People can and do change their mind. It actually does happen. You may have even seen it yourself a time or two. For your mind, however, changing is not a riskless procedure. The brain works on the premise that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. So, it looks first to what has worked before in order to choose what to do next. After all it did work then. The mind needs a really, really good reason to do something different, and (spoiler alert), it is not about reason at all.
This is so well illustrated in this article-‘My Semester With The Snowflakes’
If you haven’t read this, take a look. Here’s the short summary- James Hatch, a Navy Seal veteran goes to Yale at the age of 52 because he wants to become a better person and, despite the preconceived notion both he and his colleagues hold about young college students, finds himself changed in ways he could not have imagined.
For so many of his world, these kids are snowflakes, a pejorative term referring to a person who thinks they are special when really they are not. His ex-mates chide him about his new ‘friends.’ In literature class he finds himself above his pay grade; he also discovers that these ‘snowflakes’ are anything but. Although he feels like the odd man out, he finds people who are well spoken, invested, energetic, principled and thoroughly welcoming and respectful of his experience. Turns out they are special and don’t think of themselves as such.
Here we have it— a person with a staunchly held opinion, a very certain story about these students, reinforced by his colleagues, encountering experiences that challenge that story, a catalyst that compels him to acknowledge the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there’s a better version of his story out there, one that serves him better in his quest for the success he is looking for. His mind changed, and to his surprise, it was these ‘others’ who held the key to that better story.
So where did the snowflakes go? Had they morphed from caterpillars into butterflies?
Gregory Berns and colleagues did fMRI studies that showed that a person with a fixed view is processing in a different area of the brain than a person open to considering alternatives. (https://www.freethebrain.com/table-of-contents; chapter 9, The Dreaded Dueling Solutions)
What caused him to consider a different version of his ‘snowflake’ story? What was the catalyst that propelled his mind to process in a different place?
Mirror neuron activity represents the brain’s ability to incorporate the experience of others into the matrix of data used to craft its story. Hogeven and colleagues placed people in different scenarios and used fMRI to show that the more power and control a person has, the less mirror neuron activity they exhibit. In other words, the more power and control, the less we pay attention to others. (https://www.freethebrain.com/table-of-contents; chapter 12, Credibility: Do You IntendTo Be Confusing, Deceptive, or Coercive? )
And when we hold onto stories that ‘demote’ someone else, aren’t we really just granting ourselves power and control, thus giving permission to discount them? If we had been able to measure his mirror neuron activity before Yale and after these experiences, what do you think his fMRI would have shown?
It is not really possible to predict exactly what the catalyst might be for any given individual to ‘re-think’ their story. It’s just not likely you can know what is meaningful enough for a person to reprioritize what matters to them. And neither can that person because such value judgements take place in the Hidden Brain far outside one’s awareness. This story, though, gives us some clues as to what it takes.
The stories we hold revolve around the notion of what success at that given point in time means. In this case, he wanted to be a better person, and although he does not elaborate on what this looks like, you can pretty well guess that was a different notion from what he had believed in his life up to that point. So he came to Yale in a frame of mind open to the possibilities it might bring him. Already his mind was moving away from processing primarily in his amygdala, where complying with and defending the prevailing story at all costs is the preferred tactic to achieve success. At the same time, it was moving toward processing elsewhere in the prefrontal cortex where alternatives could be considered and weighed.
He experienced a level of respect for his experience that he did not anticipate. This did not fit with what his concept of snowflakes would have predicted. It touched him in a way that, for him, was profoundly meaningful. These ‘snowflakes’ supported him in his studies, and he came to see them as credible compatriots. He found that he could trust that these ‘snowflakes’ had his back, just like the colleagues he served with in the military.
And here is the kicker- this ‘re-thinking,’ reconsideration, rebalancing of what matters, revisiting one’s story is happening in the Hidden Brain (https://www.freethebrain.com/table-of-contents; chapter 4, The Hidden Brain). Surely, he was aware of what he was seeing and experiencing, but the affect on reprioritizing what matters and the value judgement that entails was happening in his Hidden Brain, outside of his awareness. This is where these new ‘findings’ were woven into a new story. This is where his mind confronted that prevailing story and the worldview that underpinned it. This is where his mind ‘chose’ to acknowledge that his preconceptions no longer served him so well. He was unaware of that processing and transformation until that new story was delivered to his awareness and he ‘realized’ the snowflakes were not snowflakes at all. They were real people with real talents and real energy that not only fit in his new world in a different way, but in a way that gave him a better chance to be successful in his own journey- to become the better person he was striving to achieve. In other words, he discovered those ‘others’ were important to his own success.
So let’s just look at this for a moment. Changing one’s mind is a pretty complex ordeal, most of which we are not even aware.
—It takes an openness to a possibly better version of one’s story-
But if a person is processing in the amygdala with a fixed opinion unable to even consider something different, then what chance is there that anything else of importance will register in their Hidden Brain. However, it can happen if you acknowledge your story, whatever it is, likely is missing or dismissing possibly important considerations.
—This flows from the practice of respect-
Not just the sense that others respect you, but also that you respect another for the experiences they have had. Actively seeking out those experiences provides possibly valuable inputs to the ‘data’ used not only to form a story, but to revise that story into something that better serves your intent. Again, this is not our inclination, especially when we have the power and control, or have granted that to ourselves based on our story, and certainly not when those inputs challenge the validity of the current version.
—It also takes a level of credibility and trust-
This is essential for others to be comfortable and vulnerable in truly sharing their experiences with you, and for you to be in a frame of mind to honor those experiences. You must see them as a valid source and believe they have your interests at heart. And vice versa.
To quote the author:
’To me there is no dishonor in being wrong and learning. There is dishonor in willful ignorance and there is dishonor in disrespect.’
Although his discovery was informed by observation, analysis, and deliberation, it was not decided on in that realm of his mind. The ‘choice’ to adopt a different story happened elsewhere, in a space far outside his awareness, based on factors we rarely acknowledge. And so it is for each of us to recognize in ourselves and others where the mind changes, and what that really takes. And as I hope you can see, it revolves around a lot more than a reason.
So pause for a moment. I am sure you are grappling with some issue in your organization. Reflect on what you believe to be true about the issue and about those you work with and for.
Do you see them as your version of ‘snowflakes’? How do they see you?
Does your story include the concerns of ‘others,’ or does it just give you the power and control to dismiss them?
Can you trust their intentions, and have you demonstrated they can trust yours? Who is a credible source, and are you?
Do they listen to you and do you listen to them? Are you open to the possibilities?
Or, are you just banking on a good reason.
One thing is for sure- change what matters and perceptions change… change the perceptions and the story changes. Change the story and decisions and choices change. Minds do change. And when that happens, just like for our author in his new world, those decisions and choices usually end up serving you better.
(Thanks to Mike P. for stimulating this train of thought)
If you will, share this post with someone who would benefit by reading it. Thanks.