A Dysphoria Of Change
Sometimes brain chemistry can halt our journey towards new ideas and ways of thinking … at least at first.
Now that many of us are back from the annual ASHRAE and AHR Expo conference, our minds may be jangling from having seen an array of innovative technologies utilizing the cloud, smartphones, and demand automation. While learning new information and changing old patterns is essential to most jobs, leaving behind familiar intellectual territory can be very unpleasant. New ideas that suggest that we must change our behavior can be especially difficult for people who are very proficient at their jobs. Consequently, many highly trained professionals become stuck in their ways. Are the reasons for this just sheer stubbornness, or is there more to the story?
I would like to share a personal experience, and then discuss the brain neurochemistry that many adults encounter when they are faced with change.
After working for over 20 years as a physician, I returned to college to get a Master’s Degree in Architecture and Engineering. As a physician, I felt comfortable taking care of most of my patients and was generally successful in navigating areas in which I had less expertise. This sense of competence as I went about my daily routine was very gratifying and calming.
When, in my mid-40s, I decided to expand my education with a degree in architecture; the challenge seemed exciting because I had always liked school. What I never anticipated, however, was the powerful barrage of negative emotions that sometimes accompanied this new training. One day in studio, we were told to create a model and then interpret the essential components of our model to “inform” the design of a room. I was totally lost with this assignment. What surprised me was that in addition to being confused, I was frustrated, angry, and (internally) demeaning of the whole design process and everyone associated with it. After an understanding professor helped me over my hurdle, I was enlightened not only about the design process, but also about the strength of my negativity when faced with new concepts. I wondered if other people felt this way when faced with new ways of thinking.
After some research, I found that I was not alone. Adults who have set beliefs or theories undergo powerful and complex changes when faced with new models. One’s sense of social order, individual identity, and brain cell neurochemistry can be temporarily thrown into disequilibrium.
At a societal level, when new information is introduced by close colleagues, there is less threat to existing social organization and the resistance is usually much less. In contrast, when change is initiated by “outsiders,” resistance is greater because people fear disruption of their established social relationships.
At the individual level, research shows that changed work tasks resulting from new information can trigger people’s hidden personal insecurities, such as fear of judgement or failure.
Even at a cellular level in our brain, unfamiliar information creates temporary imbalances. Physiologically, every thought is an electrochemical event which produces a cascade of neurochemical changes in nerve cells. When a thought is associated with a previously successful outcome, the primary neurochemical released is dopamine, the same chemical which causes a feeling of pleasure. Withdrawal from dopamine produces unpleasant cravings so our brains are pre-programmed to engage in pursuits that ensure its stability. This means that most people avoid doing things that result in dopamine withdrawal — including embracing new ways of thinking.
When signs of resistance to new information in a professional setting do appear, it is a signal that fear of change (and dopamine withdrawal) is occurring. Therefore, it is a good time to listen carefully to find out what the underlying fears are, rather than engaging in a long harangue about the logic and benefits of the new information and recommendations.
For ASHRAE to better foster innovation, perhaps there should be a “Dopamine replenishment booth” for all open-minded attendees. ES
After an understanding professor helped me over my hurdle, I was enlightened not only about the design process, but also about the strength of my negativity when faced with new concepts. I wondered if other people felt this way when faced with new ways of thinking.