There was an article on the front of the January 2007 issue of "O," The Oprah Magazine, that got my attention. "Be the woman you want to be! Why it's so hard to change yourself-a revolutionary guide to making it happen." The article is by Rebecca Skloot. I like her writing style. I would give you a link to the article, but it's not up at "O" yet. So un-Oprah like, don't you think? UPDATE: A reader provided a link to Rebecca's story in the comments.
Rebecca went in search of how to change a habit. For her it was her dislike/aversion to exercise. As a reporter, she knew how many people tried and failed to give up a habit (or change a habit), from eating too much, to smoking, to sex, to drugs, it turns out it all works the same.
Her approach was to talk with leading scientists researching the brain to find out if there was more to changing a habit than just will-power. It turns out there is.
That pesky brain of yours was set-up to develop habits so that it can conserve energy. The brain spends its energy on breathing, coordinated motion, and actually thinking. Our little 3lb brains revert to habits when given the chance because habits require less energy than change. How do we develop habits? Rebecca and her brain scientist friends explain: It's dopamine. You see, you do something you like or gives you pleasure, food, sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, etc., and you get a dopamine surge. Rebecca explains that some of that dopamine travels to the area of your brain where memories are formed and creates a memory connecting that thing that gave you pleasure with a reward. It becomes "salient." It doesn't matter whether its good for you. The short story, the more you do it, the more the frontal lobe fires until after a certain point, the brain makes it a habit . The further problem with this is that dopamine also controls desire, decision making and motivation. Beginning to see the big picture now? Eventually, the brain will release the dopamine when in the environment of the pleasure or if something reminds it of that thing. Then you get that "Jonesing" feeling.
Well Rebecca wanted to trick her brain into liking something she couldn't find much excitement for: exercising. O.K., it's possible to do this (I really recommend you read her article) but it ain't easy. You need to reward yourself promptly for completely the task, or finding a way to do the task that you enjoy (in her case rollerskating instead of jogging) and reinforce the behavior by steadily doing it over a period of three or four weeks.
For me, I want to start developing a steadier habit of writing and researching. I plan to think of a way to apply this. (I'll probably reward myself with food. Wait a minute, I'm trying to lose weight...)
Rebecca talked to:
Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who is researching the neurology of eating and how for some people quitting foods, like chocolate is as hard to kick as heroin.
Michael Schlund, PhD., Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Dr. Schlund is a research psychologist who explores areas of the brain involved in learning and behavior change. He recently finished a study where he observed the brains of healthy adults as they learned new behaviors based on rewards. He found that the brain activated more and more in the frontal lobe as the activity was being rewarded and repeated. After a certain point, the frontal lobe showed less activity as the activity became a habit. In the case of the experiment, he discussed with Rebecca it took about 50 times, but that can vary depending upon the connecting "stress" that may be caused by the activity. Stress hormones impair the areas of our brains that need to be active to change. They also stimulate our emotional centers, to tell us to decrease the thing stressing us. (Nature is soooo clever!)
Dr. Max Wexler, The Brain and Culture author. He studies brain plasticity and how it affects our ability to change. He has found successful change requires abnormally intense, uninterrupted concentration and repetition. Wexler states, "There are a hundred billion neurons in your brain. Each one is connected to thousands of others....behaviors,learning, and memory...involves the integrated actions of hundreds of thousands of cells in intricate systems throughout the brain." Wow, no wonder algebra was killing me in college. As adults our brains are not as malleable and so its harder to change. He suggests that successful change also requires "starving" the memory of old habit stimuli. That's why a lot of ex-drug addicts have to completely change their environments. The stimuli starts the dopamine bell ringing in their head.
So bottom line, don't expect a quick fix to change an old habit. Use instant reward, find the most enjoyable way for you to do the activity, reinforce the activity for at least 3 to 4 weeks, and try to "starve-off" the stimuli for the old habit you are trying to break. I found this very helpful. It takes the "you're a loser" reproach away and gives you practical activities to reach your objectives.