Initiatives and Offering Individuals Choice

Nick Pearl | Brevard, NC

Each of us has patterns of behavior, which we label as habits, routines, or instincts. These behaviors sometimes are known, but often our most detrimental behaviors remain elusive. This elusiveness is due to the design of our brain.

Every second of every day, we take in approximately 11 million bits of information through our senses (8 million are through our eyes alone), but our conscious brain, our frontal lobe, can only process upwards of 40 bits per second. So, of the 11 million bits of data our brain unconsciously absorbs, we consciously can process a fraction of a fraction of a percent (exactly .00036%). The front of our brain loves to problem solve to meet our needs, but it uses a high amount of energy.  

Our brain manages this energy drain by developing emotions and associated behaviors to get the most done with the least amount of energy. Routines and habits rest more in our midbrain, in a part called the basal ganglia. This tendency toward routine is why it is important to develop good habits that meet your fundamental needs (especially spiritual, ask the Owls!), and why it is imperative that we challenge those behaviors that we do without thinking so that we can ensure that our health, relationships, and well being are not being adversely affected by what we unintentionally do.

One of the most powerful tools to allow individuals to change their routines/habits/patterns of behaviors is the opportunity for their unthinking strategies to not work. As an example, when a child exhibits an undesirable or socially unacceptable behavior, they are utilizing that strategy in order to get a need met. It works in some environment and has worked in the past or else they wouldn’t employ such a strategy.

As an example, let’s look at the behavior of crying or whining. What a powerful tool for children to implement, because they recognize (again, not consciously) that when they cry or whine their parent(s) react(s) (which is different than a response). As infants, when we are at the peak of our neuroplasticity, we cry to get our needs met in the absence of language. We then spend the rest of our life refining language, but the first years where we cried to get our needs met imprints on our brain and on the mirror neurons of our families. This imprinting creates an enduring feedback loop and will endure until the loop gets broken. Breaking the loop means that one of the members ceases to have their needs met by the behaviors, or until the behaviors create a strong enough case for change that it makes the behavior obsolete.

Again. these behaviors are so deep-rooted and tied to our emotions that addressing them and even identifying them is difficult. This is where initiatives come in. Initiatives offer an opportunity to have what individuals normally do (read: behavior pattern) not work. When what you do doesn’t work, we problem solve it, which on the neurological level means we create new neural pathways. When behavior patterns continue to be reinforced, which happens within close relationships, the neural pathway becomes more myelinated, and thus more difficult to identify.

One of the more successful strategies that I employ is to role swap within a peer group. A simple example of this is making the watchers of a group the speakers and making the speakers become the watchers. Any shifted dynamic creates anxiety because we become comfortable with things being comfortable. Unfortunately, we do not learn when we are comfortable, we learn when we have to explore new strategies to have our needs met.

As any skilled teacher knows, it is nearly impossible working with children without stepping into emotional content. If we do not consider the things that get in the way of learning, we cannot teach the children. As I often say, “the thing that gets in the way of the work is the work.” With that being said, allowing children to practice skills and roles that are not part of their behavior patterns teaches them not explicit tasks, but the skills of flexibility and creating new strategies when they feel stuck.

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