Excerpt from Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time by Walter McFarland and Susan Goldsworthy.

Neuroscience research can inform efforts to engage the workforce by focusing on engaging our brains. Change often triggers responses in the brain similar to those triggered by physical pain, even when the people involved understand the reasons for the change. Understanding why change efforts have this effect on people requires understanding several things about the brain.

First, the brain’s number one job is to keep you alive, and therefore, it is focused on survival. According to neuroscientist Dean Mobbs of the Neuro-Leadership Institute, “Our brains evolved to detect biologically salient stimuli and to optimally pursue a course of action.” Furthermore, the brain has proved to be great at surviving. In fact, it is probably the most successful biological organ in history.

It’s important to note that for most of human history, the brain saw survival as physical survival—life and death. Recent research indicates that in modern times, the brain also sees survival as social survival—it acts to protect our social status in much the same way that it acts to protect our life.

Indeed, research indicates that social pain lights up the same part of the brain as physical pain, demonstrating that the pain of exclusion caused by change can be quite literal.

Second, the external environment is of keen interest to the brain. From long experience, the brain has learned that even minor changes in the environment can mean the difference between life and death. For this reason, the brain views environmental changes with profound suspicion. For most of human history, the external environment meant the outdoors. As people moved into organizations, however, the external environment came to include the organizational environment.

Third, the brain has evolved specialized systems to quickly detect and react to changes in its environment. Key ones include working memory, long-term memory, error detection, and the fear response.

Fourth, each of these systems operates in each of us all the time. The initiation of change affects each of us through these systems in different and significant ways, as noted here. Therefore, change triggers common reactions in these systems that include stress, physical discomfort, and even pain. We discuss each system briefly, as each of them has implications for our ability to change.

Working Memory
Working memory, the brain’s initial holding area for new perceptions and ideas, is associated with the brain’s prefrontal cortex, a small, energy-intensive region behind the forehead. When we activate working memory, we are processing incoming stimuli. The challenge is that working memory is quite limited—we can’t process very much information at any one time. Because change efforts require a greater use of working memory, they can overwhelm it, causing physical discomfort and reducing the brain’s capacity for learning, creativity, and adaptability.

Long-Term Memory
Long-term memory is held in the brain’s basal ganglia, a low-energy, high-capacity part of the brain, located deeper inside the brain, which doesn’t tire like the prefrontal cortex. Activities done repeatedly are referred by the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia, thus freeing up processing power in the prefrontal cortex. We use this region for physical habits and activities we can do without thinking. Change requires the difficult work of changing old habits—something that the basal ganglia actively resist.

Error Detection
The brain’s focus on survival causes it to continuously scan the environment (up to five times per second) for “errors”—unexpected changes in the environment. Error signals are generated by the brain’s orbital frontal cortex, which is closely related to the brain’s fear circuitry in the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons deep in the brain that performs a primary role in the processing of memory and emotional reactions. Change efforts can generate error signals, which can, in turn, trigger a fear response.

Fear Response
As noted earlier, change efforts can trigger error circuits in the orbital frontal cortex that may trigger a fear response in the amygdala, sometimes called an amygdala hijack.

The fear response is the brain’s fight, flight, or freeze reaction to perceived danger. The fear response, once triggered, is the most extreme resistance to change possible. People tend to avoid the kind of environmental uncertainty that change efforts evoke.

In summary, change efforts can threaten multiple systems in the brain (many of which are not conscious), eliciting behaviors to avoid and/or actively resist the change effort. Major initiatives that touch on people’s work environments, from their job responsibilities to where they work, will trigger neural systems that motivate people to practice avoidance, overwhelming their working memory, forcing them to engage in the difficult and painful process of changing long-term habits, and potentially triggering profound fear. This is why it is vital to apply knowledge of how our brains work in focusing on change at both the individual and organizational levels.