Breaking bad habits through curiosity

By Leo Kent

Curiosity apparently does not kill the cat. In fact, it might very well help to save its life according to psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer.

Brewer posits that through being mindful and curious about our habits we can break the unhealthy ones. As Brewer explains in his enlightening TED talk below sometimes fighting habits and addictions can be the wrong approach.

Brewer conducted a study with smokers looking to quit. He says, “In my lab, we studied whether mindfulness training could help people quit smoking. Now…they could try to force themselves to quit smoking. And the majority of them had tried this before and failed — on average, six times.

“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.”

The result was many of the smokers start to realise how disgusting it was. One smoker observed, “Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!”

Go ahead and smoke, just be really curious about what it’s like when you do.

Brewer says, “What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like sh**t.”

Brewer believes that bad habits and addiction is a consequence of one of the most important aspects of survival that dates back to the most primal of nervous systems. It is a reward-based learning process called positive and negative reinforcement.

Brewer explains, “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, behaviour, reward.

[We] quickly learn that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we’re mad or sad, we feel better.

He continues, “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.”

With mindfulness, that is, being curious about the moment you are in, say, it is possible to become disenchanted with the bad habit such as smoking. As a result, instead of constantly fighting the cravings you simply lose interest in this unhealthy activity altogether.

For information about Judson Brewer and his work click here.

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