Our brain takes 66 days to adapt to change (more or less…)

Health, economics, how to balance the two aspects in these pandemic times. All crucial topics, as well as a less debated one: how to keep mental sanity in a lockdown. Of course, there are many possible situations to have a univocal reality, but psychologists underlined the necessity to create new habits in order to maintain a balance, reduce stress and anxiety and get ready for a new “normality”.

Change is usually scary itself, just imagine after a global pandemic. However, our brain has a great adaptability, more than we think. We just have to remember that we don’t respond in the same way, someone will be faster, other ones will be slower. Statistics, in cases like those, can only give a general idea.

Since the 50’s, a false myth spread. Maxwell Maltz, an American plastic surgeon, noticed a curious coincidence. Patients undergoing surgery, whether it was something at the nose or an amputation, took three weeks to get used to the new appearance or to stop feeling the phantom limb.

maxwell maltz change brain 21 days

Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics and false myth of changing habits in 21 days

Maltz also noted that the very same period of time was applicable to his own habits. So, he put together his theories in the book Psycho-Cybernetics, published in 1960 and source of inspiration for many mental coaches or self-help supporters. Nevertheless, Maltz’s studies were limited and too anecdotal to paint a reliable picture.

Time needed to adaptation stimulated the work of psychologists, though, leading to insights and a more realistic vision.

In 2009 Philippa Lally, of the University College in London, published a scientific research on the European Journal of Social Psychology. According to her studies, the time first assumed by Maltz had to be tripled. We read in the abstract that Lally analyzed 96 volunteers, submitted to any kind of change in their daily activities. The sample autonomously made daily reports and that was sufficient to collect complete data for 82 people.

The nonlinear regression estimation model – without a general method to determine parameters – was valid for 62 individuals and particularly satisfying for 39 of them. The oscillation of the automation of the behavior was wide, from 18 to 254 days, indicating a considerable timing variation, but with a major concentration in the range of two months66 days to be precise. Every case faced difficulties and mistakes in the process.

philippa lally schema adattamento al cambiamento in 66 giorni

The oscillation between 18 and 254 days theorized by Philippa Lally

Discouragement can be put in the three phases of habit formation created by Tom Bartow:

  • the enthusiastic honeymoon phase

  • the fight thru – reality isn’t idealized anymore.

  • the second nature – adaptation is on

A later study, conducted in 2014 by the director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory of Paris Etienne Koechlin and published by the academic journal Science, identified the prefrontal cortex of the brain as the place of adaptability to change. But, we read in the abstract, “little is known about the architecture of reasoning processes”.

“Using computational modeling and neuroimaging we show that the human prefrontal cortex has two concurrent inferential tracks”. The first one, which goes from ventromedial to dorsomedial regions, mediates between the “reliability of the ongoing behavioral strategy” and the adjusting with new strategies; the second one, from polar to lateral prefrontal cortex, mediates among many alternative strategies. “The two tracks interact and, along with the striatum, realize hypothesis testing for accepting versus rejecting newly created strategies”.

etienne koechlin cervello cambiamento adattamento

Inference-driven control process by Etienne Koechlin

After the adaptation to survive the lockdown, we are called to substantial change. In the short and long term, considering new social models and, most of all, eliminating or reducing the main risk factors – deforestation, wildlife trafficking, wet markets – and secondary (for the pandemic) issues, such as air pollution – which helps the circulation of the virus.

To quote John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) in The Hateful Eight (by Quentin Tarantino), “no one said this job was supposed to be easy”. “Nobody said it’s supposed to be that hard, either!”.



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