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Thursday, 09 May 2013 05:59

Positive Psychology, Change and the Bottom Line, Part II: Neuroplasticity

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Last time, we talked about what positive psychology really is, and how it's important when you're thinking about change in large organizations.

Today we're going to look at neuroplasticity.

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is one of those five-dollar words that actually has a straightforward meaning:  From 'neural' (pertaining to the nerves) and 'plastic' (changeable), it refers to the brain's capacity to change on a physiological level.  In other words, neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to form new neural connections.

It's these new neural connections which allow us to learn, think or do new things.  It's what allows a baby to learn to walk and talk, and what allows a person who's suffered a stroke to relearn to walk and talk.  Neuroplasticity enables us to change habits, to learn new languages, and to learn new information.

Neural pathways are channels in our brain, sort of like roadways.  They're created and sustained through our experiences.  Used often, the roadways stay wide and open; used less often, the roadways become narrow and less easy to traverse.  These neural roadways are created through experience:  A new neural pathway will be narrow, reflecting the beginning of a new experience, while a wider neural pathway indicates a more mature, more-used experience, like a habit or a customary way we consider information.

Neural pathways are self-reinforcing:  The more you use them, the wider and more entrenched they become.  This is good news if we want to continue that pathway without having to think about it too much - but it's bad news if we want to change in some way.

The problem is that some of our neural pathways are negative, like if we're constantly criticizing or finding fault with ourselves or others, or if we're always worrying.  The more we worry, the more we strengthen these negative pathways, and the more difficult it becomes to change those pathways.

On the other hand, a positive neural pathway is where positive habits, like looking on the bright side or making positive choices, come into play.  Luckily, these positive pathways can be equally strong as the negative ones.

What does this mean for change and change management?

Understanding the way our brain creates and sustains these neural pathways helps us to create and sustain change on a personal level.  If we're a 'fault finder' but want to become a 'benefit finder', we need to find a way to shrink the 'fault finder' neural pathways and expand the 'benefit finder' neural pathways - we have to block the negative roadway while widening the positive one.  Just as roadbuilding isn't fast or easy, neither is neural change - it takes time and concerted effort.

This has implications for both the individual and the organization.  Brain lock is signified as a deep-rooted neural pathway.  For individuals, these  pathways can manifest as obsessive-compulsive disorder.  For organizations, these pathways - also known as 'processes' - can be what makes change difficult or impossible.


NEXT:  Part III - Motivation to Change



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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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