Prefrontal Cortex And Why Our Brain Resists Change.
Every human has 40,000 – 70,000 thoughts a day. There is a script constantly going through our minds.
As Dr Nicole LePera in How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self explains, we practice thoughts all day long. Since we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep, in our dreams and subconscious.
We label them as “you.” But your thoughts are not you. They are mental events happening in our minds.
Thoughts are electrochemical responses. You are the thinker of your thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. Humans are the only animals who can be aware of their thoughts and can actually think about thinking.
Thoughts serve a very important purpose:
- they allow us to understand
- solve the problem
- create or
- form connections
But we rely too much on our thoughts.
We have learned in the previous sessions that our thoughts affect our emotions, and as a result, they affect our behaviour.
When we change our relationship with our thoughts, we can influence emotions flooding our bodies and provoking us to act in a specific way.
The problem is that most of us live so much unconsciously, driven by autopilot that we don’t see the difference between mental events, which are our thoughts, and reality. And we take our thoughts for granted.
The Prefrontal Cortex.
The challenge is to become aware, and conscious of our thoughts, of the script happening in our minds. So we can witness our true selves and empower our conscious choices.
The kingdom of our conscious mind is the prefrontal cortex, the front of our brain. And I want you to remember that name, the prefrontal cortex, as we will discuss its functions in many posts.
I want to stop here and explain why the prefrontal cortex is so important. And keep in mind that this is where our consciousness has its kingdom. So we want to focus on using the prefrontal cortex to its best potential.
The prefrontal cortex helps us set and achieve goals. It receives input from multiple regions of the brain to process information and adapts accordingly.
The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning complex cognitive behaviours:
- our personality expression
- decision making in conflict situations
- influencing the attention and focus
- moral judgment
- impulse control. So managing our emotional regulation
- abstract thinking
- prediction of the future. So predicting the consequences of our action
- social interaction
- coordinating and adjusting complex behaviours, for example, “I can’t do A until B happens”
- and acting with long-term goals and values in mind.
In other words, all the functionality we rely on for healthy relationships with ourselves and others.
Examples Of How the Prefrontal Cortex Is Involved In Planning Complex Cognitive Behaviours.
Imagine the emotional reaction you might have to think about doing something you know is a bad idea — like drinking alcohol the night before an important meeting or exam or running a race.
Thinking about it now might cause you to get a bit anxious, and because this emotion doesn’t feel good, it can help you make the probably wise decision to avoid this behaviour.
Or another example of how the prefrontal cortex is involved in planning complex cognitive behaviours.
Imagine you have an interview for your dream job. The director interviewing you asks a difficult question. You get nervous and feel that urge to escape the room, to run away. From Why Do We Feel Anxiety, Stress And Overwhelm, you remember it’s a fight-or-flight response or you may also freeze.
But you can predict that if you escape the room, then more likely you do not get the job. So you resist that uncomfortable impulse urging you to escape, and ask for clarification of the question.
Then you can plan your answer as you get more information from the director interviewing you, which may increase your chances to get the job.
The prefrontal cortex plays a very important role in personality development. It helps us make conscious decisions according to our motivation.
Following this perspective, if we were to remove the prefrontal cortex, we would be guided by our desires and impulses, without the ability to plan for the future or think about the consequences of our actions.
What Happens When Our Thoughts Override The Functions Of The Prefrontal Cortex.
So think now about the many situations in your life when you wanted to do something which is in line with your goals. But then under the influence of a few seconds’ impulses, you just started doing something which pushed you away from achieving your goal.
For example, you wanted to lose weight but ate the entire cheesecake at midnight. Or you wanted to have a romantic evening with your partner but ended up shouting at each other. Or you wanted to run but spent the entire evening in front of your TV.
Those are all examples of when your subconscious talk, those 40,000 to 70,000 thoughts, drive your life and make you live on autopilot.
How To Increase Prefrontal Cortex Activity.
Exercising mindfulness can increase prefrontal activation, which is correlated with increased well-being and decreased anxiety.
In other words, if we live more consciously, we will make smarter choices and predict better outcomes which will reduce or even eliminate the feeling of anxiety, stress and overwhelm.
Now, think about it a bit deeper. If you can type into your consciousness, you can better understand your wants and needs. If you make better choices to meet those wants and needs, you will be more satisfied and fulfilled with your life. And this way you type more into your intuition.
So bringing your conscious awareness to your daily life strengthens your body-mind-soul connection. You can actively participate in your mental wellness with your daily choices.
Unfortunately, the research shows that less than 10% of our daily decisions are conscious. The rest of what we do throughout the day is driven on autopilot.
Most of us are stuck in subconscious programming conditioned by our thoughts, patterns and beliefs that become integrated into our childhood by our parents, friends, teachers and the society where we lived.
Why Our Brain Resists Change.
We have learned in Why Are You Acting Against Yourself that our mind is a familiarity-seeking machine, and that’s why it’s hard for us to make a change. When we try to push ourselves out of autopilot, we face resistance from our minds and body.
As Dr Nicole LePera explains, the subconscious mind loves existing in a comfort zone. The safest place for our minds is the place where we have been before. It’s because we can predict the outcome.
Habits and behaviours that we keep returning to, become our subconscious default mode. Our brain prefers to spend most of its time operating on autopilot – it simply conserves its energy by knowing what to expect.
This is why our habits and routines feel so comfortable and why it’s so disturbing and even exhausting when our routines are disrupted.
The trouble is, that following our conditioned routine keeps us stuck in that routine.
Dr Nicole LePera continues that every time we make a choice, that is outside of our default programming, our subconscious mind will attempt to pull us back to the familiar by creating mental resistance.
Mental resistance can manifest as both, mental and physical discomfort. It can take the form of cyclical thoughts, such as “I can do this later” or “I don’t need to do this at all.”
Or when you want to start doing a new and unfamiliar activity, mental resistance may cause physical symptoms.
Such as getting sleepy, agitation, anxiety, pain or simply not feeling yourself. This is your subconscious communicating to you that it is uncomfortable with the new territory of those proposed changes.