In the fall of 2004, some voters voted twice in the presidential election. Their first time was a stopover at the laboratory of neuroscientist Dr. Drew Westen to be hooked up to functional MRI brain scans. He presented this group of voters with a variety of new material and found that people emotionally committed to particular ideas manage to ignore facts that contradict their own preconceptions. The participants simply did not register data opposing a belief system. He also found that three separate areas in the brain acted in concert to ignore everything except what fit a preconceived idea.

Dr. Westen demonstrated that people make decisions based on bias and belief, rather than on facts. His research reminds us that there are truths we refuse to see, and that we validate what we believe. Our brains and emotions are both programmed to ignore facts that contradict what we believe.

Old habits and accustomed behaviors are like being on a daily commute. Familiar experiences travel along well-established neuronal connections with their predictable neural networks. Though repetitive, it is a familiar superhighway. To change is like coming to the end of that familiar route to suddenly enter uncharted territory with no assuring landmarks. This is what literally happens in the brain as a grooved neuronal pathway and neural network—the default mode—change because of new experience. Our reaction, when we feel lost, is to end the discomfort—the uncertainty—by returning to the familiar—the old story. No one is comfortable at first to proceed in new territory.

A comfort zone—a familiar pattern of behavior—is a matter of both mind and brain. A comfort zone is a belief combined with a behavior pattern, repeated until automatic so it’s familiar and predictable. Picking the known over the unknown seems to make sense. We follow comfort zones unconsciously and automatically, because we know what the outcome will be.

Think of your comfort zone like your home thermostat. If the temperature increases or decreases, the thermostat signals the heater or air conditioner to turn on or off. It keeps the temperature in a narrow range of comfort.

An example of a comfort zone in action is that most lottery winners manage to spend or give away their newfound winnings to return to their previous situation. In fact, 80 percent of U.S. lottery winners file bankruptcy within the first five years. Their money changes, but their mindsets don’t. So much money moves them out of their comfort zone, and they end up returning to it.

Your performance—even the money you make—operates in a similar way. Greater success initially registers as discomfort—like being in new territory. Especially if the results go outside your self-image, this cues an internal thermostat to return you to your comfort zone.

Reprogram Your Mind

Reprogram Your Brain

Mentor Success

As you guide others in your organization, there are three aspects of change I see recurring and useful to conceptualize.

  1. Read present anxiety or uncertainty as an understandable signpost of moving ahead without familiar landmarks in a new experience. This juncture can be read as evidence not to proceed, as intuition of a wrong choice—or as a signpost of change and progress.

  2. Dopamine, the brain chemical that induces excitement by anticipating reward, motivates people to do new things. But neuroscientists have shown that anticipating a reward is even more exciting than actually receiving it. Why? Because receiving a reward actually shuts down the anticipatory release of dopamine, along with the accompanying positive feelings and high energy. This explains why people will start off strong, then after a couple of months lose momentum and excitement. Explanation combined with continued challenges and affirmation counters this brain slump.

  3. Recognize that when you initiate change to move from your comfort zone, it challenges the system. Everyone around you will be forced to react to your change. Their first reaction inevitably will be change-back pressure. Their “help” to restore the old comfort zone will allow you to validate your loyalty to yourself, and your commitment to your new story.

DAVID KRUEGER, M.D. is CEO of MentorPath, a coaching,
publishing, and wellness firm. He is author of 15 books on success,
money, and self-development. This article is excerpted from

Outsmart Your Brain: An Instruction Manual.