We are standing at an inflexion point as families of wealth and their advisors strive to harness scientific advances that measurably foster agility and performance while promoting and protecting health and well-being, both today and in the future. The ability to effect change – and neuroplasticity, more specifically – is essential for individuals, families and their enterprises to thrive. Despite the profusion of available advice about improving and enhancing our lives and businesses, meaningful change remains extraordinarily challenging. There is still an insatiable demand for yet more information and assistance.
“The world of business is evolving at an exponential rate, new multi-billion dollar industries emerging rapidly and old, established industries becoming obsolete. In this fast-changing environment, operating with agility and a purpose-driven, innovative mindset is key to the sustained success of modern enterprises.” – Francois Botha (Founder, &Simple)
Podcasts are a relatively recent and popular iteration of information sharing. Data from spring 2021 indicates there are over two million different podcasts with more than 48 million outstanding podcast episodes. That’s a lot of information – and yet we still want more.
The continued yearning and desire for personal and professional assistance suggests that despite the proliferation of advice and information, our needs are fundamentally not being met. Contemporary neuroscience not only explains why change is so difficult but now offers us a remarkable array of specific, actionable tools to effect meaningful and enduring change.
The science of change
Based on an understanding of neuroscience and human behaviour, we know that information and advice alone are not effective at producing satisfying behavioural or emotional change. In fact, our neurobiological makeup does not support the straightforward utilization of information as the basis for change.
We are all experiencing a kind of paradox – we have “information overload” with an “application breakdown”. There is a disconnect between the advice tendered, its successful application and its conversion into meaningful change.
Change manifests itself in many forms: alteration of our emotional, cognitive and/or physical states to improve mood, resilience and our relationships; enhancing our professional lives, performance, health and spiritual well-being. We yearn to develop meaning and purpose, connection to nature, stewardship of our environment, and to create an enduring legacy. Indeed, these are all powerful epigenetic interventions that support the favourable expression of our genes.
We all know that change is difficult. But why is it so difficult? To answer that question, we need to understand more about how the human brain works.
Achieving neuroplasticity in order to change
Neuroplasticity is the capacity of our nervous system to learn new things – to change. Achieving neuroplasticity is the first step to optimizing our brain to effect change.
Yet, neuroplasticity alone is never the goal. The goal is to access neuroplasticity and then direct it towards particular changes we want to achieve. With practice and reinforcement, the changes we learn become increasingly reflexive. As an example, at a certain point in our development, we no longer had to be conscious of every step we took, we simply “knew” how to walk. The same could be said for learning a new language or navigating a new computer program.
Neuroplasticity enables behaviour that is initially tentative and deliberate to become automatic and reflexive.
Learning as a child vs learning as an adult
The human brain develops over time. Young brains are neuroplasticity machines. In the first few years of life, more than one million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called “pruning” which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. This dynamic process never stops and our brain becomes a roadmap informed by the experiences of our life.
By age 25 the adult brain has fully developed. In order for adults to effect change, we have to engage in a different set of processes to successfully effect change and, more specifically, to endure. Adults cannot change the mind simply by using the mind. Words alone have the lowest currency to alter the brain. We can only change the mind through experience, but we can prime the brain for change with specific interventions that are fully under our control.
To effect meaningful change as an adult we must undergo a series of very deliberate steps to alter our internal state in ways that then allow us to change our brains.
For adults, change requires deep learning. Deep learning has two essential components: deep attention and deep rest.
Deep learning = deep attention (alertness + focus) + deep rest (sleep + recovery)
Alertness is the state of feeling awake and alive. It involves the release of a neurotransmitter called adrenaline (sometimes referred to as epinephrine). You may recognize this as the primary neurotransmitter involved in the stress response. Alertness is also a state of vigilance, being aware of potential danger. The release of this neurotransmitter will often trigger a feeling of distress, agitation or discomfort. The levels of adrenaline are lower for deep learning than they are in dangerous contexts, but the feelings, albeit less intense, are much the same.
Focus involves suppressing surrounding noise to hone in on a specific task. When done right, focus is like casting a spotlight, eliminating unnecessary external stimuli. The neurotransmitter chemical responsible for focus is acetylcholine. This “focus” molecule highlights the areas of your brain that are involved in learning, marking those areas for change.
- Distress and dopamine
The simultaneous release of adrenaline and acetylcholine produces a state of feeling that tends to be unpleasant, agitating and uncomfortable. This distressed state can be offset by dopamine, another neurotransmitter that is often associated with pleasure.
Small amounts of dopamine can be self-administered by celebrating small wins and reframing distress as a positive step necessary for change. Dopamine cannot be consumed or injected. It is up to the individual to generate the release of dopamine into the brain.
- Deep rest
Change, or neuroplasticity, doesn’t occur during the “deep attention” phase of work outlined above. Change occurs during periods of “deep rest”, primarily sleep and recovery.
The most powerful factor that governs sleep is light – in particular, sunlight. When we wake up in the morning a hormone called cortisol is released from our adrenal glands. We often think about cortisol in relation to stress. But cortisol is also a normal, healthy hormone whose peak release is early in the day – it wakes us up, makes us alert, and encourages us to move.
Cortisol is responsible for setting our daily clock which governs our circadian rhythms. Approximately 12 hours after our morning cortisol pulse, another hormone called melatonin is released from our pineal gland. While cortisol is our wakefulness signal, melatonin is our sleepiness signal. Cortisol and melatonin have opposing rhythms over a 24-hour period (i.e., when one goes up while the other goes down).
One of the effective and practical ways to activate cortisol release in the morning (and thus melatonin release in the evening) is to step outside within an hour or two of sunrise, without sunglasses, and expose ourselves to natural light for 1-10 minutes.
Deep rest can also be enhanced by non-sleep recovery during the day. Various regimes of mindfulness, meditation, self-hypnosis and naps also facilitate learning consolidation, although they do not obviate the need for more concentrated high-quality sleep at night.
There are many other tools derived from neuroscience that offer us the opportunity to better regulate learning, mood and performance. While they are beyond the scope of this introductory paper, we look forward to sharing more in the future.
However, this specific example was selected as it constitutes the necessary foundation upon which all else is built.
We have entered the age of biosciences
The eminent Walter Isaacson has characterized the first half of the last century (1900-1950) as “The Age of the Atom”, the second half of the last century (1950-2000) as “The “Age of Information Sciences”, and today, as the flourishing of “The Age of Biosciences”. Preventive genomics, epigenetics and neuroscience no longer provide merely theoretical academic advances. They represent an exploding discourse of actionable science for human optimization and enhanced performance.
There has never been a more exciting time to work with science. One does not need to be a scientist. But one must know how to access science and translate it into actionable strategies that allow us to live healthier longer lives. Preeminent families are already embracing these technologies to enhance human capital, the quality of their lives, and their functionality within family operations. As citizen scientists of the family office and family enterprise, we must understand the gold standard of double-blind placebo-controlled research and identify/reject pseudoscience.
Perhaps Dr Anthony Fauci said it best in 2020: “You cannot rush the science. But when the science points you in the right direction, you can start rushing.”
Science has a critical role to play as we look for new ways to prosper in a world of ever-escalating demand for change. What does not change, however, is Virgil’s sacred maxim: “The greatest wealth is health.” Mastering a finite lesson about the neuroscience of change and neuroplasticity is but a small price to pay.