Monday, March 1, 2010

Change You Can Believe In

Watching the Healthcare Reform debate over the past few months has gotten me to thinking about why people have so much difficulty handling change.

Simple answer: because our brains are wired that way.

And why is that?

The brain has two separate areas for dealing with the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The familiar is handled by the basal ganglia:

Located in an older part of the brain, the basal ganglia are really good at routing stimuli down established neural pathways. Because the vast majority of the input we handle is repetitive (choosing food, cooking, eating, working, hygiene), the same activities performed in the same way, they don't require a lot of thought. The basal ganglia are highly efficient, and don't consume much nutrition.

The unfamiliar is handled by the pre-frontal cortex:

This is a newer part of the brain. More sophisticated, it does our high order thinking. And like a snazzy sports car compared to an economy model, it requires more fuel to operate.

Because we're built for efficient processing, as soon as a piece of stimuli reaches the brain, the pre-frontal cortex determines whether it's familiar in any way, and if it is, sends it along to the basal ganglia for handling. This is why the brains of older people, although not nearly as flexible in absorbing new information and technology, can perform rings around the brains of younger people when dealing with the familiar. (If you doubt that, watch an experienced doctor and a resident diagnose an illness.)

But because we're wired for efficiency, we bend toward sending everything down the old familiar pathways (aka "ruts").

To further complicate this, when the pre-frontal cortex feels overwhelmed by new information, it sends signals to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for "fight or flight." It doesn't take a lot of change to send the brain into full panic mode.

So how can we help ourselves, and others, deal with change?

We'll talk about that next week....


  1. Great post -- very cerebral, literally.

    My brain has turned on me: about three and a half years ago I was diagnosed with 'Glossopharyngeal Neuralgia': the ninth cranial nerve is sending 'mixed signals', if you will, to my glosspharyngeal nerve which is located in our throats. This causes me to have painful seizures that feel like electric shocks.

    Ready to trade in my almost 44 year old brain for a new one -- any takers?

    Terrific blog-- back next time for more info. LOVE posts like this!

    Peace and serenity,
    'The End Of The Rainbow: Life After Bankruptcy'

  2. Wow, you made that very interesting and understandable. I liked the car analogy, but I must admit, basal ganglia made me giggle.

  3. All I know is my COBRA ($1200 for two- a month!) ends in about a month- and I've become an American left in the void between working and Medicare/Medicaid...You don't understand how much deep shit you're in, until your ox gets gored...Doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies have had it fat city too long....

  4. And to think I always thought of my brain as a big chalk board. Important stuff stays, temporary (unimportant) stuff gets erased once it's not needed.

    As I get older, I think some of my important stuff is fading from the board. Maybe I need to write it in permanent marker!!

  5. This chick likes to think of her brain like a filing cabinet the older I get the more info is stored the harder it is to find. I call it part~timmers!!!

    God bless and have a beautiful day!!!

  6. Oh I look forward to Part 2. I like change too much, I wonder what that means.....I guess thts a whole other story.

  7. Wow, interesting stuff. My "fight or flight" was often a little too quick to kick in, in workplace, non-life-threatening circumstances. Looking forward to next week's installment!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.


Related Posts with Thumbnails