A simple way to break a bad habit   Judson Brewer   Ted Talks 2016

A simple way to break a bad habit Judson Brewer Ted Talks 2016


when I was first learning to meditate
the instruction was to simply pay attention to my breath and when my mind
wandered to bring it back sounded simple enough yet I’d sit on these silent
retreats sweating through t-shirts in the middle of winter I take naps every
chance I got because it was really hard work actually it was exhausting the
instruction was simple enough but I was missing something really important so
why is it so hard to pay attention well studies show that even when we’re really
trying to pay attention to something like maybe this talk at some point about
half of us will drift off into a daydream or have this urge to check our
Twitter feed so what’s going on here it turns out that we’re fighting one of the
most evolutionarily conserved learning processes currently known in science one
that’s conserved back to the most basic nervous systems known to man there’s
forward based learning process is called positive and negative reinforcement and
basically goes like this we see some food that looks good our brain says
calories survival we eat the food we tasted it tastes good and especially
with sugar our body sent a signal to our brain that says remember what you’re
eating and where you found it we lay down this context-dependent memory and
learn to repeat the process next time see food eat food feel good repeat
trigger behavior reward simple right well after while our creative brain say
you know what you can use this for more than just remembering where food is you
know next time you feel bad why don’t you try eating something good so you’ll
feel better we think our brains for the great idea try this and quickly learn
that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we’re mad or sad we feel better
same process just a different trigger instead of this hunger signal coming
from our stomach this emotional signal feeling sad triggers that our
to eat maybe in our teenage years we were a nerd at school and we see those
rebel kids outside smoking we think hey I want to be cool so we start smoking
the Marlboro Man wasn’t a dork and that was no accident see cool smoke to be
cool feel good repeat trigger behavior reward
and each time we do this we learn to repeat the process and it becomes a
habit so later feeling stressed out triggers
that urge to smoke a cigarette or to eat something sweet
now with these same brain processes we’ve gone from learning to survive to
literally killing ourselves with these habits obesity and smoking are among the
elite event about causes of morbidity and mortality in the world so back to my
breath what if instead of fighting our brains are trying to force ourselves to
pay attention we instead tapped into this natural reward based learning
process but added a twist what if instead we just got really curious about
what was happening in our momentary experience I’ll give you an example in
my lab we studied whether mindfulness training could help people quit smoking
now just like trying to force myself to pay attention on my breath they could
try to force themselves to quit smoking and the majority of them had tried this
before and failed on average six times now with mindfulness training we dropped
a bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious in fact we even told
them to smoke what yeah we said go ahead and smoke just be really curious about
what it’s like when you do and what did they notice well here’s an example from
one of our smokers she said mindful smoking smells like stinky cheese and
tastes like chemicals yuck now she knew cognitively that smoking
was bad for her that’s why she joined our program what she discovered just by
being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like shit now she moved from knowledge to wisdom
she moved from knowing in her head that smoking was bad for her to knowing it in
her bones and this spell of smoking was broken she started to become
disenchanted with her behavior now the prefrontal cortex that youngest part of
our brain from an evolutionary perspective it understands on an
intellectual level that we shouldn’t smoke and it tries its hardest to help
us change our behavior to help us stop smoking to help us stop eating that
second that third that fourth cookie we call this cognitive control we’re using
cognition to control our behavior unfortunately this is also the first
part of a brain that goes offline when we get stressed out which isn’t that
helpful now we can all relate to this in our own experience we’re much more
likely to do things like yell at our spouse or kids when we’re stressed out
or tired even though we know it’s not going to be helpful we just can’t help
ourselves now when the prefrontal cortex goes
offline we fall back into our hold habits which is why this disenchantment
is so important seeing what we get from our habits helps us understand them in a
deeper level to know in our bones so we don’t have to force ourselves to hold
back or restrain ourselves from behavior we’re just less interested in doing it
in the first place and this is what mindfulness is all about seeing really
clearly what we get when we get caught up in our behaviors becoming
disenchanted on a visceral level and from this disenchanted stance naturally
letting go this isn’t to say that proof magically we quit smoking but over time
as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions we let go of
old habits and form new ones the paradox here is that mindfulness is just about
being really interested in getting close and personal with what’s actually
happening in our bodies and minds from moment to moment this willingness to
turn toward our experience rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go
away as quickly as possible and this willingness to turn toward our
experience is supported by curiosity which is naturally rewarding what does
curiosity feel like it feels good and what happens when we get curious we
start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations
oh there’s tightness there’s tension there’s restlessness and that these body
sensations come and go these are bite-size pieces of experiences that we
can manage from moment to moment rather than getting clobbered by this huge
scary craving that we choke on in other words when we get curious we step out of
our old fear-based reactive habit patterns and we step into being we’ve
become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting that next data point
know this might sound too simplistic to affect behavior but in one study we
found that mindfulness training was twice as good as gold standard therapy
at helping people quit smoking so it actually works and when we studied the
brains of experienced meditators we found that parts of a neural network of
deaf self-referential processing called the default mode network we’re at play
now one current hypothesis is that a region of this network called the
posterior cingulate cortex is activated not necessarily by craving itself but
when we get caught up in it when we get sucked in and it takes us for a ride in
contrast when we let go step out of the process just by being curiously aware of
what’s happening this same brain region quiets down now we’re testing app and
online based mindfulness training programs that target these core
mechanisms and ironically use the same technology that’s driving us to
distraction to help us step out of our unhealthy habit patterns of smoking of
stress eating and other addictive behaviors now remember that bit about
context dependent memory we can deliver these tools to people’s fingertips in
the context that matter most so we can help them tap into their inherent
capacity to be curiously aware right when that urge to smoke or stress eat or
whatever arises so if you don’t smoke or stress eat maybe the next time you feel
this urge to check your email when you’re bored or you’re trying to
distract yourself from work or maybe to compulsively respond to that text
message when you’re driving see if you can tap into this natural
capacity just be curiously aware of what’s happening in your body in mind in
that moment it will just be another chance to perpetuate one of our endless
and exhaustive habit loops or step out of it instead of see text message
compulsively text back feel a little bit better
notice the urge get curious feel the joy of letting go and repeat thank you

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