Change is our Superpower


Is Change Really Hard?

Michael Shaun Conaway
Publishing Editor
July 18th, 2023

Everyone gets stuck in life from time to time, and unfortunately in certain areas in life we are stuck almost all of the time. Maybe it’s fitness, or relationships or our jobs, or family. There are things that we just can’t seem to change — no matter how bad it is.

Neuroscience shines a light on why this is so:

We are habit forming beings. Our brains become more and more efficient at doing things automatically. This can make it very difficult to change because wanting change, or imagining change isn’t enough to overcome our habits. We actually have to practice change long enough to form a new habit, something that takes willpower and resilience.

Our brains prefer homeostasis, a predictable state. This is how we can do the same things over and over again without noticing time passing by. This is supported by our brain chemistry. Doing the predictable thing at the right time releases dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, even if that thing is harmful like drug abuse. Conversely, change can be perceived as a threat in the brain provoking a fight, flight, freeze or appease response.

Our brains prioritize survival, avoiding new potentially dangerous behaviours. When change is perceived as a threat, our amygdala triggers a stress response making us resist change if it includes the unknown.

Change can also cause cognitive dissonance when our concept of self is called into question by new behaviours. We identify ourselves with the things we do over and over. Who are we if we suddenly start acting differently? For many people the discomfort of holding who they were with who they are becoming is too much and they retreat back to the familiar.

But still we know we can change. We have all changed things in our lives. And some of us have created extraordinary changes in our lives and in the lives of others. What is it that makes the difference between those who try but fail to change and those who reach escape velocity and seem to have some secret to have escaped those of us who are tethered to the Earth?

Many stories of radical change start with a near death experience. We often hear something like, “I was in a terrible auto accident and when I was in surgery I felt life going out of me. Then there was this question, am I finished here. I knew that I still had things I was meant to do with my life and I came back.” Then the story goes that after that the things that held them back from change were no longer a challenge. The moment that their life was a choice, everything changed.

These aren’t the only kinds of intense experiences that cause a radical shift in the way we see life and see ourselves. Warren Bennis PhD, who led the Marshall School of Business for many years, called these crucible experiences. A crucible is a container that can withstand very high temperatures and is used for melting, among other things, metal. In the context of leadership and personal development, a crucible refers to a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of the world and of identity. These experiences, often marked by hardship or some form of adversity, challenge and test a person’s mettle, but ultimately make them stronger and more resilient.

From the brain perspective this makes complete sense. If the brain resists change under normal circumstances to hold on to a comfortable, habitual state, then an event where that state no longer can be counted upon for survival, the brain suddenly wakes up and embraces anything that appears to insure survival. We’ve all experienced a nothing-left-to-lose burst of courage or inspiration.

If you are in the midst of a crucible event, or just recovering from a near death experience then the obvious thing to do is make all of the changes that you have wanted to make now. Go for it with no reservations.

If you are like the other 99.9% of people wanting to make change in a day to day normal life, I don’t usually recommend inducing a crucible or near death experience. I do recommend shaking things up by taking a year out to travel the world at some point in your life. But even this is impractical most of the time.

Where then do we look for a superpower for change?

The answer hides in plain sight in the near death and crucible stories, “a new or an altered sense of the world and of identity”. If we could somehow induce this alteration in the way we see the world and see ourselves then we stand a chance to gain this superpower.

For most of us the world is a fixed thing. It is some way. These people from here are this way and the ones from over there are another way. And we see ourselves as fixed things as well. I am like this and not like that. I like tea over coffee and I take mine strong with honey and milk. I’m an early riser. I’m allergic to exercise. I train daily to run marathons. This fundamental mindset has everything in the world being static and fixed. This is a perfect match for a brain that prefers homeostasis.

The idea that the world is fixed — that we are fixed — is just plain wrong.

Aristotle was definitive about this in his concept of time. Arguing with Zeno who said that at any given instant there was no change apparent, Aristotle argued that in time there was only change — instants connected together by a series of changes. Change, he argued, was the only constant in reality. At about the same time in India the Buddha taught that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is transient, evanescent, inconstant, or impermanent. There is no such thing as fixed or permanent in the universe.

Accepting change as a constant — no matter how uncomfortable that is — better aligns our world view with reality. If this is so, then the only sane thing to do is embrace change.

Next we can ask: If everything is changing, including myself, then what am I changing into?

Some change is physical, we consume food, release waste and who we are changes from day to day. That change continues from our first to our last breath in such a gradual manner that most of us hardly notice aging until illness or infirmity strike. Mental change is likewise constantly changing, one thought after another like a cricket and even though we may think the same thought over and over, that thought is always conditioned by the current circumstances. Emotions also come and go in an endless carousel.

All of this change, while constant, is still not the kind of change we are looking for. We want to be able to get up and exercise every day or overcome our fear of intimacy or start a new venture. We want extraordinary change.

To get there we are going to need an extraordinary tool, our imagination.

The imagination is the brain’s way to overcome our mental homeostasis. By imagining possible futures, we can try out different scenarios in a risk free environment. This helps us (and our brains) rehearse for change, making it easier to break free of habitual patterns.

Imagination also plays a key role in neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to create new connections and reorganize old ones. The brain does not need real experiences to grow and adapt. An imagined experience functions the same as reality when it comes to neuroplasticity.

Imagination can also help us with our stress response. We can imagine positive outcomes of change thus switching off the brain’s trigger for a survival level threat. This imagining of a positive future changes us now, not in the future, allowing us to reach for that future in a relaxed and confident mental space.

Finally, if we imagine ourselves in the future being different than today, and we can see ourselves being connected to who we are becoming, our brain includes this future self into our sense of a consistent self. And if who we are becoming is a part of who we are then we no longer feel cognitive dissonance.

If you want extraordinary change for yourself or for your community, your company, or even the whole world, start with imagining that future. Imagine what it would be like to have made the change in your past. How do things look? How do you feel? What are you doing in the future? Who is there with you?

Then with a vividly imagined future in hand, we can look back from the future and see the steps that we made, backcasting each milestone that we accomplished to reach our goal. If you can do this, imagine the future and generate the steps it takes to get there, then you can take that first step.

Taking the first step puts you on the path to your new future. And that is how we can gift ourselves the superpower of change.

Change, impermanence, becoming and evolution are our human birthrights.

It’s time to become a radical change agent.

In the meantime, we’ll be looking for PROOF of a thriving future for humanity.

The Generative Futurist
Editor PROOF

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Proof 56 – Change is our Superpower

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