A child reads Goodnight, Moon, gets it the first time or two, then reads it ninety-eight more times, until she knows every word by heart. But an adult will repeat behavior that doesn’t work, often doing it harder each time, and expect a different result—even when it leads to debt, plateaued careers or disappointing relationships.

Why is repetition so compelling to intelligent people, even when it doesn’t make sense? Why is it not obvious to the adult that trying to exit an old story by simply seeking to write a “better ending” only recreates the same old story again?

The Mind Loves Repetition

There is something secure and familiar about repetition. We repeat the same story because we know what the outcome will be. Predictability masquerades as effectiveness. The invisible decisions we make daily become camouflaged as habits, our collection of repetitions. We are always loyal to the central plot of our lives, always returning to it. Any departure, even temporary, causes uncertainty and trepidation. Being in new territory—developing a new story—creates anxiety. The easiest and fastest way to end this anxiety is to go back to the familiar: the old story.

Breaking out of a behavior cycle isn’t a matter of pure intellect or willpower. One doesn’t simply shift to another frame of mind or step into a new story. That new story has to be gradually constructed, while you concurrently give up what is known, secure and predictable. Even when you anticipate it eagerly, interruption of the familiar is uncomfortable.

Developmental psychology tells us that our most basic motivation is effectiveness: to be a cause. We know from psychoanalysis that the fundamental drive is for mastery. We know from social psychology that certain needs are universal and remain present throughout adulthood: attachment, validation, support and intellectual stimulation. All these needs have greater revalence at times of change.

The Neuroscience of Change

Another reason change is difficult lies in our brains.

In the fall of 2004, some voters voted twice in the presidential election—the first time in the laboratory of Neuroscientist Dr. Drew Westen while hooked up to functional MRI brain scans. Dr. Westen found that people emotionally committed to particular ideas manage to ignore factual material that contradicts their own preconceptions. The participants simply did not register data opposing their belief systems. He also found that three separate areas in the brain acted in concert to ignore everything except what fit a preconceived idea. His research reminds us that there are truths we refuse to see in our effort to validate our incorrect assumptions. We literally see what we believe.

Here is the same phenomenon in another circumstance: the arrival of an old friend re-lights the brain cells’ configuration of that relationship, however many years have intervened since the last encounter.

What do these have in common? In both cases, familiar experiences travel along well-established neuronal connections with their predictable neural networks. A neural network contains the information of a particular way of relating, a habitual pattern of response based on past experience. Reactions become automatic so we don’t have to make a new decision in each situation.

This default mode of operating can mistakenly be read as “fate,” when it is simply a kind of learning neuroscientists call long-term potentiation. We call them habits. In professional coaching, to facilitate change, I sometimes highlight a habit to illuminate that it is a choice—a decision. Or can be.

Old habits and accustomed behaviors are like being on a daily commute. To change means suddenly entering uncharted territory with no assuring landmarks. This is what literally happens in the brain as a grooved neuronal pathway and network—the default mode—is changed to generate new experience. As a result, we feel lost, and are tempted to end the discomfort of uncertainty by returning to the familiar—the old story.

Effecting Change

But we are not hard-wired for life. New research shows that we can rearrange brain cell connections (neuroplasticity) as well as produce new brain cells (neurogenesis) throughout our lives. In other words, by creating new experiences consistently, we can generate new neuronal pathways and neural networks. Some remarkable recent research shows that consistently repeating new experiences even alters gene expression.

When we change our minds and our behaviors, we change our brains.

The methods and tools exist to effectively catalyze and accelerate the process of change: many have been discussed in my previous columns. There is an infinite sea of new possibilities to be created for new goals. The caveat: You have to take action to diminish preprogrammed responses—to write new script for new experiences. And there are no short cuts, since long-term change requires consistent practice to groove new neural patterns until it becomes the default mode, as automatic as the old story.

Here are some guidelines for proceeding with a new story:

With sustained change, you can retranscript—reprogram—your mind and brain.

DAVID KRUEGER, M.D. is CEO of MentorPath,
an executive coaching practice tailored to the needs
of executives, entrepreneurs and healing professionals.
Dr. Krueger is author of eleven books on success,
money, work and self-development.