The Limbic System

The Marshmallow Test
July 31, 2018
Optimism Bias
September 11, 2018

Why do people find it so hard to change even when they know it’s good for them? 

Why are less than 25% of New Year’s resolutions actually put in to place? Why do so many diets fail after only a couple of weeks? Why do we so readily give up on new exercise regimes? Why do so many of us resist trying something new because we expect to be worse at it than someone else?

Neuroscientists have proven that our brains are designed to follow the status quo, and not embrace change. It takes much more effort to do something new than to follow habit or instinct, It’s how we are designed. Studies reveal that when heart disease patients were told if they did not adjust their lifestyle they would die; only 9% modified their behaviour.

Neuroscientists answer this anomaly by dividing our brain into 2 different systems – the basic, reflexive ‘limbic’ system and our more sophisticated, reflective ‘conceptual’ system. Our limbic system has been trained over time to react automatically, and has been shaped by training & repeat experiences, which then makes these thoughts & actions become habitual.

The limbic system is the part of the brain that is tuned into immediate goals and past emotions, memories, habits and beliefs. It’s what makes associations on the fly and allows us to operate and navigate everyday life. It is this autopilot that keeps us safe and helps us avoid risk. It detects danger and takes in many environmental & emotional factors all at once. It drives us to preserve our view of ourselves.

However, it is also this system that keeps us from changing, even if it is for the better. If we want to bring change to our lives, we have to overcome the automatic thoughts that come from the limbic system. This is easier said than done, as the reflective conceptual part of our brain exhausts itself quickly, and likes to hand control back to the limbic system once it is spent.

The message? Being mindful of the impact of the limbic system, and how the two systems in our mind interact, is the first step to bringing about lasting change in our lives.  The only way to change our view of ourselves, and therefore change the way our limbic system responds, is with focus, attention and mindful action.

We have to bring our goals to mind often and reinforce to ourselves the direction in which we are going, and the reasons why. We also have to be mindful of the environment in which we operate, which is a topic for another discussion.

Next article coming in September – “Optimism Bias”