Here is the full transcript of Judson Brewer’s talk on A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit at TED.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: A simple way to break a bad habit by Judson Brewer
Judson Brewer – Psychiatrist and addiction expert
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 men.
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.
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.