A New and Improved You: The Neurology of Growth and Change


Man, with no support and no aid,

is condemned every moment to invent man.

- Jean-Paul Sartre

hen we review our lives, perhaps on New Year’s Day, and decide that we want to be different, what would help us maximize our chances of making a successful change? If we want to add a good habit, retire a bad habit, explore a new dimension of ourselves or remember to be our best selves, what should we do?

The trick to effective growth and change is to not fight the design of your brain.

Your brain is designed, first and foremost, to keep you alive, meaning that the fail-safe systems are the strongest and fastest. Your brain will default to them before you are even aware that it is thinking. If you try to work against one of these protective default systems, you will not succeed. One of these systems is designed specifically to resist change because change is dangerous to our mammal selves. (To the extent that we have been safely eating the purple berries, it makes no survival sense to willy-nilly try out the perhaps poisonous yellow berries.) Holding the door open for change against the pressure of this default setting takes energy. Lots of energy.

Therefore, at best, change is a slow, lurching process – with progress forward interrupted with slips backward as our brain urges caution and tries to slam the door shut on our risky new efforts.

At worst, our naïveté about how the brain works stops the change process before it even begins. The middle of January tends to be a sobering time for most of us.

What often happens when we try to effect a change in our life is we get seduced by a magical-thinking style of change. Magical thinking goes like this: We picture how we want things to be different and we sincerely long for the new, improved version of us. We wait for an opportunity to engage in the new, desired behavior, expecting to be able to implement it because we have so earnestly wanted it. But when the opportunity to change arrives so does our old, well-learned behavior. And also arriving is that brain designed to be cautious. Most often the old way wins out. We are left believing that there’s something wrong with us, meaning we will never be able to change.

The brain will not change because we wish it would. But it will change if we set things up properly. In fact, change is inevitable if we understand how to work within the design parameters of our neurological system.

Change starts in the past

The brain itself actually starts the process of change. It does so by signaling to you that something about your past is emotionally significant. Deep within your brain, the two amygdalae and the two hippocampi work together to recognize and remember things that you want to be able to do or things that you want to eliminate. When you are sorting through your life on that hypothetical New Year’s Day, you are looking for the emotional clues these brain parts encode for you. What is missing from your life? What keeps causing you to feel lonely or bored or guilty or embarrassed or frustrated? What aspect of other people do you envy enough to work on acquiring for yourself?

Most of us are very familiar with this first step. We all have lists, bucket and otherwise, of things that we want to be different about our lives. This first step we can do. It is the second step that is the doozy and the one that trips most of us up.

The second step of change involves designing the change process. Unfortunately, as I said, most of us believe that this process involves wishing, very hard, that things will change.

Every January for the past 15 years or so, I have resolved to work on improving my diction. I speak very fast and people are always asking me to repeat myself. As can been seen by the fact that this is an annual event, the resolution has never taken. That is because I have been working at cross purposes with the design characteristics of my brain. When I open my mouth to say something, my brain is going to engage the “speak very fast” subroutine not the “try something new” subroutine. My fantasy is that if I believe hard enough in my wish to speak more clearly, my brain will magically substitute the “try something new” subroutine when faced with an old stimulus. THIS NEVER HAPPENS. Remember those fast default systems? They engage at the speed of electricity. They will never be beaten by the speed of the dangerous, and therefore slower, “try something new” subroutine.

What we need to do is create a compelling subroutine that can compete with the speedy default system. In my case, I have to train my brain to see “speak with good diction” as a viable alternative to the default “speak very fast” subroutine.

If the subroutine “try something new” is avoided by the brain, how do we work around this?

Here’s a metaphor I like. Think of growth and change this way: you own a theatre that is running a successful play entitled “Your Life So Far.” If you are getting bored with your play or if there are parts you don’t like, you can’t simply wish for a new play to open up in its place. In order to bring in a new play without having the theatre go dark while you write, cast and rehearse a new one, you must find a rehearsal studio somewhere else. That is how you change. You go somewhere else to rehearse until you are ready for opening night.

Springtime for Hitler

A successful new play, which we’ll call “Adding Some Zest,” needs to be well written, well cast and well rehearsed because it needs to be provocative enough to replace the old play.

Let’s start with the script. To be successful writers, we need to understand our subject. Whether our play deals with being more assertive, learning to play the flute or remembering to stand up straight, we need to expand our grasp of the subject. Read about the subject, talk with others who do it well and study what is missing in your previous work. I did some reading and found out that my poor diction is due to my tendency to avoid consonants. By avoiding the hard sounds, I lose the natural braking and clarification that consonants provide in the English language. Ergo, my play needs to be about the role of consonants in clear speech. (This article is brought to you by the letter “T”!)


7 1/2 Lessons About the Brain

by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot

by Richard Restak

Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain

by Elio Frattaroli

The Brain That Changes Itself

by Norman Doidge



Send your questions to me at: jan@self-construct.com.


The cast can be made up of aspects of yourself (e.g. Jan speaking clearly as a teacher, as a therapist and as a friend), people who can help you (e.g. friends who remind me to speak more clearly) or teachers (Henry Higgins).

The rehearsal is just that. You have to go to your flute lessons and you have to practice the flute. Or you have to run through the components of a successful assertion and practice with people you trust. Or you spend 30 seconds, ten times a day standing nice and straight up against the wall. If I am going to improve my diction, I have to put in the time every day speaking eXTReMeLy CLeaRLy.

Opening night

To beat our metaphor to death, your brain is the producer of the play. This means that only your brain can decide when you are ready for opening night. If the script is strong enough and when it feels that you have thoroughly rehearsed it, your brain will allow you to open, but only off Broadway. In other words, it will bring the new behavior into action under very safe circumstances. You will be allowed to try out the new behavior, but if you do poorly (assert clumsily with your spouse or fumble through a flute solo for your friends), your brain will send you back to the rehearsal hall. If you do well with the new behavior (speak up clearly or stand tall), your brain will keep the play running. You only make it to Broadway, however, when your new play is running so smoothly that your brain has the same confidence in “Adding Some Zest” as it does in “Your Life So Far.”

In neurological terms, your brain will stick with the known neural pathways that it has reason to trust until a new pathway is as robust and trustworthy as the old one. It knows better than to bank on prepotent skills when the stakes are high, so the smart brain inhibits the new skills until it can rely on their proficient execution. Then it will happily expand its thinking to include the new option.

The groovy brain

If we could take the lid off our brains and peek inside, and if we could see all the deep grooves that identify our default settings, it would clarify for us how committed our neural safety mechanisms are to these entrenched behaviors. Because we cannot do that, we remain vulnerable to that magical thinking that wishing can make it so. Further, even when we understand that our brain can only be changed by making a new neural routine deeper and more reliable than an old one, there are two additional problems with that process: we cannot feel it when our brain experiences a new groove being put down. And we don’t have a change-o-meter that tells us how close we are to completion of the new groove.

Acknowledging those two sad truths forces us to recognize that change, for humans, is a faith-based process. Yes, practice is required, and, yes, we have all successfully learned new behaviors through practice. But – and this is a big but – few of us can routinely generalize that confidence when it comes to achieving psychological growth and change. It could be said that keeping the faith is the first change that we all need to groove into our stressed and overwrought minds.

If you believe you need extra support in this faith-based commitment to personal growth, it may help to read one of the excellent books listed in the FAWBOT section.

Chutes and ladders

Even when we start to be successful with a lifestyle improvement, making a change rarely proceeds the way we would like it to. Here’s what tends to happen:

We get sick of floundering in an area of our life – eating too much processed food for example – and we launch ourselves into a program of good, home cooking. This may last a while and we start to feel better. Then we get derailed by entropy or Fate and we despair that all is lost. But, as I alluded to above, all is not lost. The new grooves that our improved lifestyle behaviors have been establishing are still there. Completely intact. All we have to do is recommit to stepping back over to using them.

But if we believe that we are back at zero having been sent down the chute by our lapse, our motivation to step back into the effortful place will be greatly hampered. It is crucial, in other words, to remember that a misstep is not a derailment. It is a misstep. We haven’t fallen off the ladder, we just have one foot dangling a bit. Put it back on the rung and proceed up. It takes much less motivation to do that than to imagine starting all over again. And it has the added benefit of being absolutely, neurologically true! All your good efforts are still there. Just step back on.

If wishes were horses

It may feel disappointing to learn that positive thinking is not as powerful as book sellers would have us believe. In order to trigger the expansion mechanisms in our brains we need to craft and rehearse new behavior. (For strategies that make for a speedy Broadway opening see the article – Effective Practice: The 51% Solution.) But if we do our job, the brain will cooperate.

Consider this Adolph Monod quote: “Between the great things we cannot do and the small things we will not do, the danger is that we shall do nothing.”

Please don’t do nothing. Pick some aspect of your life that you want to improve and start writing your script. Broadway awaits.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.