The Neuroscience Behind the Challenge Model

After immersing myself for nearly a year in the study of the brain, its anatomy, its structure, and the functions of the nervous system, I have developed a deeper understanding of how the Challenge Model does what it does: getting people to make changes for the better.

For those of you not familiar with the Challenge Model, it is a one-page tool that helps to get from the big picture, the mission and vision of an organization, to a series of priority actions towards a short term result, and in doing so, move closer to the vision – a process that can be repeated over and over in pursuit of a shared vision. The actions are based on a thorough understanding of the current situation and the forces that have shaped or maintain the status quo. For more information about this tool you can click here.

Over the last decade, enormous progress has been made in understanding the brain because of the ever more sophisticated scanning technology and countless research studies done all over the world.

The activities in our brain and our behavior mutually reinforce each other: our behavior shapes what happens in our brain and then our brain changes as a result. For example, if we have a tendency to always look for the things that are wrong, our brain will start to focus on what is wrong and stop noticing what is right. The more we complain about the things that are wrong, the more we see things we want to complain about. The constant interchanges between brain and behavior can create downward or upward spirals. The latter is good news. We can change our brains once we notice what is happening, and thus the first order of business is to pay attention. If we are not aware, we cannot make choices.

This is the first thing that the Challenge Model does – it focuses us on the possibility of change for the better, on our ability to change things that don’t work for us. It makes us look more intentionally at what is around us, with new eyes. Then we can make choices.

Now we need a little bit of brain anatomy: The brain contains billions of neurons (brain cells) that interact in complex networks. Our brain communicates through connections that take place between the 100 billion individual neurons in our brain, and between those in our brain and the 90,000 neurons in our heart and the 500 million brain cells in our enteric nervous system (yes, there are brain cells in our heart and intestines). Given that we have about 100 billion neurons just in the brain alone, the number of possible connections is beyond imagination.

A very complex process that turns chemical processes into electrical processes and then back to chemical processes allows for messages to cross from the top of our head to our big toe. The chemicals that jump from one cell to another are called neurotransmitters, each with very specific functions: some help us focus, others get us addicted, yet others help to produce trust or mistrust and stress. What we do and what we pay attention to affects the neurotransmitters. As they flood our system, they also are noticed by people around us. Have you ever noticed how either positive feelings or stress is contagious?

The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is like the president of a large, networked company. It relies on the input and feedback loops that originate in the many different networks that allow us to interpret sensory data, feelings, urges and impulses. The PFC is the rational self. We like to think that we are always guided by our PFC but that is not always true – sometimes a structure deeper inside the brain takes over and we act rashly, we lose ourselves and we make decisions we may later come to regret.

The limbic system is the structure in charge when we act rashly. It is set up to protect us, to remember the things that will do us harm (i.e., eating poisonous berries), and that alert us to danger. There are other structures inside the limbic system that decide, in less than a second, whether someone is friend or foe. When the limbic system takes over from the PFC it can save us–because our bodies prepare for fight or flight–or it can create problems when we make rash decisions based on very incomplete data.

Within the limbic system are the amygdala, sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. When it comes to sensory inputs, this part of our brain is impulsive and imprecise. When the amygdala are in control and the PFC is silenced, we act quickly, impulsively, without evidence, and without letting the PFC decide whether there is actually real danger. When the amygdala are in control, we often say we were not ourselves, which is actually true as our sense of self lives in the PFC. In daily life we see many examples, like jumping to conclusions or making rash decisions without thinking about consequences, rather than doing a thorough examination of what the best course of action is. We better get our PFC behind the wheel quickly before more damage is done.

The Challenge Model is the perfect tool for the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) because it requires thinking about the future (our vision), thinking about possibilities, checking these ideas against the reality (the current situation), digging deep below the surface to understand the roots of a problem, and making sure that the proposed actions remove these roots so the problem is dealt with for good. The short-term result (named the “Desired Measurable Result” in the Challenge Model) helps us focus our efforts, when a big and distant goal could easily discourage us. Think about weight loss: a desire to lose 20 kg could be felt as unattainable in the short term when a lifestyle change is required to achieve it. Many weight loss programs have failed because the goal is too big and impossible to achieve given the current situation. But a simple change, for instance taking the stairs instead of the elevator, could be a first step in the right direction. Lao Tsu is supposed to have said: a journey of a thousand miles (li in his case) starts with a single step. This is exactly what the Challenge Model helps people do.

By focusing on a measurable result in the short term, we teach our brain to focus. Focusing is helped by the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. The more norepinephrine we produce, the more alert we are and the better we can focus – it is an upward spiral.

The Challenge Model does something else that we now know from brain science is an excellent thing: it helps us create a shared vision that connects us to one another’s hopes and aspirations. It is the opposite of what we often encounter in teams: organizations that don’t function well or that are simply depressed by their circumstances. People focus on the bad things, and then notice more bad things. It doesn’t have to be that way. Thinking about a good thing that we’d like to see happen in the future produces a neurotransmitter in our brain (oxytocin) that makes us feel more trusting and willing to engage with others, creating an upward spiral that will help us to achieve our vision.

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