As a rule, we humans don’t take to change very well. Even minor changes or interruptions to our daily lives can evoke feelings of frustration and when significant change is forced upon us, our reactions, our emotions are intensified even further. So what is it about change that riles us so? Why do we feel resistance, nervousness even fear when confronted with change in a world ever-changing?
Change is Scary — For a Reason!
In our early beginnings, alertness to change was a survival necessity. The outside world was a dangerous place where traveling through your environment unaware, could cost you your life! Back then, any changes in your immediate surroundings could pose a potential threat. Sudden movement in the tall grass for example, could be a sign of a stalking predator. Once spotted, activating your primordial instincts of Fight or Flight!
Today, living side by side in large populated modern cities, wild predators are less a concern. Still, our ancient fight or flight instincts somewhat remain and our reaction to change, though perhaps not as acute, still invokes emotions of warning from our protective brain.
A BRAIN THAT DOESN’T LIKE CHANGE
When change is forced upon us, we get our backs up and bristle at the interruption of our long set ways. Whining and bemoaning the intrusion, yet our lives and the world we live in are by nature, continuously in flux. Change is the one true constant in our lives and for the most part (as they say) “change is good!”
Our human brain though, doesn’t agree. From its perspective, a safe and mundane existence with little change is preferred. Not only preferred — but ideal!
Ideal, because survival and safety of the individual is one of the brain’s evolutionary priorities. To the brain, the same-old-same-old is tried tested and true, thus accepted as safe. That’s why our normal routines and usual daily occurrences do not come with warning emotional responses. Fear, anxiety and alarm, reserved for the unknown that change represents.
No, our brain doesn’t like change. Just look at the emotional backlash it initiates in defense. The complaining, the whining, the apprehensions. These are signs that our brain prefers things to remain the same. The same-old-same-old safety of patterns and routines — unchanged!
PREDICTING THE EXPECTED
The human brain, truly is an evolutionary marvel. Working continuously behind the awareness of our consciousness to better our chances of survival. Constantly calculating our next course of actions and reactions based on previous experiences and current sensory data.
Remarkably, it does these calculations in a blink of an eye and in mere nanoseconds, your brain decides what course of action you’ll take next. In other words, your brain knows what you will do, well-before you do it! Even more astonishing is how it accomplishes this feat. — By predicting the future!
Our brain uses previous experiences to help build a predictive expectation of the near future. Over our lifetime, a huge reservoir, a vast library of mental models has been built from these experiences and used to predict what most-likely happens next.
Mental models of previous occurrences, events, situations or conditions without negative associations, largely predict a safe outcome. For most of us, a trip to the store or a stroll in the park (pre-pandemic) holds no alarm for our brain. — Been there done that many times and thus a safe return is predicted.
However, new or deviant changes are treated as potential threats. Change introduces new probabilities therefore unpredictable and potentially unexpected outcomes. There are less if any mental models for your brain to draw upon when changes to the norm occur. This of course, of grave concern to your protective brain. Without a predictable outcome, safety of the individual can no-longer be guaranteed.
So in reaction, your brain signals a warning. Producing emotions of uncertainty, uneasiness, even fear or anxiety depending on the perceived value of the threat.
When the safe confines of the usual have been breached! Our brain reacts with a surge of emotions, demanding focus and attention — “Warning! Change has been detected! Outcome is no-longer predictable”
THE BRAIN IN AUTOPILOT
Quite often and throughout the day, our brain functions in autopilot mode. Accomplishing everyday mundane, routine or common repetitive tasks with little or no conscious thought.
Tying our shoes for example, or driving our car…
We’ve all experienced “missing miles” while driving our vehicles. This occurs when our autopilot kicks in and handles the task of driving behind the scenes of our consciousness, while our minds wander elsewhere.
Ever drive home, or to a well-known destination, with gaps of recall on getting there? Autopilot and a wandering mind are likely to blame!
Our autopilot also kicks in when we’re playing a musical instrument we’re well-familiar with. Our fingers without thought, finding strings, chords or keys in the right combinations from past experience. In auto-mode, we walk, run, climb stairs and ride our bikes.
In fact, if we do try and consciously become aware of doing these things, the more difficult they become! You can try this for yourself by intently focusing on each step the next time your walking down a set of stairs. Be careful though, you may be surprised at how uncoordinated this simple task becomes.
So as we can see, our auto-pilot mode serves a necessary function. Performing common tasks without the need of conscious focus. Much like the way our arms and legs move without consciously commanding them in order to reach, grasp, walk or run — in autopilot, repetitive daily tasks, happen automatically.
Still, how often we find ourselves in auto-mode, may be surprising. According to studies, most of us are in autopilot almost half the time! Meaning, currently attending a task at hand but with a mind focused on something else and that’s a little scary — when you put it in perspective.
Close to half the people you encounter, on the streets, in the malls, in the grocery stores, or driving on the same road as you — are functioning in autopilot mode! Physically there, but mentally somewhere else!
So with almost half the population at any given time, not-entirely focused on what they’re doing — how is it that we (for the most part) safely navigate our way through the outside world? That we’re not constantly bumping into, or tripping over things or even each other? Or ramming each other with our cars?
Because our Brain is always on alert for change!
Not to be confused with common-bouts of daydreaming, inattention or misguided focus — autopilot mode is an intended and directed state of mind. One, our brain has deemed safe for its particular application after many previous repetitions. Tried tested and true over time so as our protective brain has confidence in its expected outcome. Change however, introduces an unwanted variable to this equation.
When change is detected, our autopilot switches off and our conscious focus takes over. When changing conditions alters the safety of your usual drive to work, autopilot is disengaged. When a suspicious stranger or group heads towards you during your daily walk, autopilot switches off and immediate focus returns.
Autopilot functions in the expected.
The unexpected, terminates this function.
THE ULTIMATE WEAPON
When we come up against situations that in the past have related bad memories, our brain is there to remind us. Experiences from our past that are tagged with negative emotions, served-up as reminders of what could happen if we continue on this path. Our brain doing its best to dissuade us with emotions of uneasiness, trepidation and if needed — Fear!
Fear in the end, is usually enough to prevent us from going on. Persuading us that perhaps it would be safer to stick with what has worked in the past (the usual) and avoid the possibilities of negative re-occurrence.
Our brain uses fear as its ultimate weapon for our safety. Not just fear of physical danger, but it reaches deep into our subconscious where our private and personalized fears are held. Fear of snakes, of spiders or of heights. Fear of public speaking, of rejection or failure. Of inadequacy or yes — fear of change!
We all carry memories of past rejections, of haunting embarrassments’ or shame. Some of these may have been repeated or so strongly ingrained that our brain in protection has incorporated them into fears. Made them into one of our strongest emotions in the fight against change. They too now well-protected behind our subconscious walls of defense. Behind the protective barriers our brain has put in place against change.
Change, though not welcomed by our protective brain — can happen!
With focus and determination we can learn to accept change instead of fear it!
After all, whose in charge here anyways?
OR YOUR BRAIN?
Change is Scary For a Reason
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