This is Why Your Brain Hates Change

Growing research from cognitive sciences reveals that change really is hard for us.

Our brain has naturally evolved to seek out certainty and avoid threats.  So, when change is introduced, it’s both uncertain and threatening.  Even if intellectually, we know that the change could be a good thing, the brain automatically goes into code red.

Resistance to change comes from a few specific forces:

  1. Fear of the unknown. Even if the known is scary, the unknown is always scarier.
  2. Hardwired habits. Habits are powerful and efficient. We tend to do what we’ve always done because that is comfortable. We have the hidden brain or the basal ganglia to thank for that.

To understand what is happening upstairs when you’re struggling with change, you have to know about the basal ganglia, the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is where all your executive functioning happens.  Because it handles all of the big thinking, it burns a lot of fuel or glucose. Glucose isn’t stored in the brain and it’s expensive for the body to produce. While we’d all like to think the prefrontal cortex is in charge most of the time, it requires too much energy to operate constantly. We rely on the basal ganglia to handle many of our everyday tasks. Where the prefrontal cortex chugs glucose, the basal ganglia just sips it. This is because the habitual, repetitive tasks that we do without even thinking about it – brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, typing an email – take much less mental energy and much less glucose.

Many of our daily activities, including many of our work habits, require very little conscious thought and the more routine they are the more hardwired they are in the brain.

When the brain senses a change, it switches off the autopilot and wakes the prefrontal cortex up to deal with the uncertainty. Consequently, the prefrontal cortex triggers the amygdala to be on standby for fight or flight.  That tug of war between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex explains why we hate change. Doing what we’ve always done is far more comfortable and predictable and takes far less energy than tackling the unknown.

A 2016 study explored just how impactful uncertainty is on our stress levels. The main finding was that all measures of stress maxed out when subjects were uncertain. In fact, they found that uncertainty is even more stressful than knowing something bad is definitely going to happen. For example, it’s more stressful to sit in a traffic jam not knowing if you’re late for your meeting than it is to know with certainty you’ll be late. And it has everything to do with dopamine.

Dopamine has become famous as the pleasure chemical, but it gets a bad rap because of its role in addiction. An overproduction of dopamine floods the primitive region called the striatum or the reward center. But the striatum isn’t just about reward. Not only does it motivate us for that rush that feels so good, but it also motivates us away from negative outcomes.  That geyser of dopamine activates the striatum just as much whether good news or bad news is coming your way.

The striatum is amazing for another reason. It not only anticipates good and bad consequences, it predicts the odds of those consequences and we feel stress accordingly.  Researchers found that when those odds approach 50%, our stress increases significantly.

But here is the good news: the participants whose stress response mirrored actual (not imaginary) levels of uncertainty performed best on the task. In other words, just being sensitive to uncertainty can give you a cognitive advantage. Also, when you identify the benefits to change and focus on how your life might look better, you engage your thinking brain and give your emotional brain a back seat.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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