A simple way to break a bad habit

Can we break bad habits by being more curious about them? Psychiatrist Judson Brewer studies the relationship between mindfulness and addiction — from smoking to overeating to all those other things we do even though we know they're bad for us. Learn more about the mechanism of habit development and discover a simple but profound tactic that might help you beat your next urge to smoke, snack or check a text while driving.

Subtitle

[00:00:12,760 --> 00:00:14,616] When I was first learning to meditate,
[00:00:14,640 --> 00:00:17,696] the instruction was to simply pay attention to my breath,
[00:00:17,720 --> 00:00:19,800] and when my mind wandered, to bring it back.
[00:00:20,640 --> 00:00:22,000] Sounded simple enough.
[00:00:22,680 --> 00:00:25,896] Yet I'd sit on these silent retreats,
[00:00:25,920 --> 00:00:29,256] sweating through T-shirts in the middle of winter.
[00:00:29,280 --> 00:00:32,616] I'd take naps every chance I got because it was really hard work.
[00:00:32,640 --> 00:00:34,640] Actually, it was exhausting.
[00:00:35,400 --> 00:00:37,136] The instruction was simple enough
[00:00:37,160 --> 00:00:39,280] but I was missing something really important.
[00:00:40,320 --> 00:00:42,560] So why is it so hard to pay attention?
[00:00:43,080 --> 00:00:44,536] Well, studies show
[00:00:44,560 --> 00:00:47,736] that even when we're really trying to pay attention to something --
[00:00:47,760 --> 00:00:49,336] like maybe this talk --
[00:00:49,360 --> 00:00:50,576] at some point,
[00:00:50,600 --> 00:00:52,936] about half of us will drift off into a daydream,
[00:00:52,960 --> 00:00:55,040] or have this urge to check our Twitter feed.
[00:00:56,360 --> 00:00:57,880] So what's going on here?
[00:00:59,000 --> 00:01:02,456] It turns out that we're fighting one of the most evolutionarily-conserved
[00:01:02,480 --> 00:01:05,336] learning processes currently known in science,
[00:01:05,360 --> 00:01:06,576] one that's conserved
[00:01:06,600 --> 00:01:09,040] back to the most basic nervous systems known to man.
[00:01:09,840 --> 00:01:11,496] This reward-based learning process
[00:01:11,520 --> 00:01:13,696] is called positive and negative reinforcement,
[00:01:13,720 --> 00:01:15,280] and basically goes like this.
[00:01:16,200 --> 00:01:17,896] We see some food that looks good,
[00:01:17,920 --> 00:01:20,616] our brain says, "Calories! ... Survival!"
[00:01:20,640 --> 00:01:22,136] We eat the food, we taste it --
[00:01:22,160 --> 00:01:23,376] it tastes good.
[00:01:23,400 --> 00:01:24,936] And especially with sugar,
[00:01:24,960 --> 00:01:27,216] our bodies send a signal to our brain that says,
[00:01:27,240 --> 00:01:29,720] "Remember what you're eating and where you found it."
[00:01:31,280 --> 00:01:34,016] We lay down this context-dependent memory
[00:01:34,040 --> 00:01:36,496] and learn to repeat the process next time.
[00:01:36,520 --> 00:01:37,736] See food,
[00:01:37,760 --> 00:01:39,456] eat food, feel good,
[00:01:39,480 --> 00:01:40,936] repeat.
[00:01:40,960 --> 00:01:43,576] Trigger, behavior, reward.
[00:01:43,600 --> 00:01:44,800] Simple, right?
[00:01:45,920 --> 00:01:48,056] Well, after a while, our creative brains say,
[00:01:48,080 --> 00:01:49,296] "You know what?
[00:01:49,320 --> 00:01:52,936] You can use this for more than just remembering where food is.
[00:01:52,960 --> 00:01:55,136] You know, next time you feel bad,
[00:01:55,160 --> 00:01:58,600] why don't you try eating something good so you'll feel better?"
[00:01:59,720 --> 00:02:01,736] We thank our brains for the great idea,
[00:02:01,760 --> 00:02:03,336] try this and quickly learn
[00:02:03,360 --> 00:02:06,656] that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we're mad or sad,
[00:02:06,680 --> 00:02:07,880] we feel better.
[00:02:08,639 --> 00:02:10,015] Same process,
[00:02:10,039 --> 00:02:11,776] just a different trigger.
[00:02:11,800 --> 00:02:14,896] Instead of this hunger signal coming from our stomach,
[00:02:14,920 --> 00:02:16,896] this emotional signal -- feeling sad --
[00:02:16,920 --> 00:02:18,200] triggers that urge to eat.
[00:02:19,040 --> 00:02:20,560] Maybe in our teenage years,
[00:02:21,199 --> 00:02:22,600] we were a nerd at school,
[00:02:23,600 --> 00:02:26,296] and we see those rebel kids outside smoking and we think,
[00:02:26,320 --> 00:02:27,576] "Hey, I want to be cool."
[00:02:27,600 --> 00:02:28,800] So we start smoking.
[00:02:29,800 --> 00:02:33,536] The Marlboro Man wasn't a dork, and that was no accident.
[00:02:33,560 --> 00:02:34,776] See cool,
[00:02:34,800 --> 00:02:36,096] smoke to be cool,
[00:02:36,120 --> 00:02:37,936] feel good. Repeat.
[00:02:37,960 --> 00:02:39,960] Trigger, behavior, reward.
[00:02:40,640 --> 00:02:41,896] And each time we do this,
[00:02:41,920 --> 00:02:43,936] we learn to repeat the process
[00:02:43,960 --> 00:02:45,200] and it becomes a habit.
[00:02:45,920 --> 00:02:47,216] So later,
[00:02:47,240 --> 00:02:50,856] feeling stressed out triggers that urge to smoke a cigarette
[00:02:50,880 --> 00:02:52,280] or to eat something sweet.
[00:02:53,200 --> 00:02:56,136] Now, with these same brain processes,
[00:02:56,160 --> 00:02:58,056] we've gone from learning to survive
[00:02:58,080 --> 00:03:00,936] to literally killing ourselves with these habits.
[00:03:00,960 --> 00:03:02,216] Obesity and smoking
[00:03:02,240 --> 00:03:06,520] are among the leading preventable causes of morbidity and mortality in the world.
[00:03:07,480 --> 00:03:08,880] So back to my breath.
[00:03:09,720 --> 00:03:12,096] What if instead of fighting our brains,
[00:03:12,120 --> 00:03:14,656] or trying to force ourselves to pay attention,
[00:03:14,680 --> 00:03:18,696] we instead tapped into this natural, reward-based learning process ...
[00:03:18,720 --> 00:03:19,920] but added a twist?
[00:03:20,520 --> 00:03:22,576] What if instead we just got really curious
[00:03:22,600 --> 00:03:25,096] about what was happening in our momentary experience?
[00:03:25,120 --> 00:03:26,656] I'll give you an example.
[00:03:26,680 --> 00:03:27,896] In my lab,
[00:03:27,920 --> 00:03:31,256] we studied whether mindfulness training could help people quit smoking.
[00:03:31,280 --> 00:03:34,936] Now, just like trying to force myself to pay attention to my breath,
[00:03:34,960 --> 00:03:38,216] they could try to force themselves to quit smoking.
[00:03:38,240 --> 00:03:41,176] And the majority of them had tried this before and failed --
[00:03:41,200 --> 00:03:43,120] on average, six times.
[00:03:43,960 --> 00:03:45,456] Now, with mindfulness training,
[00:03:45,480 --> 00:03:48,800] we dropped the bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious.
[00:03:49,600 --> 00:03:52,816] In fact, we even told them to smoke.
[00:03:52,840 --> 00:03:54,816] What? Yeah, we said, "Go ahead and smoke,
[00:03:54,840 --> 00:03:58,376] just be really curious about what it's like when you do."
[00:03:58,400 --> 00:04:00,096] And what did they notice?
[00:04:00,120 --> 00:04:02,816] Well here's an example from one of our smokers.
[00:04:02,840 --> 00:04:04,576] She said, "Mindful smoking:
[00:04:04,600 --> 00:04:06,216] smells like stinky cheese
[00:04:06,240 --> 00:04:07,856] and tastes like chemicals,
[00:04:07,880 --> 00:04:09,080] YUCK!"
[00:04:09,680 --> 00:04:13,056] Now, she knew, cognitively that smoking was bad for her,
[00:04:13,080 --> 00:04:14,960] that's why she joined our program.
[00:04:15,680 --> 00:04:20,216] What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked
[00:04:20,240 --> 00:04:23,376] was that smoking tastes like shit.
[00:04:23,400 --> 00:04:25,080] (Laughter)
[00:04:26,360 --> 00:04:30,375] Now, she moved from knowledge to wisdom.
[00:04:30,399 --> 00:04:33,495] She moved from knowing in her head that smoking was bad for her
[00:04:33,519 --> 00:04:35,976] to knowing it in her bones,
[00:04:36,000 --> 00:04:38,296] and the spell of smoking was broken.
[00:04:38,320 --> 00:04:41,680] She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.
[00:04:42,960 --> 00:04:45,056] Now, the prefrontal cortex,
[00:04:45,080 --> 00:04:48,616] that youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective,
[00:04:48,640 --> 00:04:52,696] it understands on an intellectual level that we shouldn't smoke.
[00:04:52,720 --> 00:04:56,536] And it tries its hardest to help us change our behavior,
[00:04:56,560 --> 00:04:57,896] to help us stop smoking,
[00:04:57,920 --> 00:05:02,040] to help us stop eating that second, that third, that fourth cookie.
[00:05:02,960 --> 00:05:04,456] We call this cognitive control.
[00:05:04,480 --> 00:05:07,280] We're using cognition to control our behavior.
[00:05:07,960 --> 00:05:09,176] Unfortunately,
[00:05:09,200 --> 00:05:11,136] this is also the first part of our brain
[00:05:11,160 --> 00:05:13,176] that goes offline when we get stressed out,
[00:05:13,200 --> 00:05:14,456] which isn't that helpful.
[00:05:14,480 --> 00:05:16,957] Now, we can all relate to this in our own experience.
[00:05:16,981 --> 00:05:20,136] We're much more likely to do things like yell at our spouse or kids
[00:05:20,160 --> 00:05:21,776] when we're stressed out or tired,
[00:05:21,800 --> 00:05:24,136] even though we know it's not going to be helpful.
[00:05:24,160 --> 00:05:25,680] We just can't help ourselves.
[00:05:27,120 --> 00:05:29,296] When the prefrontal cortex goes offline,
[00:05:29,320 --> 00:05:31,536] we fall back into our old habits,
[00:05:31,560 --> 00:05:34,416] which is why this disenchantment is so important.
[00:05:34,440 --> 00:05:36,096] Seeing what we get from our habits
[00:05:36,120 --> 00:05:38,296] helps us understand them at a deeper level --
[00:05:38,320 --> 00:05:39,576] to know it in our bones
[00:05:39,600 --> 00:05:41,856] so we don't have to force ourselves to hold back
[00:05:41,880 --> 00:05:43,616] or restrain ourselves from behavior.
[00:05:43,640 --> 00:05:46,416] We're just less interested in doing it in the first place.
[00:05:46,440 --> 00:05:48,976] And this is what mindfulness is all about:
[00:05:49,000 --> 00:05:52,680] Seeing really clearly what we get when we get caught up in our behaviors,
[00:05:53,560 --> 00:05:57,136] becoming disenchanted on a visceral level
[00:05:57,160 --> 00:06:00,280] and from this disenchanted stance, naturally letting go.
[00:06:00,920 --> 00:06:04,416] This isn't to say that, poof, magically we quit smoking.
[00:06:04,440 --> 00:06:07,056] But over time, as we learn to see more and more clearly
[00:06:07,080 --> 00:06:08,416] the results of our actions,
[00:06:08,440 --> 00:06:11,080] we let go of old habits and form new ones.
[00:06:12,120 --> 00:06:13,456] The paradox here
[00:06:13,480 --> 00:06:16,296] is that mindfulness is just about being really interested
[00:06:16,320 --> 00:06:17,736] in getting close and personal
[00:06:17,760 --> 00:06:20,336] with what's actually happening in our bodies and minds
[00:06:20,360 --> 00:06:21,976] from moment to moment.
[00:06:22,000 --> 00:06:24,296] This willingness to turn toward our experience
[00:06:24,320 --> 00:06:28,000] rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible.
[00:06:28,760 --> 00:06:31,336] And this willingness to turn toward our experience
[00:06:31,360 --> 00:06:33,216] is supported by curiosity,
[00:06:33,240 --> 00:06:34,976] which is naturally rewarding.
[00:06:35,000 --> 00:06:36,736] What does curiosity feel like?
[00:06:36,760 --> 00:06:37,960] It feels good.
[00:06:39,040 --> 00:06:41,346] And what happens when we get curious?
[00:06:41,370 --> 00:06:44,816] We start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations --
[00:06:44,840 --> 00:06:47,096] oh, there's tightness, there's tension,
[00:06:47,120 --> 00:06:48,776] there's restlessness --
[00:06:48,800 --> 00:06:51,240] and that these body sensations come and go.
[00:06:51,880 --> 00:06:54,856] These are bite-size pieces of experiences
[00:06:54,880 --> 00:06:56,896] that we can manage from moment to moment
[00:06:56,920 --> 00:07:01,056] rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving
[00:07:01,080 --> 00:07:02,456] that we choke on.
[00:07:02,480 --> 00:07:04,976] In other words, when we get curious,
[00:07:05,000 --> 00:07:09,736] we step out of our old, fear-based, reactive habit patterns,
[00:07:09,760 --> 00:07:11,976] and we step into being.
[00:07:12,000 --> 00:07:14,896] We become this inner scientist
[00:07:14,920 --> 00:07:18,136] where we're eagerly awaiting that next data point.
[00:07:18,160 --> 00:07:22,696] Now, this might sound too simplistic to affect behavior.
[00:07:22,720 --> 00:07:25,176] But in one study, we found that mindfulness training
[00:07:25,200 --> 00:07:29,096] was twice as good as gold standard therapy at helping people quit smoking.
[00:07:29,120 --> 00:07:30,560] So it actually works.
[00:07:31,800 --> 00:07:34,616] And when we studied the brains of experienced meditators,
[00:07:34,640 --> 00:07:38,456] we found that parts of a neural network of self-referential processing
[00:07:38,480 --> 00:07:40,056] called the default mode network
[00:07:40,080 --> 00:07:41,296] were at play.
[00:07:41,320 --> 00:07:44,256] Now, one current hypothesis is that a region of this network,
[00:07:44,280 --> 00:07:46,496] called the posterior cingulate cortex,
[00:07:46,520 --> 00:07:49,256] is activated not necessarily by craving itself
[00:07:49,280 --> 00:07:51,896] but when we get caught up in it, when we get sucked in,
[00:07:51,920 --> 00:07:53,616] and it takes us for a ride.
[00:07:53,640 --> 00:07:55,736] In contrast, when we let go --
[00:07:55,760 --> 00:07:57,136] step out of the process
[00:07:57,160 --> 00:07:59,656] just by being curiously aware of what's happening --
[00:07:59,680 --> 00:08:01,800] this same brain region quiets down.
[00:08:03,320 --> 00:08:07,416] Now we're testing app and online-based mindfulness training programs
[00:08:07,440 --> 00:08:10,576] that target these core mechanisms
[00:08:10,600 --> 00:08:15,096] and, ironically, use the same technology that's driving us to distraction
[00:08:15,120 --> 00:08:17,656] to help us step out of our unhealthy habit patterns
[00:08:17,680 --> 00:08:21,696] of smoking, of stress eating and other addictive behaviors.
[00:08:21,720 --> 00:08:24,296] Now, remember that bit about context-dependent memory?
[00:08:24,320 --> 00:08:27,216] We can deliver these tools to peoples' fingertips
[00:08:27,240 --> 00:08:29,496] in the contexts that matter most.
[00:08:29,520 --> 00:08:30,736] So we can help them
[00:08:30,760 --> 00:08:33,736] tap into their inherent capacity to be curiously aware
[00:08:33,760 --> 00:08:37,680] right when that urge to smoke or stress eat or whatever arises.
[00:08:38,640 --> 00:08:40,456] So if you don't smoke or stress eat,
[00:08:40,480 --> 00:08:44,135] maybe the next time you feel this urge to check your email when you're bored,
[00:08:44,159 --> 00:08:46,399] or you're trying to distract yourself from work,
[00:08:46,423 --> 00:08:50,222] or maybe to compulsively respond to that text message when you're driving,
[00:08:51,080 --> 00:08:54,936] see if you can tap into this natural capacity,
[00:08:54,960 --> 00:08:56,216] just be curiously aware
[00:08:56,240 --> 00:08:59,176] of what's happening in your body and mind in that moment.
[00:08:59,200 --> 00:09:00,656] It will just be another chance
[00:09:00,680 --> 00:09:04,336] to perpetuate one of our endless and exhaustive habit loops ...
[00:09:04,360 --> 00:09:05,600] or step out of it.
[00:09:06,080 --> 00:09:08,976] Instead of see text message, compulsively text back,
[00:09:09,000 --> 00:09:10,736] feel a little bit better --
[00:09:10,760 --> 00:09:12,216] notice the urge,
[00:09:12,240 --> 00:09:13,696] get curious,
[00:09:13,720 --> 00:09:15,656] feel the joy of letting go
[00:09:15,680 --> 00:09:16,880] and repeat.
[00:09:17,440 --> 00:09:18,656] Thank you.
[00:09:18,680 --> 00:00:00,000] (Applause)