A simple way to break a bad habit | Judson Brewer
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A simple way to break a bad habit | Judson Brewer


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’d 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. This reward-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 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. See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward. Simple, right? Well, after a while,
our creative brains 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 thank 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 urge to eat. Maybe in our teenage years, we were a nerd at school, and we see those rebel kids
outside smoking and 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 leading preventable causes
of morbidity and mortality in the world. So back to my breath. 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? 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 to 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 the 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. (Laughter) 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 the 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 our 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. 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 — to know it 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, poof,
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 become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting
that next data point. Now, 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 self-referential processing called the default mode network were 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 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. 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
and 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. (Applause)

100 Comments

  • Leonel Macchi

    Oh no!! This must be some ilumniati stuff. An ancient guru knowledge lost in time and retrieved by this genious and curious gentleman.

  • Brian Knoll

    I'm a individual with non community thoughts that I will never compromise by complying to the community standards of ok. My opinion is just that mine. Who I am is just that.Me.

  • Claude LeBel

    You might want to try Michael Brown's presence process. Although it is a huge commitment but worthwhile if you have big issues.

  • 1993moviefreekonline

    Except smoking isnt a habit its nicotine addiction. Stop using 'habit' and 'addiction' interchangeably, they aren't the same thing. Read Allen Carr instead.

  • kaydrelia

    Ok I need someone to break this down for me, he's talking about being curious to break a habit but I cant seem to wrap my brain around the concept. If I want to break a sugar habit, what exactly am I supposed to be curious about?

  • Emil Pietras

    That's how capitalism transforms real problems (alienation, working to much and too hard, chaos in massmedia etc.) with low comfort of our life to practical technics to deal with it

  • Philip C

    WHAT A WASTE OF TIME
    BLAH BLAH BLAH
    ANYTHING THAT HAS BECOME A HABIT IS MORE THAN LIKELY CONTROLLED BY AN EXTENAL FORCE e.g
    DEMONS.
    KEEP IN MIND SOCIOLOGY OR PHILOSOPHY OR ANY OTHER THING IS NOT GOING TO BREAK THE GRIP OF THE DEMON ON THE PERSON.
    LORD JESUS CHRIST IS THE ONLY ANSWER.
    GET TO KNOW HIM AND DELIVERANCE WILL FOLLOW AND THE DEMONS HAVE TO BOW DOWN TO HIM AND LEAVE.
    DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME WITH YOGA. EVERY FEELING ONE GETS FROM YOGA IS FROM DEMONS.
    YOGA WAS FOUNDED BY DEMONS, CONTROLLED BY DEMONS, AND MARKETED BY DEMONS.

  • Docinaplane

    The craving is for the energy boost you get from the stimulant nicotine. That comes on rapidly and peaks within, what 30 minutes then fades. They want you to smoke at least a pack a day. That's what you have to combat.

  • Inner Vigilance

    When I was 18 I wrote in my diary a strange experience I had when I was feeling extremely angry. Somehow I was able to release the anger and the feeling of letting it go felt amazing. Unfortunately I did not stay curious enough to dig deeper and find out how I had managed this and if I could keep repeating the process. In fact for years after that I often justified my anger.

  • M.Y. Pastorelli

    I've been meditating for a few years now. It's done wonders for my life-long anxiety, depression, and the "digging" sort of analysis I didn't know I was addicted to. In short, meditation has shed light on the narrative of a life driven by a need to punish – sabotage – myself and create needless struggle in the process, both with myself and, of course, those who would have been dearest and closest to me.

    I can say I'm living a simpler life now on the inside, while the outer one gets increasingly and decidedly minimalist. But I have yet to quit my addiction to smoking. I have quit for stretches of about 7 months at a time, but I come back to it, when the pressure of life gets just heavy enough. (As I type this sentence I am aware of the strong desire to light a cigarette; and definitely will follow through on it once I'm done typing.) I still carry a good amount of resentment towards a handful of people in my life, which spills over into other relationships. Yes, I hurt innocent people and myself. Then I get on the hamster wheel of punishing myself.

    Right here, right now, I am grateful that I am at least aware of these issues. I know I still suck at this game. I'm a blue belt.

  • sbastean brodowski

    4:42 quote – "the prefrontal cortex that youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective" end of quote. 
    Let me make it clear the THEORY of evolution is only a THEORY, not a fact. In science whenever a theory has missing links we have to dismiss it. Hense we have dismissed the theory of evolution. How on earth can you use evolutionary perspective? are you talking about science (thought so in the beginning) or theories now cause i'm confused Mr Judson Brewer

  • Stacy Caruso

    I'm sorry, but smoking a cigarette "mindfully" is ridiculous. Don't smoke it makes more sense. Do something else that is healthy. This makes everything too complicated. PRAYER is meditation. Just be aware of what you are doing. Think about it. There is no need for all this guru-word hype. The word "mindful" makes me wretch.

  • Santosh P.S.S.

    1:27 you are such a dumb person, if humans are alive just because of the brain and not the mind (remember, the mind is not in the brain), we would just act like animals, they got brain but we not only got a brain but also a mind. Why do we get a breakdown? Why do we watch random stuff on YouTube? Do animals do that? No. They don’t, they can’t do a breakdown or sob for ages because they don’t have a mind. We are not here because of an accident. I H A T E S C I E N C E. I hate it. It’s suppose to educate people but it became a religion… your wisdom teeth is hurting you? REMOVE IT AND MAKE A ROOT CANAL… pain in the stomach? It’s probably your kidneys, it’s a kidney failure. You are dizzy? Oh no! You have 200 sugar! You are a diabetic… f this science.

  • Glasiator

    The thing is: smoking is not just a bad habit, it's a serious addiction, therefore an illness and you can't just wish it away.

    You have to really, really WANT to quit, which is difficult because the drug tricks you into thinking you depend on it. (actually you do, psychologically.)

    Even if you manage to stay off nicotine for a few years- there are moments in life, where certain triggers can spiral the mind back into old patterns. In those moments all it takes is one puff and you'll propably smoke more than you used to.

    It takes a lot of willpower and distraction to do it without any kind of help.

    P.zy.ked.eli.cs are the only thing that can really assist the process immensely if used with intent.

    PS: I'm not trying to discourage anyone to quit, but quiet the contrary.

    It's just that many non smokers don't understand the struggle of being addicted to a drug that:

    1)kills you very slowly and painfully
    2)has no benefit whatsoever (doesn't get you "high" – The calming effect only happens BECAUSE you smoke and would be in withdrawal otherwise)
    3)makes you stink like an ashtray
    4)costs a fortune over the years
    5)decreases overall stamina and health
    6)has the psychological withdrawal of some of the hard drugs like H, but withouth the physical withdrawal symptoms.

  • JJ Playz

    My habit is making this weird sound with my throat and it annoys my family and my teachers are gonna hate me if I can’t stop it.
    I don’t know why this happens. But I’m trying to stop cause I need to get rid of it in the next 4 days.

  • Sheila More

    Wow that is great Pay more attention to yourself and how you feel on your reactions that is a great lesson to learn thanks for sharing

  • MaDrung

    I've never felt the need to eat when sad and I don't understand this impulse other people have. When I'm sad I actualy want to eat less. It's painful to eat in that moment.

  • misbooon

    notice the urge
    get curious
    enjoy the feeling of letting go
    quit smoking
    get addicted to the feeling of letting go
    get hooked on meth so you can enjoy letting go again
    repeat

  • brian nguyen

    The different between "knowing something," "understanding something," and "realizing something" are different phases in how a person growth, not just to get out of bad habit. In fact, if you know that you have bad habit, that is good which is mean you are at the "knowing phase."

    Judson Brewer missing a couple of steps about how belief, emotion, memory, experience make up a majority of the argument on bad habit. However, his ideal is not bad for those who is more aware or at the very least more stable from perspective of financial, health and support. In other words, a better explain for his speech would be, first knowing what you doing is bad habit, then understanding the consequences of what you doing, finally apply the "curiosity," or in most case would be skeptical or doubt, each time the habit happen.

    Just a funny joke, do you know what is worst habit that every human on Earth has, some worse than other? That is: "thinking that they are alone." Of course, you are not silly. No one on this Earth is alone, we need other to survive, silly. Now that you knowing that you are not alone on this Earth, pondering on that fact sometime when you by yourself until you come to fully understand of that fact, and each time you yell out to someone or hate the fact you are lonely, think about that a little more. Who know maybe before you realize it, you make 1 or 2 friends and even find a partner.

    PS: Thank for reading, but please don't ask question. I just use this as diary for my thought. Thanks,

  • Tah Fashion design

    Yes people try harder to quit smoking! I am suffering with the smell. 皆さんタバコをやめる事努力してください。私はタバコの匂いに苦しんでいます。

  • Bella O’Neill

    My bad habit affects my social skills and my overall mental health. It’s bad and needs to stop, but my family doesn’t help because I do the bad habit when they’re overwhelming me

  • Brandon

    What about people who have habits and pay attention in the first place. Besides that any bad habit is subject to a lot of internal scrutiny on the first try. This theory is bullshit.

  • ThirdWheelin

    I recently quit drinking out of nowhere. I didnt replace it with anything. I didnt pay close attention. It's the only addiction I've ever dropped and I learned literally nothing from the process and it's really frustrating.

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