Insights from Neuroscience
The advent of neuroscience provided us with great research based insights about how our brains work under fear, and how we can override it. We now have the chance to develop new skills in order to quickly adapt and pursue transformation. The amygdala, the part of our limbic system associated with emotions, is the coordinator between cognitive information we receive from the environment and our physiological responses to these stimuli. It is located in our lower subcortical layers, the ones created in our early developmental stages, long before our newest cortical areas provided us with our higher cognitive functions.
Amygdala is always and subconsciously alert for rewards and threats, ready to trigger towards or away actions respectively. Consequently, it plays a significant role in regulating our fears. Although fear keeps us vigilant to the occurrence of physical threats, it is also restricting our ability to focus to anything else (possible future rewards), by consuming massive energy that could alternatively be used in other conscious and creative ways. What happens when we fear, is that the rise of norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline), which is the equivalent of adrenaline, triggers our expectation of negative events, in that we see the unknown future as threat, hence we tend to avoid it and consequently resist to any change efforts. However, the chemistry of interest also dictates the prospects that novelty brings to our focused attention. Dopamine is released and its levels are raised when something unexpected and positive happens. Every time that we expect something positive, a reward, dopamine is generated by our brain. We feel an excitement that turns into an interest (increased level of motivation), but when we fear, the release of norepinephrine nullifies the positive effects of dopamine.
Bringing the Change
Creating a safe and brain friendly environment that fosters change is mandatory, now that uncertainty has become part of our existence more than ever before. A leader who supports such an environment:
- Helps people to direct their focus and their energy, and
- Stimulates their motivation in that they increase their willingness to change (by setting positive expectations).
Change however is not a one-off process. Efforts have to be constant and repetitive, because they are highly associated with learning new things which takes continuous practice. Finally, a trust based environment promotes change through positive signals of supportiveness which reduce our adrenaline levels (to the benefit of dopamine effects) and increase the probabilities of producing another brain chemical, oxytocin, which is found to boost trust by weakening fear-processing circuities.