Aspect 3: Born to Resist: Our Inner Resistance Systems
This is one of the trickiest subjects to take on board because resistance can be so subtle. This is one of the first things I try to help people grasp because it will be having an effect from the first moment they begin to try meditating.
The core of the challenge is changing behaviour and as Professor Matt Lieberman of UCLA points out our brains are extremely effective in tenaciously maintaining the status quo, even if the status quo is detrimental to our health and well-being.
Maintaining the status quo, no matter what!
What would you do if you were facing a life-threatening illness and your medical practitioners explained that your condition would become worse unless you changed your life-threatening lifestyle? If your life depended upon it, if you could relieve your painful symptoms, would you make the recommended changes and would you continue with the prescribed life-enabling practices? I guess the vast majority of us would like to think that we would! However!
IBM’s 2005 “Global Innovation Outlook” Conference began by focusing upon the crisis in health care in the United States. Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University brought the discussion around to patient responses to their illnesses. He talked about patients whose heart disease is so severe that they needed to undergo bypass surgery. He described how about 600,000 people have bypasses every year in the United States, while another 1.3 million heart patients required angioplasties. He explained that many of these patients could avoid the return of pain and the need to repeat the surgery, not to mention arrest the course of their disease before it kills them, by switching to healthier lifestyles.
Yet, surprisingly very few do. Miller explained, “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle and that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so, we’re missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.”
At the same conference Professor John Kotter of Harvard University identified that changing the behaviour of people is the biggest challenge in health care.
Which of these do you feel applies to you?
If you were facing a life-threatening condition would you do everything necessary to overcome the condition?
Do you tend to ignore aches and pains per se?
Which would you put first seeing a medical practitioner or meeting an important deadline?
Do you listen or ignore advice from family or friends when it comes to your health?
By understanding how the brain works we are more empowered to manage our natural resistance to change and more able to develop strategies to maximise change potential. This is a big part of what the meditation practices are all about; developing our own awareness of the thoughts and feelings we have when we are resisting change. Being able to step back from them, recognising them for what they are and in turn resisting them. Not an easy thing to do because they are part of our brain system’s reactive mode mechanism.
Part 2a: Our Natural Inner Resistances
Neuroscientists have begun to identify why we find it so hard to change even if our life depends upon it. Researchers have identified 3 brain systems which evolved in order to help maintain the survival of the species. Remember our brain systems are constantly running these 3 systems and applying them to every situation we are encountering; even as you are reading this.
The X & C Systems
Professor Matt Lieberman of UCLA, divides the brain into,
- This is made up of the brain stem and limbic systems.
- Is energy efficient.
- It reacts automatically and quickly.
- Is tuned into immediate goals, past emotions and memory, habits and beliefs.
- The functions of the neo-cortex.
- It uses more energy to function.
- It processes information more slowly.
- It governs higher order thinking, consciously reflecting on things; it challenges and corrects the X-system.
As Professor Gilbert of Derby University explains that because the brain stem and limbic system are more energy efficient because they evolved millions of years before the younger relative gas-guzzling neo-cortex. As a result, it takes more effort to think about and do something new rather than react out of instinct.
So, when we attempt to adopt a new lifestyle even if common sense tells us that it would be better for us the actual effort to change from a non-beneficial habit to a beneficial habit takes extra energy, effort and focused attention. It is therefore understandable that our instinct is to stay with what we know rather than change, even if it means harming ourselves.
The Error Alert System:
Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine describes how survival depends on our capacity to detect errors in our environment and react quickly and instinctively to avoid threat. When our brain perceives a difference between what we expect and what actually occurs, a rapid-fire signal is produced.
This error alert mechanism is located in the orbital cortex just above the eyes; it is closely connected to the amygdala, part of the limbic system. The amygdala draws energy away from the prefrontal cortex, activating feelings of fear or anger which we need to instinctively go into action.
The Threat or Reward System:
When changes occur in our lives, whether they are in our place of work, to do with our family and friends or local community they result in us experiencing something new, something unknown. This can create uncomfortable feelings of being unsure, uncertain and therefore pose a potential threat.
By understanding how the threat/reward system operates we can understand our reactions to such change and even pre-empt them. In 2000 Evian Gordon, Professor of Psychiatry at the Westmead Clinical School, Brain Dynamics Centre in Sydney, Australia, explained that, “Much of our behaviour is driven by the desire to minimise threat and maximise reward.” The brain decides whether something is either threatening or rewarding, naturally some neuroscientists call this fundamental principle the ‘walk towards, run away’ theory. Based on this assessment, we decide to either move away or toward something; which means that every action we take is based on what those brain systems decide. They identified that these systems operate approximately 5 times per second.
Which of these applies to you?
I have never been aware that these resistance systems existed within me and influence my everyday decision making.
I am surprised at the frequency with which these systems are operating?
I have been aware of these systems prior to this and am aware that they influence my decision making.
I am aware that how my own resistance systems will have an impact upon the people I interact with daily.
Part 2b: Aiding Resistance, Our Conformation Bias
The combination of all our feelings and thoughts we have had creates what Dr. Robert Leahy refers to as our, ‘Confirmation Bias’. Dr. Leahy, a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill-Cornell University Medical School, explains that, ““We are predisposed to attend to and remember information that confirms our beliefs, this is called confirmation bias.” For instance, he states, “Research shows that chronic worriers interpret neutral or ambiguous information as threatening. Thus, people who are shy interpret ambiguous faces as angry faces.”
So, if you are worried that someone is annoyed with you, you are biased toward all the negative information about how that person acts toward you. You interpret neutral behaviour as indications of something really negative.
Which of these applies to you?
I enjoy adapting and integrating new ideas.
I find it quite hard if other people’s plans are contrary to my own.
I worry if other people’s ideas have been well-thought through.
People need to prove to me that their ideas are sound.
There are times when I have misunderstood, especially when under pressure, what other people are proposing?
It’s the Reticular Activating System, RAS for short, adapting to different types of situation, reacting instantly, that establishes our conformation bias.
- The conformation bias of your subconscious established from past experiences informs the RAS what is or what is not important.
- Your RAS then filters in the information that conforms to your conformation bias and filters out information that does not conform.
- Of those millions of bits of information your RAS only lets in around 130 pieces per second in your conscious mind because that’s all your central nervous system can handle at one time.
- Many of the details you let in are the ones that you have deemed over the years to be important enough for yourself. For example, having been hurt in a relationship important to you, your conformation bias anticipates hurtful behaviours in others. It interprets even neutral behaviour as conforming to hurtful behaviour in order to avoid potential future hurt.
So, if you grew up in a household where you repeatedly hear that all West Ham football supporters are great people and all Chelsea fans are not to be trusted, then the RAS will filter in from your experiences the information that agrees with these two statements and will filter out information which does not fit in with that pattern. Even though, clearly neither statement represents the reality of the situation.
Which means that it is important to remember as you read this that your own conformation bias will be operating and will be interpreting what you read. Will you be able to adapt your own conformation bias in order to take on concepts which may be new to you, which may question your own picture of the world?