TED Talk Tuesday – A Simple Way To Break a Bad Habit: Judson Brewer

I’m sorry for missing last week, I was on vacation, and could not get away long enough to do anything more than a slapdash write up, so I put it off for a week. As a penance I will also do a write up on how who I fared during my vacation, spoiler, not too great. I had an accidental gluten exposure which really messed me up. I will explain more in my write up, until then. We will be talking about habits. More specifically about how we can use mindfulness to help us break undesirable habits while using the same mindfulness to build new ones.

Much like with anything having to do with habits we have to break the cycle. Since it is Ted Talk Tuesday, I will be relaying what I learned from Judson Brewer. He is a Psychiatrist that studies the relationship between mindfulness and addiction. Addiction of any kind from eating, smoking texting while driving, you know all the fun stuff. He touches on the neurological mechanisms behind habit development and he offers a simple, yet profound way to hack your next undesired urge. This was actually quite surreptitious because I am actually in the process of writing something on food addiction and why moralizing cheating on a diet is crazy sauce.

Anywho, I came across this TED Talk and I thought it would be perfect to share. These are my notes from the talk:

  • 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.
  • The instruction was simple enough but I was missing something really important.
  • 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.
  • [There is a] reward-based learning process [that] 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 taste it –it tastes good. And especially with sugar, our bodies send 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.
  • Trigger, behavior, reward.
  • Same process, [as remembering where food was] just a different trigger. Instead of this hunger signal coming from our stomach,this emotional signal — feeling sad –triggers that urge to eat.
  • [Same goes for 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.
  • 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.
  • What if instead of fighting our brains, or 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?
  • we studied whether mindfulness training could help people quit smoking… with mindfulness training, we dropped the bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious. In fact, we even told them to smoke… just be really curious about what it’s like when you do.”
  • 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.
  • She moved from knowledge to wisdom… from knowing in her head that smoking was bad for her to knowing it in her bones, and the spell of smoking was broken.
  • 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…
  • When we’re stressed out or tired [we often yell or get angry], even though we know it’s not going to be helpful. We just can’t help ourselves. When the prefrontal cortex goes offline, we fall back into our old habits, which is why this disenchantment is so important. Seeing what we get from our habits helps us understand them at a deeper level.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • What happens when we get curious? We start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations… and that these body sensations come and go.
  • When we get curious, we step out of our old, fear-based, reactive habit patterns, and we step into being.
  • 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.
  • When we studied the brains of experienced meditators, we found that parts of a neural network of self-referential processing called the default mode network were at play.
  • 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.
  • [With context-dependent memory,] We can deliver these tools to peoples’ fingertips in the contexts 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.
  • 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.

This TED Talk is under 10 minutes, but it is littered with knowledge bombs from the practical to the scientific. I like how Dr. Brewer gave actionable tips, while not shying away from the science. I took a lot of notes on this one because it was hard to parcel out the unnecessary fluff, considering there wasn’t much unnecessary info. All of his stories directly tied into his talk.

Okay, maybe I am gushing a bit, but let me expound on his message a little more. The heart of his talk is this: addiction can be beaten and understood when we break out of the addictive cycle by simply being curious which leads to mindfulness.

Again I am going to tie this back into something we have talked about before which is understanding your why. In this specific instance it is not your why for change; it is you why for engaging with this mindless addictive behaviour. Once we get to the root cause we can start moving towards lasting change that isn’t forced. Remember his mindful smoking example. Once we directly engage with our addiction it is shown to simply be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.