The first has to do with the nature of human memory and its relationship to conscious attention. Working memory — the brain’s “holding area,” where perceptions and ideas can first be compared to other information — is frequently engaged when people encounter something new. When you see a new product on a supermarket shelf and rationally compare its benefits to a product you already use, it’s your working memory that takes in the new information and matches it against the old. This kind of memory activates the prefrontal cortex, an energy-intensive part of the brain.
The basal ganglia, on the other hand, are invoked by routine, familiar activity, like putting an often-purchased product into a supermarket cart without consciously paying attention, and perhaps without later remembering having picked it out. This part of the brain, located near the core, is where neural circuits of long-standing habit are formed and held. It requires much less energy to function than working memory does, in part because it seamlessly links simple behaviors from brain modules that have already been shaped by extensive training and experience.
The basal ganglia can function exceedingly well without conscious thought in any routine activity. In contrast, working memory fatigues easily and can hold only a limited amount of information “on line” at any one time. Therefore, any activity conducted repetitively (to the point of becoming a habit) will tend to get pushed down into the basal ganglia, the habit-center part of the brain. This frees up the processing resources of the prefrontal cortex.
After just a few months of learning to drive a car, people can typically drive “without thinking.” If they then try to drive on the other side of the road, say in another country, the act of driving suddenly becomes much more difficult. The prefrontal cortex must now be used to keep track of the action. Many travelers never want to undergo this experience. Similarly, for those used to an automatic transmission, the first time driving a car with a standard transmission can be a nerve-wracking experience. (Indeed, the basal ganglia area operates like an automatic transmission, shifting among patterns of deeply held thought.)
The same cognitive dynamics come into play when people face other types of stressful experiences, including any strategic or organizational change. Much of what managers do in the workplace — how they sell ideas, run meetings, manage others, and communicate — is so well routinized that the basal ganglia are running the show. Trying to change any hardwired habit requires a lot of effort, in the form of attention. This often leads to a feeling that many people find uncomfortable. So they do what they can to avoid change.
The second reason change is hard relates to basic brain functioning. Human brains have evolved a particularly strong capacity to detect what neuroscientists call “errors”: perceived differences between expectation and actuality. When a child (or an adult, for that matter) is promised a sweet-tasting treat and then discovers it tastes salty or bitter, the brain emits strong signals that use a lot of energy, showing up in imaging technology as dramatic bursts of light. Edmund Rolls first illustrated this at Oxford University in the early 1980s, with a study involving monkeys. Dr. Rolls found that “errors” in the environment produced intense bursts of neural firing, markedly stronger than the firing caused by familiar stimuli.
These error signals are generated by a part of the brain called the orbital frontal cortex. Located above the eyeballs, it is closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry, which resides in a structure called the amygdala. (The amygdala is the source of the “amygdala hijack,” the sudden and overwhelming fear or anger response described in layman’s terms by Daniel Goleman in his popular book Emotional Intelligence.) The amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex are among the oldest parts of the mammal brain, remnants of evolutionary history. When these parts of the brain are activated, they draw metabolic energy away from the prefrontal region, which promotes and supports higher intellectual functions. The prefrontal region is particularly well developed in humans, and doesn’t exist at all below the higher primates. Error detection signals can thus push people to become emotional and to act more impulsively: Animal instincts take over.