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Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 03, 2011
Updated: Saturday, March 05, 2011

How is it possible to change habits and behaviors so entrenched that they've become part of our neural pathways?

Even when people recognize their addictive or compulsive behavior is life-threatening, research shows amazingly few people can change voluntarily. At the organizational level, the complexity of group behavior makes change even harder. A a concept called neuroplasticity suggests that with concentrated effort we can all change our patterns of thought.

"That's the Way We (Used to) Do Things Around Here," an article in Strategy+Business, describes how corporate leaders with a little knowledge of neuroscience can encourage new behaviors that eventually change corporate culture.

The authors, Jeffrey Schwarz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick, are, respectively, a research psychiatrist, a learning and development specialist, and an authority on ethics and leadership in the financial services industry.

The authors explain that habits are hard to change because of the way our brains work. Many thought patterns exist in circuits associated with deep, primal parts of the brain: the basal ganglia, the brain's habit center, manages semi-automatic activities like walking and driving; the amygdala manages strong and complex emotions such as anger, fear, and who'sfriend or foe; the hypothalamus manages instinctive drives like hunger, thirst and sexual desire. Information processed in these parts of the brain is often not consciously examined and is very hard to dislodge.

The basal ganglia, the authors write, can shift brain circuits so that unfamiliar ways of thinking and acting become habitual. That happens, they say, when a person pays repeated attention to desired thoughts and related positive goals. And people can learn intense attention.Schwartz, in an interview by Elisha Goldstein posted on her Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog, tells about neuroplasticity and a phenomenon in physics called the Quantum Zeno Effect. He says this phenomenon, named for the Greek philosopher Zeno, stabilizes or holds in place in the neural circuitry whatever you are focusing on. He summarizes the impact of the principles involved by saying "neurons that fire together wire together." Of course, if a person devote attention to negative thoughts, the negatives become embedded.

The authors describe how Cargill, a major agricultural and food products company, used knowledge of the brain to improve collaboration and innovation across all its business units. At Ameriprise Financial, a company that leads the U.S. in professional financial advice, managers began examining their own behavior to see whether it facilitated the best service to their customers. The authors provide six practical steps to reshape patterns of thinking and behavior, and specific suggestions on how to shift negative or outmoded patterns in useful new directions. Read their story here.

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