these connections are tied to emotions, they become even stronger. For example, being told that certain foods are good for us might be enough to get us to try them but discovering that we love their taste would help us change our behaviour and eat them more often.

What happens when we want to change a behaviour that is so ingrained in our psyche that we do it automatically? It might be how you react in stressful situations or how willing you are to change jobs or careers. You might want to change your ‘usual’ response, but how do you actually do it?

Tiffany Gray, Director at PRISM Brain Mapping Australia, has had over 25 years’ experience in leadership roles and now trains organisations on the latest in neuroscience developments and how to apply them at work. When Tiffany gave her Emotionally Intelligent Brain Hacks That Can Serve You Better presentation, part of Florence Guild’s speaker series, ’The Art of Focus’, she outlined 3 steps everyone can learn to follow to rewire their behaviour patterns.

1. Label what’s going on

We have emotional/physical responses before we have cognitive responses, so, when we become aware that something has triggered a change in our emotional state we can stop, assess what’s happening and identify your emotional and physical reactions. For example, a new person on your team can change the group dynamics and unintentionally trigger a sense of disempowerment in you. Your automatic reaction might be to become extra defensive or reject all their ideas regardless of their merit. However, you can learn to watch out for your physical warning signs and change your cognitive response.

2. Reframe how you see it

Once you set your emotional response aside, you can step back and look at situations more objectively. If your negotiations with a supplier become stuck, for example, instead of allowing your communication to break down, try asking them how they perceive the same situation or at least try and put yourself in their shoes. Are there other ways you could change your perspective?

3. Refocus your attention

The next step is to remind yourself of your original goal or your company’s vision. What is it that you want to achieve in the long run? Whenever things seem to run off on a tangent, don’t allow them to upset you and distract you. Instead, notice them and draw your momentum back to working towards your goal.

As we’ve mentioned, deeply ingrained neural connections are difficult to change. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t change them. We just need to keep reinforcing the new desired connection until, eventually, it becomes automatic.

 

In his article Changing neural pathways to make a swing change for GolfWRX.com, Tom Duke explained that wanting to change your golf swing and actually doing it are two very different things. He challenged the notion that changing your golf swing is like riding a bike in that, once you learn the basics, learning the variables (different types of bikes, different golf clubs) should be relatively simple.

To do this, Tom gave the example of Destin from Smarter Everyday learning how to ride a backwards brain bicycle. This bicycle was built so that when you turned the handlebars to the left, the front wheel turned to the right and vice versa. It sounds like it would be easy once you got the hang of it. Instead, it took Destin 8 months of daily practice to master it. After that, he tried to ride a normal bike and couldn’t do it. His brain had been completely rewired and he had to keep practising before he could ride a normal bike again.

The takeaway here is that you can learn to have control over your own behavioural responses and ‘reprogram’ yourself with new ones that serve you better, but you have to be prepared to put in the time and effort to do so.

This episode forms part of our 2018 series narrative, ‘The Art of Focus’ which is based on the premise that, in an information-dense society, our attention resources have become depleted. The series’ speakers will help us identify and explore the areas in our lives where we may need to regain focus, increase our self-awareness and improve how we interact with those around us.

If you’d like to hear more of Tiffany Grey’s insights into how you can learn to change your response to different situations in your life, tune in to Emotionally Intelligent Brain Hacks That Can Serve You Better, episode 20 of our podcast series ‘The Art of Focus’. You can also keep up to date with conversations with other thought leaders by subscribing to our podcast on iTunes and Stitcher Radio.