“Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act.” Leonard Cohen
This beautiful quote, from the infamous Leonard Cohen, Canadian singer-songwriter, musician, poet, and novelist, reminds us of the simpler nature of change. And yet, as leadership coaches and human beings, we have also experienced, known, and understood that true change, embodied change, enduring change, is often difficult to attain. How can both opposing perspectives be true?
At first glance, this quote elicits a more behavioural stance to change. Think and act positive, and good things will happen. However, as I continue to contemplate the phrase, a more integrated perspective begins to emerge. This came by way of a detour into neuroscience.
Over the past hundreds of millions of years, the human brain has evolved to detect negative information faster than positive information, as a method for survival. Hanson (2009) explains that “your brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls, and reacts to unpleasant experiences, as we’ve said, it’s like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones” (p. 68).
We also know that when neurons fire together, they wire together, and mental activity actually creates new neural structures (Hebb, 1949; LeDoux, 2003). Therefore, not only does the brain predominately scan for negative information, these patterns then become reinforced, which provides an explanation for why positive behavioural change can often be difficult to achieve.
How does neuroscience then speak to the more simple nature of change expressed by Leonard Cohen?
Fleeting thoughts, visions, and feelings can also leave a lasting impression on the neural pathways of the brain (Hanson, 2009). And they can be positive thoughts, visions and feelings! In order to counteract the negative bias of the brain, Hanson’s (2009) remedy is to experience the positive when it arises, without negating the negative: become the observer of the negativity, while holding a positive thought, vision, and feeling in the forefront of your brain.
Therefore, every time you experience the good, you build a little bit of neural structure, which will gradually change your brain and how you feel and act, in far-reaching ways (Hanson, 2009).
Both perspectives are therefore true! On one hand, it is difficult to change the negative bias of the brain, which often translates into unwanted behaviour. On the other hand, simply acting and experiencing the positive, changes the brain, wires positive neurons together, thus producing enduring change!
Of course, this becomes more complicated when life conditions become exacerbated by global systemic cultural and economic forces. The good news, again, is that there are a great many positive experiences to be had in the collaborative endeavour of co-creating a thriving, sustainable humanity, individually and collectively, inside and out.
Leadership Coaching Tip: Remember neuroscience for facilitating change. The brain has a negative bias that was utilized to ensure our survival. As we begin to further develop as human beings, we can learn to cultivate change by reinforcing positive neural pathways, leading to desired embodied and enduring change.
Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Hebb, D. O. 1949. The organization of behaviour. New York: Wiley.
LeDoux, J. E. 1995. Emotion: Cues from the brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 46, 209-235.
About the Author
Natasha Mantler is a leadership coach and facilitator, informed by her Undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Guelph, Masters in Business Administration from the University of Victoria, and executive coaching degree from Royal Roads University. Currently, she is working toward completing her Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership and Transformation at Saybrook University, dividing her time between Rohnert Park, California and Toronto, Canada with her husband and partner, Eric Reynolds.