The Neuroscience of Habits: Why It Might Be Best to Try It All

I’m all about personal challenges for self-growth.

Cutting out caffeine. Tests of physical endurance. Experimentations in vegetarianism. Netflix detoxes.

Some may call it masochistic, but I get a kick out of testing my tolerances and confronting my habits — even if only for an inspired, holier-than-thou three days.

But I recently read an article that pushed this open-mindedness over the edge. And quite frankly, it pissed me off.

What it Takes to Change Your Brains Patterns After Age 25is a title that cuts right to the anxious heart of every 24 year old. Excellent, I have six months to fix my shit.

Having a phenomenally stubborn, challenge-driven personality, this article posed the ultimate test: If I can’t shake every negative habit, thought-process, and behavioral pattern before the age of 25, I’ll be cryogenically – and neurologically – frozen in my sorry ways forever.

“It seems, in fact, as though the second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing, but the habits he has accumulated during the first half.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

Of course, intellectually I know this article is tremendously bad science (BS), and an editor at Fast Company should be sent a shame GIF of Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The brain is highly plastic, and change is possible across the lifetime. Even though the article lightened up on its initial claim, backtracking that some change is possible post quarter life crisis, its extreme pop science headline was only lightly dusted with real data.

That said, it got me thinking about habits. My good ones. My bad ones. My super secret single ones.

Historically speaking, I’ve been a fan of Just-Don’t-Start-It and Cold-Turkey approaches to habit alteration. Some habits are best not to start. I’ve never had to break a soda addiction, because I never let myself go there. As Ben Franklin says, “It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.”

But for hard to break habits, I tend to go all or nothing. Exhibit A: My week long, migraine filled, go to bed at 8PM to save my social relationships simultaneous sugar, gluten, caffeine, alcohol, and animal products detox.

Not all of my ideas are good ideas.

But recently, I’ve found myself compelled by a more tantric approach to habit alteration. An approach where you indulge in as much of the bad habit as you like, in an effort to make yourself sick of it. And pleasantly, it’s also endorsed by science. I’ll explain, but first, a little back history on habitry.

You, Your Habits, and Your &%$#-ing Basic Basal Ganglia 

We develop habits because we’re lazy. Well, clarification, our brains are lazy.

Novel day-to-day decisions, like what entree to order at a new restaurant or which guy to talk to at the bar, are made by our prefrontal cortex. Our energetically expensive, intelligent, premium billable hours prefrontal cortex.

But when a behavior becomes automatic, like the gravitational pull towards Ben & Jerry’s when you hear the intro music for House of Cards, your decision making centers are asleep. You are no longer using your sophisticated prefrontal cortex, but are defaulting to your emotional, pattern-focused, automated basal ganglia. So basic.

“We’ve always thought — and I still do — that the value of a habit is you don’t have to think about it. It frees up your brain to do other things,”

– Ann Graybiel, MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research

By developing habits, we save tremendous amounts of caloric, neural energy. A brain on autopilot is a huge evolutionary asset. Unless, of course, the habit is perpetuating a socially, emotionally, physically, or psychologically toxic behavior. And let’s face it, habitual vices are all the rage these days.

We binge on food, on media, on negativity.  We know it’s bad for us, but it hurts so good. How else do you explain millenial happy hour culture?

Habit Formation | The Three Ingredients in Crack

Habits are insultingly simple to form, which is why they’re often easier to make than break. Made of three ingredients  – a cue (coming home from work), a routine (a glass of wine), a reward (relaxation and buzz) – habits are the brain’s plug-and-play solution to easy decision making.

So why are habit loops difficult to break? Because they’re controlled by the crack of the brain, dopamine. A shoot you to the moon neurotransmitter, dopamine positively reinforces behavior with an addictive, feel-good high.

Of course, we can use this automaticity for good or for evil. Feedback loops can habituate behaviors like gratitude or exercise. But let’s be honest — loops are more fun when they feed our oral fixations with food and cigarettes, and reward our desire for instant gratification with porn and rom coms.

From a chemical and psychological perspective, the ultimate potential for habit change is hacking the point between the routine and the reward. Or in other words, changing your reaction to the routine so it’s no longer viewed as rewarding. More on this in a moment.

The Tantric Yogi & His Pizza | Just Say Yes

Before we dive back into the science, let’s talk about the time my meditation teacher told me to explore and indulge my bad habits. First reaction: #winning. Dad is giving me permission to party. Drinks on me! Second reaction:  Imma let you finish but *furiously scan wall for credentials.* Third reaction: Okay, go on…

According to tantra, we must test and understand our bad habits before they release their hold on us. He used the metaphor of a boiling pot of water. Negative habits sit just under our surface, constantly fighting to bubble to the surface. The longer and more tightly we clinch the lid on our impulses, the more like the pot is to boil over.

His advice? Get life out of your system. Take the lid off, stir the pot, taste it, see what it needs.

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” -Pema Chodron

What happens when we don’t try it all? Let’s look at sex. On one end of the spectrum, we have the priest with a lifetime of suppressed sexual desires who releases his energy in inappropriate contexts. On the other end, we have the unhappy couple who got married too young and realized they weren’t done “sampling.”

At this point, I was perched anxiously on the edge of my meditation cushion with rebuttals, holes in his argument, and all of the opinions. But then he said, “If you want to eat the whole pizza, then eat the whole pizza. Inevitably, you’ll feel sick. And you’ll probably hate yourself. And you’ll know better than to eat the whole pizza next time. But until you do it and have an averse reaction to it, you’ll never learn. “

The lightbulb went on. This tantric solution to habit breakage has academic and scientific roots. It’s called aversive conditioning.

Aversive Conditioning | The Good, The Bad & The Coyote Ugly

Not far from actual torture, aversive conditioning is a highly controversial, understudied, but extremely powerful tool.

Quite simply, the goal of aversion therapy is to literally make you sick of your habits. By pairing an unpleasant stimulus, like a foul odor, feeling of nausea, or painful sensation, with a habitual behavior, like drinking, smoking, or sex, your brain develops a distaste for the habit.

Have you come down with food poisoning, and couldn’t touch the food in question again? Were you bitten by a dog as a child, and never rekindled your fondness for them? Or yakked after an ambitious night with a particular type of alcohol, and felt your mouth fill with the nauseous salivation at the mere smell of it in the future (it once took me three years to look at tequila)?

If any of this rings a bell, you’ve experienced aversive conditioning.

The famous example of this is Alex from A Clockwork Orange. A pathological sexual deviant, Alex’s therapists paired graphically violent films (trigger) with an injection to induce nausea (reaction), in an attempt to disrupt the violent behavior. Watching these films on an endless loop, Alex learned to pair the scenes of rape and violence with crippling nausea.

Thus, his deviant cycle was broken.

Non-Hollywood therapists use similar techniques. If you put smokers in a tiny telephone booth and ask them to chain smoke until the confined space fills with fumes, they will associate smoking with toxic claustrophobia. If you lace alcoholics’ cocktails with nausea medication, they grow ill at the sight of booze. If you give rapists a drug that makes erections unbearably painful, they will associate sex with physical agony.

While perhaps more extreme than your frozen yogurt addiction, the basic premise stills stands. By piercing a hole in the habit feedback loop and exchanging the reward with an unpleasant stimulus, we can life hack our way out of negative impulses.

Final Thoughts & Disclaimer | Why It Might Be Best To Try It All

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for experiments gone awry.

Taking the lessons from tantra and aversion therapy, I have a new theory for habit alteration after age 25. Live it, learn from it it, make yourself sick of your own shit, and get it out of your system. Take that, Fast Company.

Fortunately, many bad habits have built-in aversive reactions.

After a few miserable hangovers that even a bagel sandwich couldn’t cure, I learned not to drink to excess (most of the time). After a few stomach aches after eating all of the things, my eyes are no longer bigger than my stomach (doesn’t apply to peanut butter). After a few relational and romantic dings, I smartened up on who I spend my time with (though there’s no perfect science here).

Of course, this technique isn’t advisable without a basic foundation of mindfulness. If you ignore the fact that a tri-weekly debilitating hangover is problematic or less than ideal, then the tantric approach might not be for you. If your entire social support system unapologetically supports and perpetuates a habit, then you should also rethink the tantric approach (and your friends, you idiot).

But if you’re an emotionally stable, reasonably intelligent adult, then may I prescribe you smash the allure of bad habits by getting them out of your system?

Life hack your way into more control over your habits and break the loops that keep you on the cognitive plane as lab mice. And most importantly, live the words of Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

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