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Change is hard because the brain is hard-wired

Here’s a quick way to improve your health, the planet, and your bank account: become a vegetarian.

Assuming you’re not one already, you hated that idea, didn’t you?

Vegetarianism is arguably more of a hot-button issue than some, but substitute any radical change (try “give up your electricity”) and chances are, you’ll hate it, even if it rationally makes sense.

Generally speaking, people don’t like change, even when they know it’s for the better. A habit takes weeks at the shortest to form or break, and habits are like behavioral rules of thumb, making it easier to live our lives; of course we don’t like it when we’re asked to do something different. Thus, change takes time. But it’s not just psychological barriers that make it hard to change our behavior; it’s also because physical paths for new change must be carved out in our brains.

The brain consists mainly of neurons (brain cells) which “talk” to other neurons using chemical signals called neurotransmitters. The junctions where neurotransmitters live are called synapses. Synapses are critical in brain function; how many there are, where they are, and what neurotransmitters they contain affect memory, learning, emotions, mood, alertness, and more. Memories are commonly thought to be recorded by strengthening or weakening particular synapses and adding extra ones in certain neuronal pathways. So if you’re used to, say, defining a meal as “meat and two sides,” then it’s going to take a while for the neurons to change the right pathways, altering synapses, in order for your brain to be able to define a meal as “grain or vegetable base with protein side” (or what have you).

This doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, of course. The brain is a marvelously adaptable thing, and the fact that the adaptation takes time because of the physical changes needed doesn’t detract from that. So the next time you try to change your behavior–perhaps by giving up your daily Starbucks or your monthly salon visit, or biking to work instead of driving–and find it difficult, don’t give up. Your brain is in the process of changing its scaffolding for your behavior, and once it’s done, your new behaviors will be hardwired into you, just like the old ones.

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