Why Changing Behaviour is so Difficult
There is so much evidence that explains why it is so hard to change people’s beliefs. We have discussed this in Newsletter 149 (Beliefs 01 February, 2021) where we examined how our drive to survive in our environment created banks of both emotional and cognitive memories which form our sense of self or our beliefs. The conditions that fashioned our beliefs will be the conditions we seek out when our self is threatened. This is critical for teachers to understand when they are dealing with students dysfunctional behaviour. This is because the behaviours they are using are ones they learned to get their needs met in the environment in which they were raised. The conflict is the result of the child learning to behave in a dysfunctional environment and applying those behaviours in a functional one.
In this essay we will look at the interaction between the power of these memories and the neurological structure created in their formation. The combination of these features will influence the child’s analysis of the external environment restricting the level of access to all available information that could inform alternate decision making.
We have already discussed the physical damage that can result from being raised in an abusive or neglectful environment (see -Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse - 10 August 2020, The Impact form Neglect - 12 September 2017 and Damage to the Brain - 13 July 2020). This damage, put on them by adults has already placed these children at a significant disadvantage but to compound this handicap is their ability to see alternate opportunities in the environment is limited.
This limitation is understandable, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia has made the following broad observations:
- The cognitive mind can process 40 pieces of information per minute
- The unconscious mind sorts through 12 million sensory inputs per minute
- The unconscious mind checks for threat and/or opportunity
Of course these numbers are estimates but they make the point. We are exposed to an extreme amount of stimulus all the time we are awake and it is impossible to focus on it all. I suspect the idea that we can process 40 pieces per minute is a guestimate however those 40 would be characteristics on the environment that have the potential to either threaten our survival or provide nourishment to maintain us, this is the unconscious checking that Wilson identifies (the brain will instantly observe unexpected threats that are beyond our expectation; for example if you are crossing the road and a runaway truck is heading for you will take immediate action to avoid the collision).
As stated in the opening paragraph, the conditions that fashioned our beliefs are those that gave us the best chance to maintain homeostatic equilibrium, to survive. Not only will these be the conditions we seek out the neurological process will involve the same circuits and these are the ones that are the most dominant. The brain is wired to attend to those things that have supported them in the past. In a sense the neural networks originally are to optimise our survival and these are the ones we focus on; the brain chooses what to attend to.
There are at least two functions of the brain that increase the efficiency of our perception. The first is held in a neural network that is located in the brain stem and projects onto the hypothalamus which by releasing targeted hormones keeps the body in a stable state or homeostatic equilibrium. The second is the cerebellum which continually monitors the relationship between our homeostatic state, the external environment which includes our body and the behaviours that maintain equilibrium.
One of the principal functions of the cerebellum is to make instant adjustments to our behaviour to maintain equilibrium. The first investigations into the cerebellum was in its importance to balance. Most early research into the brain was carried out by observing changes to behaviour when part of the brain was damaged. The most obvious impact of a damaged cerebellum is a lack of balance and motor skills. For years it was believed that this was its primary, almost exclusive function. Later research has revealed a much more complex array of behaviour regulations are controlled by the cerebellum.
For the purpose of this essay it is how the cerebellum handles the interface of the external world and our memories, our beliefs that is pertinent to how the brain’s structure helps reinforce existing beliefs. If you take the example of balance it is easy to see how this happens. Those of you who have observed a child learning to walk will have watched that child, through trial and error mastering that skill. Once they become skilled at walking they don’t have to think about it, it is an intrinsic, subconscious memory and if they trip they immediately adjust their body to regain their balance. The immediacy of the reaction is because the cerebellum bi-passes any reference to the memory bank, it ‘knows’ what to do and sends out instant instructions. This is known as the ‘feed forward’ feature of the cerebellum.
This feed forward feature makes for an efficiency when there is no clash between the environment and the individual’s beliefs however, when there is a clash and the environment threatens the individual’s beliefs thereby increasing their stress levels, they will invariably act according to those beliefs rather than the evidence presented by the environment. As I stated in a previous Newsletter (No. 214. Changing Students' Beliefs – 27 September, 2022); “the issue is that our beliefs are formed in one reality and when we are faced with another it is challenged. When you consider that our beliefs are about actions that help us survive and if we are threatened in the contemporary situation the anxiety that is generated will have us apply those beliefs on which we have relied”.
Much has been written about confirmation bias and what has been discussed above explains this phenomena. In the majority of cases this relance on beliefs makes life much easier. If I ask you to tell me where your car is right now you could with a high degree of certainty and in the vast majority of cases you would be right but unless you can see your car, you have evidence that it is there!
Obviously, for the students we are concerned with their belief systems, although functional in the environment in which they were raised is likely to be dysfunctional in a well-run classroom. Our goal for these kids is to help them become functional in the classroom which means we have to change their beliefs and that is extremely difficult to achieve. You have to build a new set of memories and that can only happen if you over-ride the existing ones and this can only happen over time, in a supportive relationship and in a consistent and persistent environment!