A Little Neuroscience

In the first installment of this blog series we learned that change and stress are often related and that the initial “NO” that comes from hearing about a change can be a sign that a deeper, more immediate, overwhelming, and out-of-measure response is coming. In this installation of the blog series we learn a little bit of the neuroscience behind how our brain responds to change.

Advances in biochemistry and biology have been successful in allowing neuroscientists to explore the role of various naturally occurring chemicals (hormones,etc.) in human and animal behavior. Additionally, neuroimaging studies help scientists, in real time, to identify areas of the brain that are engaged under different stimuli. These studies ensure that we have a quickly developing yet detailed understanding of the biological bases of emotional responses in humans and animals (including happiness, fear, anger, and anxiety) and the major brain structures involved in emotional information processing and behavior. We know emotional and cognitive processes cannot be separated from each other. In fact, cognitive interpretation of events and situations act in a feedback loop with emotional experiences which then influence coping strategies or defense mechanisms.

Adding that to the key learnings from the first installment of this blog series:

  • Stress is a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter change.
  • That stress is a chain reaction, somewhat like a feedback loop, where stress feeds emotions, and emotions feed stress.
  • The amygdala and hypothalamus acting like the body’s command center, communicate through the nervous system that it is time for fight or flight.

Seems bland enough, but what else is going on when we respond to the stimuli that bombard us?

Neuroimaging studies consistently show heightened amygdala activity under circumstances of physiological stress (running from a predator) and psychological stress (hearing about change). Further, the activity from the amygdala is correlated with a reduction in activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in moderating emotional behavior and is involved in planning complex tasks, personal expression, logical decision making, and management of social behavior in humans and animals. Managers and change leaders should recognize that change and, more to the point, stress have a negative impact on performance especially in areas that require planning, decision making, and social interaction skills.

Did You Say Feedback Loop?

On a one-off basis, stress causes the brain to work less effectively which could lead to a one-off embarrassing result or a temporary decrease in performance. However, as previously mentioned, the interpretation of events and situations act in a feedback loop with emotional experiences. This feedback loop can lead to humans and animals having their neurocircuitry reprogrammed to exhibit any number of anxiety disorders, various phobias, (especially social phobia), and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Put another way, the amygdala activation feedback loop can be a pathway for exaggerated or multiplied anxiety or fear that, while triggered by specific stimuli, is out of proportion to the actual threat of the stimuli. Small changes, especially if repetitive, can be the stressor that activates this feedback loop.

While not everyone is roaming around the planet with uncontrollable disorders or phobias, everyone does have “triggers.” When the brain perceives that someone has made or plans to make a change of perceived importance the mind is triggered. Initially, that triggering elicits a “NO” response from people. But as time goes on, and stress increases because of the number or proximity of stressors, overall performance decreases and logic, planning, personal expression, and social behavior skills rapidly diminish. More details about triggering are in Installment 4 of this blog series. But next, in Installment 3, we will discuss some of the physical manifestations of our cognitive change responses.

This blog post is part of a six-part series:

  1. Have You Ever Heard…?
  2. A Little Neuroscience
  3. That Can’t Be Healthy
  4. Meet the Hijackers
  5. Beat the Hijackers
  6. Strategies for Beating the Hijackers