This weekend at an environmental summit in Portland, when asked how to get people to change their consumption habits and commit to stewarding the planet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama pulled a Jedi mind trick on a coliseum full of 11,000 people. (Call me slow, but that was the first time it really occurred to me who Yoda might have been modeled after.)
Essentially, he told us the deep secret to getting people to change their deeply ingrained behaviors is this: They have to choose it.
Dan Siegel, a UCLA neuroscientist, pioneer of the field of interpersonal neuroscience and author of Mindsight (along with a passel of other interesting books), takes a Western science crack at explaining why. In a collaborative set of talks with Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, Mindfulness and the Brain, Siegel describes how the neural pathways that guide day-to-day behaviors come into being… how in-the-moment firing across synapses, from neuron to neuron, becomes the wiring that drives what we come back to and build on over time.
(Health warning: Cultural anthropologist attempts physical scientific explanation. My partner, the real neuroscientist, always rolls her eyes at this point. Caveat emptor.)
Basically, what makes the difference between…
- One-time firing across a pattern of neurons that make up a specific thought or action, and then disappears, and
- One-time firing across that same pattern, which immediately begins to hard-wire
…is whether or not you truly want to be doing what you’re doing.
Siegel illustrates with laboratory experiments on rats. Rats made to perform a task will perform that task – even repeatedly – without ever hard wiring the firing sequence they’re using to perform it. But rats who choose to perform a task – even once – begin wiring the sequence immediately. The very first time.
Apparently, the guy in maroon is way ahead of us. No surprise.
And that leaves us with a profoundly interesting question. Whether it’s reducing consumption or collaborating with nature – or collaborating with anyone else, for that matter: How might we create the conditions in which someone earnestly, truly chooses an alternate path to the one they’re on now?
Eager to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, I’ve embedded one of the Siegel/Kornfield talks, below. And may the Force be with us.