The Science Behind Bad Habits, and How to Break Them

Research reveals three simple steps to teach your brain to break bad habits.

Posted Aug 19, 2019

Habits are hard to break. We all know this, whether we’ve failed our latest diet (again), or felt the repeated pull to refresh our Twitter feed instead of working on a project with a looming deadline. Choosing to act differently under stress is especially hard in today’s world, rife with modern marvels such as cigarette additives, refined sugar, and endless to-do lists.

Our brains are constantly barraged by stimuli engineered to make us crave and consume, stimuli that hijack the reward-based learning system in our brains designed initially for survival. Put simply, reward-based learning involves a trigger (for example, the feeling of hunger), followed by a behavior (eating food) and a reward (feeling sated). We want to do more of the things that feel good and less of the things that feel bad.

These three components (trigger, behavior, and reward) show up every time we smoke a cigarette, eat a cupcake, or check our newsfeed when we’re stressed. Each time we reach out for something to soothe ourselves, we reinforce the learning, to the point where it becomes automatic. This is how habits are formed.

So why can’t we just control ourselves and decide to create new habits? The doctrine of self-control has been promulgated for decades, despite the fact that researchers at Yale and elsewhere have shown that the brain networks associated with self-control (e.g. the prefrontal cortex) are the first to go “offline” when faced with triggers such as stress. We’ve all experienced this to some degree: we’re more likely to yell at a family member or head for the fridge when we are stressed or tired, no matter how much we swear off the behavior each time we do it.

In medical school, I was taught the same self-control rhetoric to pass on to patients. Need to lose weight? Quit eating junk food. Trying to quit smoking? Stop cold turkey or use a nicotine replacement. But when I started actually practicing medicine, I quickly learned that it doesn’t work this way in real life. Real patients don’t mechanically follow rational formulas set up by their doctors. Their existing habits lead the way.

I set up my research laboratory to explore what modern medicine was missing and found that we can actually rewire the brain to change our habits using mindfulness. Now, experiment for yourselves.

1. Map out your habit loops.

In the lab, we noticed that self-control had overlooked a critical observation made by early experimentalists like BF Skinner: reward-based learning is based on, well, rewards—not on behaviors themselves. In other words, how rewarding a behavior is drives the likelihood of repeating that behavior in the future.

I see this all the time in my outpatient clinic. My patients describe something like a battle with their urges, and they always come out feeling like they’ve been defeated. Seeing this, I shifted my approach from relying on self-control to focusing on reward-based learning. If reward drives behavior, I wanted patients to practice examining just how rewarding their behaviors were.

2. See what you actually get.

The next step is to clearly link up action and outcome.

When someone comes to my clinic to quit smoking, for example, the first thing I ask them to practice is becoming aware of the various sensations they experience while smoking—what does it taste and smell like? I see the same thing happen over and over: people realize that smoking cigarettes isn’t actually pleasant to their senses.

This fits perfectly with what we now know about the brain. With the simple act of paying attention to their behaviors in the moment, my patients are giving their brains accurate and updated information. If cigarettes previously were pleasurable, they weren’t now.

Awareness—mindfulness—makes sure the reward value is accurately updated in our brain. But this is only the first part of the solution.

3. Finding a bigger, better offer (try curiosity).

The final step to creating sustainable, positive habit change is to find a new reward that is more rewarding than the existing behavior. The brain is always looking for that bigger, better offer.

With technology, this has been made even easier. In research my lab has conducted with mobile phones and app-based mindfulness training for smoking and emotional eating (which trains people to pay attention, just like I described above), we found that there is a natural progression of behavior change that follows the “rules” of reward-based learning, with clinically-meaningful results: 5x the smoking quit rates of gold standard treatment, and 40 percent reductions in craving-related eating.

In a recent randomized controlled trial, we found that smokers can even learn to control their default mode network with a subsequent reduction in smoking—the same brain network gets overactivated by smoking cues and chocolate cravings and quiets down in expert meditators.

Imagine you are trying to break a bad habit like smoking or stress eating. What if, instead of just going along with a craving to smoke or eating potato chips to counteract a negative emotion, you substituted curiosity about the craving itself as a new behavior?

The reward value is tangibly different: Curiosity feels better than craving. It opens us up instead of locking us into some frenzied drive to consume. Curiosity is also much more enjoyable than the self-blame and rumination that often accompany habits we’re trying to ditch. To our brains, it’s a no-brainer.  

To tap into their curiosity, I teach my patients a simple mantra: Hmm. As in, what does this craving feel like?

So see if you can hack your mind to break free of some of your old habits, finding that sweet spot through cultivating curiosity. Might it work for you? Hmm.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

References

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Brewer, J., Worhunsky, P., Gray, J., Tang, Y., Weber, J. and Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), pp.20254-20259.

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Mason, A., Jhaveri, K., Cohn, M. and Brewer, J. (2017). Testing a mobile mindful eating intervention targeting craving-related eating: feasibility and proof of concept. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 41(2), pp.160-173.

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