The habit of habit
With 2007 looming on the horizon and the thought of New Year’s Resolutions close behind, I thought it might be useful to look at how and why we form habits and sometimes can’t easily change them. It’s a marathon posting, but hopefully worth your while to read it.
Falling into ‘the habit’ of doing something is effortless and insidious. When we do something once, twice, a few times, we’re on the road to that thought-pattern or activity becoming ‘habituated’ – which is the psychological buzzword for it.
Swami Vivekananda, the famous Hindu Monk who brought to the World Parliament of Religions in 1863, the highest philosophical teachings of India, once said that introducing a new thought into a brain is like pushing a needle through the grey matter. It’s a simple and elegant analogy that finds validation in the latest neuro scientific thinking.
When we’re exposed to a brand new concept or learning or we want to start a new pattern of behaviour, an interesting process gets underway. It’s the equivalent of taking a machete and hacking, with much effort and difficulty, a rudimentary pathway through a jungle. But once that path has been created and we start to walk or traffic it with any degree of regularity, the surrounding foliage begins to die back, the surface flattens and what was originally a major trek, now becomes a comfortable stroll. Over time, the pathway widens and it will eventually, if it becomes the default route for thinking or behaviour, become a superhighway. Once it achieves that status, breaking a habit or changing a thought pattern or behaviour becomes extremely difficult.
Neurologically, what’s happening is that a nerve pathway or Axon, has developed. It literally looks like a little tree branch growing off the nerve network in the brain. In response to the new information or correlation stimulus, the branch will ‘grow’ in order to process and retain that new information. As further detail is added or the concept is revisited, so ‘twigs’ or tiny branches will sprout from the end of that axon. These are called Dendrites. Their role is to permit connectivity and networking across little gaps called synapses, with other dendrites in the brain. So one piece of information is connected to another and another and the total telecommunications infrastructure becomes infinitely more complex, rich and valuable. If only because a concept or problem can new be ‘round-tripped’ via the most astonishing knowledge and experience base in order to generate ideas or solutions.
Frequently trafficked dendrites can be seen in modern day PET (positron emission tomography) scans linked to computers almost as ‘hubs’ for information dissemination and networking. They become more complex, grow ‘thicker’ and evolve in response to regular usage. So they move from being the original rough pathway hacked through the jungle into paved pathways, highways and even information superhighways. The very effortlessness of travelling those superhighways is what underpins habit. It’s now become an automated process. No effort is required. And the pattern is therefore sometimes very difficult to alter or break.
How to change habit? It’s suppression vs. sublimation
Character vs. temperament – Prof. Robert Cloninger
Dr. Robert Cloninger has done fascinating work on the relationship between ‘temperament’ (his language) and character. He describes temperament as what we’re born with. The heredity, DNA, chromosome ‘fixed’ stuff. Not much (other than plastic surgery!) that we can do about big bums, saggy boobs, three chins or frizzy hair. As Prof. Harry Seftel would say, ‘You just chose your parents badly’. But on the character front, we can do a great deal. Each time we make choices we strengthen or weaken that character. It’s very much a function of intellect – which has little or nothing to do with education and academic prowess. Someone may have little formal learning but be blessed with a fine intellect and wisdom. The intellect – described in Sanskrit as ‘Buddhi’, meaning ‘the illumined one’ is our mechanism for discernment and discrimination. Not of the racial or social kind, but between good choices and less good ones. Unless we’ve irretrievably crossed the moral and ethical line, a lower function of the intellect will alert us to the fact that we’re about to do something unfair, dishonest or unacceptable. The intellect itself is the highest function of the mind of which we can be aware before we reach the pure spiritual being that I believe we are.
The biofeedback reciprocity of behaviour into DNA
Many years ago, I wrote hypothesising that if our genes and DNA could pre-determine part at least of how we look and behave, then surely our behaviour, actions and thoughts (the character component) must have a reciprocal effect on our genes and DNA as well. Meaning that we’re writing or re-writing code on the DNA as we live our way through life. A software revise or upgrade if you will. And when we procreate we pass on that updated version of the code to the next generation.
A few months ago I was engaged in an interesting discussion with psychiatrist Dr. David Benn. He said that medical science today accepts that view as being both logical and correct. Eastern psychology has long held that the mind (the software which uses the brain as its hardware) creates the body. Interesting convergence between Eastern philosophy and Western psychology.
I hope 2007 is a year of constructive and positive change for you!