Photo 15.06.2014, 21 46 15

Train your brain to become more adaptable

I am going to assume that all of us are trying to get better at something. Most of the times this involves going through some form of change: learning to do something new, doing something differently or stopping a bad habit altogether.

There is a lot of literature that covers how people deal with change, so I’m not going to focus on this aspect. Also, I’m not necessarily preoccupied with dealing with external change. That may be the topic of another post.
Suffice to say that most of us resist change (at least initially) and would rather continue to do things as we know and have always done it, instead of experimenting with new ways and getting out of our comfort zone.

That being said, I believe that in order to better deal with change (both imposed from the outside, as well as triggered by our own desire to change), we need to learn how to deal with our emotions and stress levels while managing the change process.

Put differently, we should try to train our brain to become more adaptable. My theory is that we can develop or enhance this ability (to adapt easier to change) by seeking out opportunities to change existing behavior, in a controlled manner.

There have been numerous studies that proved that the brain is more adaptable1 than one thinks: it can be “rerouted”, re-programmed — generally speaking it can be trained to incorporate new habits, recognize new emotions or get more comfortable with new environments.

A few personal examples

I actually started to pay attention to this after a few personal experiences:

  1. In my first years of driving, every time I had to drive one of my friends’ cars, it would take me a long time to get used to it: the clutch, brakes, everything seemed weird and I was stalling the engine quite a lot.
    • That changed when a friend left me his car for a full week and I was alternating between his and mine for a couple of days. By the end of the week, when I drove a third car, it would take only a couple of minutes to feel “just right”
  2. On my first few computers, it always felt very awkward when I had to use someone else’s computer – the keyboard especially felt wrong.
    • At one point I was using a laptop extensively and because my hands would start to ache after long hours spent typing, I started to use an ergonomic keyboard at home.
    • As I started to use both, alternating between 2 very different keyboard layouts every day, I suddenly realized that my hands would simply feel the keyboard I was on and in a matter of seconds I would type at full speed on any of them. What’s really cool is that by the time I had to use a third keyboard, it would only take me a few minutes to adjust.

The brain can be “re-wired” to incorporate new habits, recognize new emotions or get more comfortable with new environments.

This led me to believe that our brain can be trained to become more adaptable, if we take the time to experiment new ways of doing things and have the patience to get through the initial resistance, feeling of awkwardness or even the stress related to changing behavior.

More recently, I experienced the same process as I was alternating between coding in JavaScript for my work project and doing my home assignments for the Scala course. After mixing the syntax for a few days (for example, I consistently forgot to call return when returning a value from JS functions, since in Scala it’s not needed), I started to get better and after a few weeks I wouldn’t have any issues at all.

Try this at home

You’ve probably realized by now that my intention with this post is to get you to try new things and fight the discomfort associated with changing your behavior, in a hope that in time you’ll start to recognize it as a fake signal from your brain who’s trying to keep you nice and cosy :).

Here are some ideas for things to try out next time you feel bored (all of these are more or less made up to illustrate the point):

  • used to code in a text editor like Sublime? Try an IDE for a while even if it feels heavy
  • addicted to Outlook and Excel? Try the web version of Outlook and google spreadsheets even for more serious projects
  • try to use a dual monitor setup or an ergonomic keyboard even if it feels really weird at first
  • addicted to a mouse? try to do everything with just the trackpad on your laptop
How long do you think it will take you to adjust to this?
How long do you think it will take you to adjust to this?

Or you could simply watch out for those times when you must do something new and you don’t really enjoy doing it (like installing those SSH keys and learning to create identities instead of typing your password every time ;)) — and instead of avoiding the task, you simply learn how to do it and then do it a few times until it doesn’t annoy you as much.

I’m definitely not an expert in this field, and a quick search revealed some interesting articles2 and books3 about how to successfully manage change if you’re trying to do some serious stuff.
That being said, I strongly believe that through a lot of small steps, by exposing yourself to change in a controlled environment, you can still force your brain to become more adaptable — allowing you to treat bigger changes as opportunities for development and for learning something new, as opposed to major disruptions in your life.

  1. This is called Neuroplasticity 
  2. Three types of change your brain can adapt to: reinforcing, modifying or adding new behaviors 
  3. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves