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3 Types of Change Your Brain Adapts: Accommodating New Behaviors, 3 of 3

In Part I and Part II, we considered two of three basic adaptations to change the brain makes to strengthen existing behaviors, or to adjust or expand them with modifications.

A third type of change occurs when the brain adapts to new behaviors.

In this post we discuss the brain’s adaptation to this third type of change, or ‘accommodation,’ and five factors that can either enhance or block the willingness of your brain to accommodate new learning or change. The foundation of all learning can be said to occur when your brain:

III. Accommodates completely new behaviors.

Whether it involves learning a new sport, a fresh perspective on life or a second language, whenever you learn something new, it makes demands of your brain to do some overhaul work.

  • To adapt to new learning, more specifically, your brain engages in processes that grow new neurons and recruit them into the existing connecting circuitry.
  • For every neuron, new connecting pathways and synaptic terminals must also be added to the neural network.

As you can imagine, even a relatively simple behavior, such as learning how to play a musical instrument or wind sailing as a first sport, if it is totally new, can seem daunting at first. It involves some dynamic restructuring of old neural patterns in order to add new ones.

This type of change is the most challenging, and will require consistent effort, determination to break free of old self-reinforcing patterns, and the body’s natural resistance to change protective patterns, in particular. This can seem taxing (to you, your mind and physical body), for several reasons:

  • It pulls on more of your body’s resources, mental, emotional and physical, in every way.
  • It requires determined effort and an ability to sustain momentum to get past the naturally uncomfortable feelings you may feel when you learn something new.
  • It is only natural to feel a bit awkward or clumsy, and this can trigger fear, such as fear of inadequacy, failure, etc., which may cause you to worry, for example, whether you’re up to the task.

In other words, when you want to learn a new behavior, to be successful, you need to know how to sustain optimal emotional states in the most emotionally taxing circumstances.

Some new learning is considerably more challenging. When is comes to healing or changing problematic behavior patterns related to your early survival-love map, for example, this involves deeper, more transformative change.

Ideally, new learning occurs regularly throughout life.  Once your brain ‘accepts’ a new idea and behavior, it is integrated and becomes part of subconscious processes. This is how your brain builds your personal banks of knowledge, understanding and wisdom as well.

Whether a new learning gets integrated into the vast neural network of your brain, however, is another matter altogether. This depends on whether it gets past the protective filters of your brain. When it comes to changing resistant behaviors, it always involves making changes, accordingly, to the ideas and belief systems that currently sustain them.

Your subconscious mind, the part of the mind that operates the brain and body, can have a mind of its own.

It depends on how open your brain is to adapting new ideas and behavioral changes.

Five factors that enhance (or block) new learning: 

Several factors can make (or break) the deal in terms of setting the stage for your brain to adapt to learning new ideas or behaviors.

1. When resistance to change is moderate to low.

Alas, learning is both simple and complex.

The design of your brain makes you a paradox of sorts. For example:

  • On the one hand, your brain has a natural orientation toward learning from day one of your life, and, as recent findings in neuroscience reveal, a healthy brain remains hungry to learn throughout life.
  • On the other hand, your brain has a built-in resistance to change, particularly after the first years of life, when the brain forms a customized set of filters, neural patterns that act as selective perception filters.

Your subconscious relies on these customized neural patterns to interpret the world you experience. Based on these neural patterns, or early survival-love maps, however, the subconscious often makes rigid, overly selective, thus, misguided ‘decisions’ about whether to accept new learning or certain types of change.

Whereas some resistance to change is healthy and natural, high resistance blocks learning and change. More often, resistance has to do with fear, limiting beliefs, and protective or defensive strategies that have outlived their usefulness, yet remain imprinted in memory cells of the body.

The simplest way to explain why your brain may resist new learning is that it is currently trained to mistakenly associate this new learning with uncomfortable or painful sensations that automatically release hormones such as cortisol, the stress hormone. Thus, your body ‘thinks’ it’s doing you a favor by avoiding the discomfort.

Paradoxically, however, stress enhances your brain’s ability to learn, and thus potentially your performance as well, providing you consciously keep the stress at manageable levels.

To adapt a new behavior, a conscious-you must necessarily train your brain to sustain an optimal state of mind in the most taxing circumstances. The uncomfortable feelings, if they don’t scare you away, are action signals that invite you to learn an essential skill, and that is, the ability to get comfortable with the ‘uncomfortable’ feelings you feel when you face challenges.

2. When you feel safe enough to learn.

The wiring of your brain makes you a learning-being by nature, however, when you do not feel safe, your brain switches ‘learning mode’ off and ‘protective mode’ on.

This has to do with the fact that your brain is always either in one state or the other. (Note: A type of ‘learning’ takes place is ‘protection’ mode as well, however, this is a radically different type of learning that involves ‘either-or’ behavior patterns, protective ‘fight or flee’ strategies, and the like.)

What, however, turns on your body’s survival response in situations where there are absolutely no threats present to your physical survival (no lions, tigers or bears!)? Certain emotional relational drives are as real and perhaps even more powerful in driving behaviors than drives for sustenance and physical survival.

  • For human beings, learning is inherently connected to deep inner strivings to matter, to meaningfully connect to life, contribute value, and so on.
  • Thus, learning situations can activate core existential fears, such as fear of inadequacy or rejection, and your brain has a built-in tendency to push away what causes discomfort or anxiety, and to draw nearer to what causes pleasurable feelings of safety and love.

You cannot control the body’s survival response. The primary directive of your subconscious mind, after all, is to ensure your survival. This is automatic.

There is something you can do, however!

Your sense of safety in the moment is what determines whether or not your subconscious mind will activate your body’s survival response that, like a dictator, performs a coup d’étatof all the systems of your body.

You can control your sense of safety in a given situation. How?

  • For one, by identifying and replacing reactive thinking (belief) patterns that are associated with your early survival-love map with life-enriching new ones (that do not automatically activate certain core emotional-command circuits associated with certain early survival fears).
  • Recognizing that, unless you do, your subconscious can act like an over-protective parent to block any new behaviors, in particular, ones that activate the core fears imprinted in your own early survival-love map memory.

Learning means opening yourself up to a wide array of information to include information that is not pleasant.

If you stubbornly resist your own attempts to implement new changes, it may be that you attempting to make simple adjustments to old subconscious patterns when the situation calls for some new learning instead.

Not knowing something when someone else does may not sound threatening to the conscious thinking brain, however, if your body holds a belief that continually compares and demands proof of your worth in relation to others on the basis that knowing more means you are smart versus dumb, this will automatically fire the body’s survival response!

A deeper healing, the kind that breaks this and similar strongholds of fear, makes conscious any limiting subconscious beliefs, and brings about transformative change may be necessary. More on that later…

3. When you want to learn.

Learning new behaviors often involves new ways of thinking and relating. Thus, it takes more work, and more time to learn a new behavior.

It also takes more time before the information is transferred from the short term memory of the conscious mind, where it can feel more like a struggle (perhaps due to its limited memory space?), to the long term memory of the subconscious mind.

Your willingness to pay attention, to stay focused on the tasks at hand, and maintain your momentum and enthusiasm are essential.

To do the required work to learn a new behavior, therefore, you first must want, really want to do so! Depending on what you want to change, you will need at least one good reason to energize the passion you need for the neurons of your brain to ‘fire and wire’ and get the job done.

More often than not, humans do not change (ingrained survival-love patterns) until the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing. In other words, you must come to the place where everything inside you proclaims something akin to the following:

  • “Things have got to change! I will no longer accept the excuses in my head!”
  • “Instead, I will stay keep my focus on asking questions that build a sense of agency, such as:
    • ‘What do I need to learn now to optimize my chances?’
    • ‘What resources do I already have to make the change?’
    • ‘What do I need to change inside to make this possible?'”

In short, your habitual thinking patterns and beliefs matter. They matter because they form powerful emotional-drivers or emotional command-circuits in your brain.

In a sense, your conscious mind may think one set of thoughts, however, certain thoughts you think and words you speak, tell your subconscious what you really, really want.

You and your subconscious mind are continually in communication, sending messages to another. In a sense, your thoughts are messages you are sending to your subconscious.

In return, your subconscious activates certain images in your mind, along with emotions and felt sensations in your body. Your feelings and sensations are the mind of your body communicating back. They tell you where you are, at any given moment, with regard to where you really want to be.

For the person with social anxiety, using the example in Parts I and II, what they ‘really want’ (and are subconsciously communicating to their brain) is to ‘know when there is danger’ (i.e., certain looks on faces of others) in order that they may ‘flee to avoid feeling the emotion of fear’ and the sensations it activates in their body.

The focus of their thoughts, beliefs, wants, for the most part, is what produces more of what they don’t want, however.

Their subconscious mind is providing them with an unnecessary service. What is more, they are at risk of turning their otherwise amazing subconscious mind into a highly creative, virtual alarm system (that can turn social anxiety into a debilitating phobia or two)!

In truth, they are not really fleeing the situation (though it seems to them they are); they are fleeing the sensation of fear they fear in the situation. They are fleeing, in other words, something inside of them, that they could instead be open to get closer, be intimate with.

Fear of feeling sensations of fear inside (or expressed by others) is a fear of intimacy. It is arguably the most intense fear you experience, as a natural part of the human experience, one you are tasked to transform and relate to in a way that can transform your fears into assets. It’s impossible to find the happiness and peace of mind you yearn for, which is an inner experience, without getting comfortable with the vulnerable side of being human, and the sensations of fear you experience in relational contexts with self and key others.

4. When your beliefs support change.

The beliefs you hold in memory, whether conscious or subconscious, also tell your subconscious what you really want. Whether new learning takes place or not often depends on your attitude toward the behavior you want to change, and perhaps also toward change itself.

Here are a few questions to look for when examining any limiting beliefs or toxic thinking patterns:

  • What feelings do you have about the uncomfortable feelings associated with change?

Uncomfortable inner feelings and sensations naturally accompany learning of a new behavior. Your subconscious, the part of your mind that acts as the operating system of your body, relies on your thoughts and beliefs to know how to interpret, sort or filter (most, not all) of your experience of events. They form your perceptions.

  • Who do you hold responsible for creating happy feelings inside you?

Many persons are trapped into thinking they have to complain or guilt others into caring about them – or what’s most important to them. The subconscious appears to treat this “soft-wired” data as tentative commands. You need to consider adopting an attitude that proclaims, “I will change how I treat myself and life. I will focus on what change I can control and make, and I will let go of  change that is not in my control, in particular, trying to change or “fix” others’ behaviors or feelings in response to me (so they adapt to what I think I must have to feel connected – or feel I matter as a unique person).”

  • What thinking patterns are you practicing?

Thinking patterns are rooted in beliefs that, like a steering wheel on a vehicle, drive your life. Your thoughts are an ongoing stream of messages that let your subconscious know what you want, believe, your concerns, fears, desires, what you most want to focus on in the moment, and so on.

If you think you cannot handle a situation, or you’ve associated feelings of anger or impatience when a situation makes you “uncomfortable,” then your thoughts are activating dynamic processes inside your body that turn your beliefs into your reality in a given moment.

If you feel less than or inferior when learning new ideas or behaviors, for example, learning itself (an otherwise natural and lifelong human drive) can become a daunting experience. You need to consciously develop a healthy attitude toward learning itself, to think of this part of your self, for example, as ‘a mentor who is there to continually challenges you in support your own dreams and aspirations of becoming all you can and are designed to be.’

Your subconscious cannot interpret (most) events you experience. It turns to your interpretive thoughts or the pool of accrued beliefs in your early survival-love map.  Simply put, according to our beliefs, so goes your life.

Like a genie, your subconscious seems to say, ‘your wish is my command.’

 At the same time, your body is hardwired to continually prompt you to grow. At no time in life, no matter how great your achievements, will your body be ‘okay’ with the status quo. It’s one thing to completely accept, in a healthy way, where you are at any given time; it’s quite another to conclude you’ve reached some end to learning and growing. That’s not likely to happen. Your brain and body, physically, mentally and emotionally, is designed to be continually challenged and grow. It either grows or atrophies. There is no sitting on the fence. Life is like walking a tightrope, a continual balancing act. Get used to this, even better, learn to enjoy this human attribute! 

A very helpful belief to adopt, for starters, is one that affirms ideas such as:  

  • ‘I am curious by nature, and enjoy and see life as a journey of learning all there is to know about my self and life.” 
  • “Challenges and problems are simply opportunities for expanding growth and learning.”
  • “The less I resist what I need to learn to grow, the easier and faster I learn to resolve problems.” (This is a good one! Test it, and see for yourself!)
Emotional and mental learning and change are hardwired directives that are as real as the hardwired directives to survive physically. You may be able to ignore or deny these directives of your body, at great cost at minimum of time and effort; you cannot change, stop or believe these directives away any more than you can ask your body to no longer need oxygen, food or water!

5. When what you want is backed by action.

Once the mind of your body ‘accepts’ the new learning, it is integrated at deeper levels that operate subconsciously.

  • What skills are you practicing as a result of new ideas, however?

Your brain, like your body, operates under a “use it or lose it” principle.

To the extent new learning is practiced, change processes proceed to then either strengthen or weaken what was learned.

While the brain is quick and open to learning and adaptation, it also likes to be efficient. In the process of strengthening the neural pathways that you most use, in similar ways, the brain weakens the connections between the cells that supported old activities, or ways of thinking and behaving, that you are no longer using as much or have ceased using altogether.

  • What activities are you most immersed in?

Action is the best indicator of what you want, believe in and most value. Period.

Unless you make conscious choices to take action in the direction of the new outcomes you want to produce, you body will naturally gravitate to what it “thinks” produces the most feel-good feelings for you – and that most often means what is familiar! Your actions are the best indicators of the thoughts, wants and beliefs you are emphasizing and practicing inside you, in other words, the ones that have the most influence in shaping your actions and the direction of your life (and autonomic nervous system).

Constant immersion in new thinking and beliefs, i.e., journaling, written exercises, affirmations, etc., helps and enhances the learning of new skills. The more familiar they become to your body, the more this proves to your body that you want these changes to be your new standard, and the more and more your body learns to associate feel-good feelings with the new behavior. Simultaneously, a focused attention on lessening or stopping old behavior patterns causes your subconscious to eliminate or “prune” the associated neural pathways.

  • By default, these processes occur automatically, thus, they are controlled by the subconscious mind.

The question is can you trust the subconscious mind to direct the process of adapting new behaviors? Likely not. At least not without your making conscious choices and remaining consciously aware of your role as captain and director.

That’s right. It’s up to you to direct the integration of new learning, to consciously teach your body to associate ‘feel-good’ feelings with a behavior you want increase, and ‘feel-bad’ feelings with a behavior you want to eliminate.

And, you can expand this capability to other areas and possibilities.

What is the point of having a prosperous career, yet be in poor physical health? Or being in excellent health and fitness, yet your love relationship or other key relationships feel like detached iceboxes or tumultuous roller coasters? It just means, in the former case, that you’re thinking the thoughts of a wealthy person, but not the thoughts of a person who is healthy, trim and fit; or, in the latter case, that you’re thinking the thoughts of a healthy and fit person, but not the thoughts of a person who creates vibrant and meaningful relationships.

The more you think thoughts that associate what you want with emotions of gratitude, celebration, confidence or pleasure, the more you can will yourself to bump up the priority status of new aspirations  –  and the more you will find yourself compelled to take action to manifest or bring yourself closer to them.

Conscious action combined with attitude?

All three ways of adapting to change are amazing assets, yet can also be liabilities.

  • Most of the processes involved in adapting to new changes, or expanding, strengthening or weakening an existing behavior occur subconsciously.

They are assets as dynamic processes that not only help you survive, but also enrich your life with learning and action that helps you create a meaningful and intellectually stimulating life. They can be liabilities, however, when abandoned to subconscious neural patterns that contain a host of misinformation, if not plain lies, illusions, or misconceptions that mislead your subconscious mind, like a bogus treasure map, to look for treasure in the wrong places.

  • Some new behaviors, naturally, are more emotionally taxing than others.

The part of your mind that runs the autonomic processes of your body, the subconscious, has a built-in overall resistance to change, especially when it comes to changing behaviors associated with early survival-love patterns, in which case it is especially resistant to adding totally new behaviors.

Adopting new ways of relating to your fears to break an addictive pattern or a phobia is, perhaps, the most challenging. When is comes to healing an unwanted behavior pattern, such an addiction or a phobia, this involves deeper, more transformative change.

Life for the physical brain and body is a continuous balancing act, and for your mind and emotions that means learning to regulate of a host of seemingly conflicting impulses to achieve balance, i.e., emotional mastery (emotion regulation).

  • The experience of life can be understood as a paradox of sorts.

The natural orientation of your brain makes you hungry to learn throughout life. Yet, your brain uses a highly selective system that filters learning, and, indeed, can become rigidly resistant to new learning or change when doing so activates survival-fear emotional command-circuits.

Your brain is designed to ‘struggle’ with the tensions (and discomfort) that are critical aspects of learning and growing your capacity to learn, to stay engaged and open and vulnerable, so that your brain can adapt to the challenges of new and complex types of learning and change.

Successful people know how to feel their fears and to use them as springboards for energizing their momentum toward their dreams and aspirations.

  • The good news is that you are a learning-being at heart.

New thoughts or interpretations about your life, once “accepted” by your body are integrated and can become part of subconscious processes that transform your life.

Your willingness to pay attention, therefore, and to stay focused on your goals is especially vital to learning new behaviors. Your attitude, which essentially has to do with the overarching emotional state (love/learning versus fear/protection) that your thoughts produce in any given time or situation, determines whether you quit or stay with a task to learn it. In other words, your habitual thinking patterns and beliefs matter.

  • Happiness is an interpretation of a mind that is consciously aware and authentically connected to the body and heart.

In a sense, emotions are a choice, whether conscious or subconscious. Your brain is wired with a full range of “emotions” and you are wired to “feel good” about your self and life, not just to meet your physical needs for nourishment, but also to fulfill deeper needs to live a life of purpose and meaningful connection. Arguably, no drive is more powerful than the drive to matter.

Your thoughts create emotional ‘standards’ that either free or limit your choices and actions. Make them liberating.

3 Types of Change Your Brain Adapts: Accommodating New Behaviors, 3 of 3

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik shows clients how to break free of anxiety, addictions, and other emotional blocks, to awaken radiantly healthy lives and relationships. Dr. Staik is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2013). 3 Types of Change Your Brain Adapts: Accommodating New Behaviors, 3 of 3. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 17, 2018, from


Last updated: 1 Jan 2013
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Jan 2013
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