June 25, 2018

Surviving change by engineering your emotions and habits


Inevitability of Change

Our life revolves around change.

We have changes in our work, relationships, family. New presidents get elected. New people come into our life. New bosses, new jobs. As they say, these days change is the only thing that’s constant.

It is well accepted that the amount of change we see in our lives is accelerating with each year. There wasn’t that much different in the life of a peasant in the 5th and the 6th century AD. Whereas somebody from the first quarter of the last century would be truly shocked to see how we live today.

Evolution gave us the perfect tool to deal with change – reproduction. Kids are fine with the change. Put a kid into another country, he’ll adapt in no time and start speaking the language without an accent. Kids these days learn to use tablets before they see books, and then try to zoom book pages with their fingers.

Not so easy with the adults. We, adults, don’t like change. Our dislike of change shows itself in many things. We have habits. We like things a certain way. We are uncomfortable in new surroundings. We like songs we recognize. And above all, we don’t want to change the way we think about ourselves.

Thinking about ourselves in a certain way is comforting. If the world around me changes, at least I have myself to go back to. I know who I am, right? I know what I stand for, what I like and what I don’t like.

This is one of the reasons why most people don’t like to lie. Lying undermines the internal integrity of a person. Once you start lying, nothing is certain anymore. Including the way you view yourself.

What makes us who we are?

We are a combination of our genes and environment, ‘nature and nurture’.

We can’t change our genes. We accept that people are different from birth, and even siblings brought up in the same way acquire different personalities.  So, if I am easily offended and become aggressive quickly – that’s just in my genes, right? After all, people have different tempers from birth and there’s nothing I can do?

Psychologists used to think that our emotions are hardwired and universal. That all humans feel sad and happy, angry and annoyed, frightened and friendly, exactly in the same way.

Latest research shows it’s not quite the case. Emotions are not universal across our species.

Indeed, different cultures have different emotions. Filipinos have a name for the emotion felt by a group of soldiers killing an enemy, ‘liget’. Western culture doesn’t have such a concept – so positive emotions of a soldier who killed an enemy are alien to us, and Western soldiers don’t know how to react/express their emotions in a situation like this.

The new approach is that emotions are learned as we grow up. A child is asked ‘Are you angry? Are you upset? Are you happy?’ Little by little, a child learns to associate patterns around it with different emotional states that it’s ‘supposed’ to be feeling.

Changing emotional patterns

There is one important conclusion here – an emotional reaction is not set in stone. We learn an emotional response, that means we can unlearn it too. The easiest way to do that is to work on the pattern that drives the emotion. This can be done using the so-called ‘framing’.

Someone cuts us off in traffic. Our natural instinct is to assume he’s a jerk and get angry. What if he’s on his way to see his dying mother in a hospital? Would you feel the same way then? And how do you know he isn’t?

You tell your boss that you feel you didn’t get the credit for a new idea, and the boss tells you it’s the way things are and he’s been through the same countless times. You can think that the boss ignores your concern and get resentful. Or you can think that the boss levels with you and talks to you as an equal.

The important thing is that there is no direct link between an event and the emotion it triggers in you. In between, there is a pattern that you observe and interpret. You learned that pattern when you were a child. But you can change the pattern, rearrange it like a puzzle, and control what emotion it triggers. If this is a recurring situation, you only need to do that once – after that, the changed response will come naturally.

Brain Plasticity and Habits

A comprehensive study of changes in the human brain is offered by the book ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ by Norman Doige. A great book that I highly recommend, it is looking into changes happening in patients after stroke, ways of correcting cognitive deficiencies in children with special needs. It even covers studies on how patients with no eyesight re-wire their brains, so that image processing parts can be used for processing sound. Subjects are then able to go through audiobooks at the speed far exceeding the speed of reading by a regular person.

Norman Doige touches on the neurophysiology of habits. He introduces a simple rule, ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. Once things happen in a pattern a few times, a neural link is established that persist. He cites a great analogy – our mind is like a snowy hill. You are predisposed to slide down the hill from the top. Yet, the route is not defined and you can steer yourself as you wish. However, once you went down the hill a few times, you will create a path which will be difficult to get out of – so you need a block to change direction.

This approach was used with OCD patients – they were asked to ‘switch the channel’ and engage in some pleasant but distracting activity when they had the urge to act on their compulsion. Some were assisted by medication that made their brain more ‘plastic’, reducing the strength of the existing neural links. A total of 80% of the patients were able to successfully break their compulsive habit.

This adds some detail to the habit concept defined by Charles Duhigg.  Duhigg suggests that the only way to kick a habit is to replace it with a different one – for example, take walks instead of smoking when you are irritated. While this approach can certainly work, the framework offered by Doige allows to make a clean break with a bad habit, not just replace it.

Adjusting to change

We live in a constant accelerating change, and those of us who can adjust the quickest will live happier and more fulfilled lives. In a world where nothing is set in stone anymore, we can’t afford to be dragged down by neural processes we don’t control.

Humanity was able to progress because it found ways of exchanging and preserving information. The language was a major tool enabling information storage, followed by writing. What if emotions and habits represent a different way to preserve information leading to survival? We know that capuchin monkeys share human biases when it comes to risk-taking and fairness. How much of such behavior is hardwired, and how much is simply passed from generation to generation as part of culture and upbringing?

The answer is we do not yet know. But one thing is clear. Our brains are much more flexible than we give them the credit for.

So, next time you think you can’t change something, give it a second thought. Chances are you can change much more than you think you can.

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