The Neuropsychology of Change and the Refusal of the Masses!

By Bob Davies

Jesus said, “The road is narrow, few will choose”. You can’t say it any better than that!

I’m speaking in front of 10,000 people on the main platform for one of the most prestigious meetings in the financial services industry, the Million Dollar Round Table. In that meeting I will give the audience a step by step system that is so precise it will yield a guaranteed result. It involves weight management through the avoidance of flour and sugar and the following of a precise way to weigh and measure food.

Statistically at least two thirds of that audience and possibly 100% will be interested in how they can lose weight. My question is, keeping in mind that I will be giving them a proven step by step formula to reach the goal they say they want to achieve, how many will actually implement my teachings? Can you believe that there is a possibility of none?

Don’t you think that is an amazing possibility? If it’s only 1% that means that 100 people will change their lives through the application of what I will teach them. This continues to stump me. People will tell me that they want to lose weight and I tell them they will need to avoid flour and sugar and they refuse to give up pasta, or pizza, or that buttered bread they so desire at dinner.

According to USC social psychologist Wendy Wood, in a study on the “Take 5” program, 35 percent of people polled came away believing they should eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day. Looking at that result, it appears that the national program was effective at teaching people that it’s important to have 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. But the data changes when you ask what people are actually eating. Only 11 percent of people reported that they met this goal. The program changed people’s intentions, but it did not overrule habitual behavior.

I’ll take an 11% hit ratio. That will mean that at the MDRT talk I will have helped to change 1,100 lives!

So the curious and research oriented part of me asks the question, why is implementation so low? I’ll need to examine this on several different levels. First the psychological. We have three voices constantly clamoring for our attention. The first is the good voice. This is the goal oriented voice that supports you in reaching your goals. You can expect to hear this voice about an estimated 25% of the time.

The second voice is the bad voice. This is the instant gratification, instinctually driven voice that wants it now. You will be greeted with this perspective 35% of the time.

The third voice is the vision and purpose voice. This is the “why” voice. You will be hearing this voice approximately 60% of the time.

The problem is that most people don’t have their mission, their purpose, their vision, their connection to something bigger than themselves developed so it’s absent. What’s left if you take this voice away is a losing proposition, 35% beats 25% every time. However, if you develop your mission, vision and if you act on purpose connected to the bigger picture then you have a ratio of 85% to 35% and that’s a winning hand.

So how do you connect to the universal energy (Google quantum physics) and tap into your greater self? You start by asking and answering these questions. Why bother? What am I building? How much is enough? What is the big picture? What is the benefit of having-fill in the blank? In this case you will need to be clear about the purpose of losing weight and what weighing less will give you. What benefit will achieving this goal give you? What purpose will achieving this goal allow you to fulfill. The more clearly you can identify this the stronger and more frequently that purpose voice will appear. You’ve got to take some time to write this out. Give it some thought and follow this formula;

Feature-losing weight. + Benefit-more energy. Then ask, what will having (benefit) give you? What will having more energy give you? How about being healthier. What will being healthier give you? Maybe the answer is you will exercise. What will exercising give you? Live longer. What will living longer give you? More time to influence my family and to guide and love them.

Now you can see that changing your habit is linked to the love of your family. Now that’s a purpose.

I’ll grant that this is not scientifically based. It is a bit theoretical and psychological. I’ll discuss more in this arena and then get to the science.

Changing habits will follow these three stages.

1. Unbearable.
2. Uncomfortable.
3. Unstoppable.

Keep in mind that your perceptions are illusions. Yes, they are persistent but illusionary none the less.

When you approach change of any kind you are very apt to feel that it is absolutely unbearable. Why is that? This is now the time for some science.

Much of our daily lives are taken up by habits that we’ve formed over our lifetime. An important characteristic of a habit is that it’s automatic– we don’t always recognize habits in our own behavior. Studies show that about 40 percent of people’s daily activities are performed each day in almost the same situations. Habits emerge through associative learning. “We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals. We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response,” Wendy Wood explains in her session at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention.

Our brain is genetically designed to conserve energy. From a biological perspective answer this question, what is the purpose of your life? Before you start to say world peace, prevent global warming or to leave a legacy to your family, remember I prefaced “from a biological perspective”. The answer is to pass on your genes, period!

Any genetic expression adaptation that favors survival is likely to be passed on. It favors survival to be able to code networks of neurons, habits, together for ease of firing. Once these neurons form a network they also develop a thick myelin sheath covering which creates faster firing saving more energy.

Charles Duhigg states in his book, “The Power of Habit”, a trigger occurs that leads to the routine, which is the behavior itself; then there’s the reward and that’s how the brain learns and encodes this for fast future use.

As humans we have very limited perceptual bandwidth. Since our perceptual abilities are so limited human genetic coding prefers us to form neural networks that are easy to stimulate and lead to fast and automatic firing. This saves energy and frees us up to default that narrow bandwidth of attention to our threats. We are genetically coded to be negative, to be victims, to see obstacles not opportunities. It favors survival to look up and see figure 1 and respond non consciously as if it was figure 2.


Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

This is a non conscious adaptation that favors survival. Regarding our brain, there are three major areas of concern regarding habits.

The outer cortex area of the brain is our logical, analytical, planning and executive thinking part of the brain. It is very expensive brain real estate from an energy use perspective. The orbital frontal cortex, the area right behind your eyebrows, is the area of the brain that executes your conscious will. It is very finite with a limited amount of available energy.

The limbic area is the emotional, instinctual part of the brain. This area has direct neural connections to all of our senses. In other words, if you look and see a spider on your arm you will completely bypass the analysis of the cortex and immediately shoot a stimulus directly to the amygdala in the limbic system which will have you scream and jerk your arm away while simultaneously swatting that spider off. Your heart rate will increase and a host of additional physiological responses of the fight or flight response will instinctually occur.

It’s only after that response that you realize that it wasn’t a spider at all but a piece of plastic. Cave man didn’t have the luxury of evaluating; it takes to long to figure it out.

The brainstem is the autonomic nervous system, breathing, heart rate, etc.

Breaking a habit leads to what is referred to as “cortical-limbic loops”. Here is how it looks from a neurological perspective.


Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 6

Figure 4 shows a dense bundle of never fibers with cortical-limbic extensions and connections. This is what a habit looks like. This is a strong and fast reacting thinking pattern that bypasses the cortex and leads directly to the emotional act. Feel a sensation, go to the refrigerator. Have anxiety, eat flour and sugar. Breaking this connection at first appears to be unbearable.

If you are driven by your purpose and connection to a higher vision you can then start to develop a new neurological pathway as you see in figure 5. This is when your new intended behavior is in the uncomfortable stage. This is where you would need to practice the philosophy of using your will, the orbital frontal cortex, to maintain the behavior. This requires a very strong intention backed by accountability. In other words, you can’t do this yourself.

An estimated 2.1 million people seek help from AA each year and as many as 10 million alcoholics have achieved sobriety. One of the cornerstones of their 12 step program is to surrender your will to a higher power and to have the accountability that comes from making commitments to a sponsor. This is very much like my behavioral contracting methodology.

Through persistence and conscious repetition you will eventually populate your neurons to develop a new desired network, or habit, figure 6 and now you have developed your new behavior. Repetition is key. Studies have shown it can take anywhere from 15 days to 254 days to truly form a new habit. This refers to these neurological connections creating cortical-limbic loops.

Figures 7-9 shows this from a single neuron perspective.

5 6 7

I use this to show how a different response can be wired in for the cue of frustration. Figure 7 shows the triggering stimulus, something happens, that leads to the wired in response of frustration. Next using your intentions, your will power, you have an intervention. This needs to be driven by the limbic area of the brain so you will need to declare the action plus a painful consequence such as a $100 fine. For example, every time I notice myself beginning to get angry I stop, and repeat that I respond to frustration with fascination. If you don’t apply this conscious intervention then you will have to pay another person the painful penalty of $100. This engages the limbic area of the brain.

With conscious repetition, you will actually see the previous wired in response of figure 7 beginning to deteriorate and a new response begins to get established, figure 8. With additional repetition, (remember the 15-254 day rule of thumb) this goes from being unbearable, through uncomfortable to unstoppable, figure 9. Now you can see what is called synaptic pruning, where you are strengthening the new response, habit, and dissolving the previously unchallenged response, the circle in figure 9.

Too much science? Sorry, but that’s my style. I’m not big on wishful thinking. I want to see the objective data that is proof of claim. This is referred to as brain plasticity and it is proof of my claim;

“You have far more capacity to create the circumstances and events in your life then you are aware of”.

You can create the formation of new neurons in the orbital frontal cortex through meditation. Meditation for as little as five minutes a day will create neurogenesis, new nerve cell development and it will also increase the size of the insula, a fold of tissue directly under the orbital frontal cortex that is responsible for meta cognition, or awareness of your sensations.

Be a student of human behavior. Have faith in the process. Meditate for five to ten minutes a day, be a life time student of learning and make weekly commitments to someone else with painful penalties for non performance until your old habits are stopped and your new habits are formed. Then you will have gone from unbearable, through uncomfortable, to unstoppable. Now you will have 65% of your mind power driving you to be, do and think the way that you need to so you will be the best version of yourself, every day.

Bob Davies
High Performance Training, Inc.
Bob Davies, M.Ed. Psychology, B.S. Health, MCC Master Certified Coach
20992 Ashley Lane, Lake Forest, CA 92630-5865
949-830-9192 fax 949-830-9492 Email: Website: On-Line coaching

Named in the Top 100 Minds of Personal and Professional Development, World-wide by Excellence Magazine.


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Bob Davies
High Performance Training, Inc.
20992 Ashley Lane
Lake Forest, Ca 92630