Why Are Habits So Hard To Break?

mazeby Witold Fitz-Simon A recent cover story in Scientific American revealed how the brain creates habits and why they are so hard to break. In their article, researchers Ann Gaybriel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Kyle S. Smith (Dartmouth College) outline three stages to laying down a habit:

  1. Explore a new behavior
  2. Form a habit
  3. Imprint it into the brain

Exploring New Behaviors

As you explore a new behavior, three parts of your brain—the prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain—communicate together to form positive feedback loops that help you determine whether nor not the behavior helps you achieve your goals.

Let’s take as an example, reaching down to pick up and put on your shoes. When you first learn to do this, you might make the choice, consciously or not, to counterbalance as you reach forward to pick the shoes up by allowing your head to drop back and down. To reach your shoes, you are extending your arm out quite a way beyond the stable support of your mid-line and your center of gravity, and taking the weight of your head back creates a feeling of stability. It may not be the best way to do this, but it works in the moment and, anyway, you are more concerned with getting your shoes on than you are with anything else.

The next time you put your shoes on, your brain remembers the sequence of behaviors you performed to fulfill your goal and sets up an expectation of success or failure. You put your shoes on the same way you did before. It works again. The brain makes a note that this sequence of behaviors is an effective way of achieving the goal. This process is repeated every time you put your shoes on, reinforced each time.

Forming a Habit

A habit, from the perspective of the brain, is a sequence of actions or behaviors that get lumped together into one single unit: a chunk of brain activity. When you are first exploring the action, the brain acts with deliberation. It has no expectations and needs to make conscious choices. Let’s take our example of putting on your shoes. The sequence of deliberate choices to get your shoes might look like this:

  1. You see your shoes.
  2. You reach out and down to pick them up and drop your head back to counterbalance the reach of your arm.
  3. With your head thrown off balance, your back gets stiff as you bend down to get to your shoes, so you support yourself by putting your other hand on your thigh.
  4. You sit down with a plop and slump forward to pick your shoes up and put them on.
  5. You try and stand up from your slumped position with your head back and down and need to push off the chair to get up.

As I said, these might not be the most efficient or elegant set of choices you could make, but your goal is to put your shoes on and not necessarily to bother with the details. After this has happened enough times, the process gets simplified in your brain to this:

  1. You see your shoes
  2. You put them on

Your brain takes all those different choices and lumps them together into one behavioral package.

Imprinting The Habit

Once you have repeated the behavior enough for it have become combined into one single chunk of neurological activity, the infralimbic cortex and the striatum work together to make it semi-permamanent in the brain. When you need to put your shoes on, you use the habitual chunk. As the chunk is in there semi-permanently in your behavioral repertoire, your brain won’t necessarily distinguish between your shoes and a wet towel on the bathroom floor, or anything else that you need to pick up from below your current level, so it uses the same chunk.

What Makes A Habit So Hard To Break?

Once the habit is “chunked” and imprinted like this, very little neurological activity is required to use it. In an experiment, rats were trained to run down a maze and turn left or right when they heard a particular sound to receive a reward. When they were first being trained, activity in the brain was very high. As they started to learn how to respond to the signals they were being given, brain activity got less, except for when they had to make a decision. Once they were fully trained, there was high brain activity at the beginning of the run and at the end, but while they were performing the habitual behavior, brain activity was significantly lower. To say when we do something habitually, we are doing it “without much thought” is a fair description of what is actually happening in the brain. Sometimes, when we do things habitually, we are barely conscious of them at all, let alone capable of breaking down the habit into the successive choices that make it up.

How The Alexander Technique Can Help You Break Your Habits

The Alexander Technique teaches how to think in activity, rather than be at the mercy of habitual "chunks" of behavior. It gives you a framework within which to observe the habits as they arise. It teaches you how to let go of the habitual behavior and how to replace it with deliberate, conscious alternatives. To find a certified Alexander Technique teacher near you, click here.

To read the article in Scientific American click here. (You will need to purchase a copy of the issue to read the full article.)

To read an interview with Ann Gaybriel, click here.

To read a technical article on the research, click here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/After-crop1.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being. www.mindbodyandbeing.com[/author_info] [/author]

Could the Alexander Technique Have Prevented The Great Recession?

American_union_bankBy Karen G. Krueger

"If we understand how a person's body influences risk taking, we can learn how to better manage risk takers. We can also recognize that mistakes governments have made have contributed to massive risk taking."

These striking assertions are from a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (Sunday Week in Review, June 8, 2014) by John Coates, a research fellow at Cambridge and a former derivatives trader at Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank.

I was particularly pleased to see this mainstream media piece acknowledge the unity of mind and body:

"Many neuroscientists now believe our brain is designed primarily to plan and execute movement."

"We do not process information as a computer does, dispassionately; we react to it physically."

These statements, and the neuroscience that underpins them, confirm my own experiences in learning and teaching the Alexander Technique. A century ago, F.M. Alexander used observation, reasoning and experimentation to examine and change his own stress response, and then to teach others to do the same.

The stress response that prompted Alexander's inquiry was a form of performance anxiety: he was an actor plagued by chronic hoarseness when on stage. Coates is interested in the responses of traders and investors to financial uncertainty. Unlike Alexander, Coates does not deal (at least in this article) with the possibility that individuals could change how they react to stress. Rather, he recommends that financial regulators use an understanding of human beings' automatic physical responses to novelty and uncertainty to manipulate the behavior of other players in the financial system.

Coates emphasizes the hormonal changes of the stress response: adrenaline, cortisone testosterone and dopamine all make an appearance. He also describes the related changes in heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. Oddly, he doesn't mention the most obvious physical reaction to stress: tense muscles in the neck, shoulders and back. You don't need a functional MRI or a blood test to detect that reaction to stress!

Like all Alexander Technique teachers, I work with my students on noticing how their neuromuscular systems react to stimuli of all kinds, and using Alexander's simple process of thoughtful practice to change those reactions that interefere with efficient, healthy functioning of body and mind. My students usually begin with straightforward goals: they want to learn to sit, stand and move with better posture and less tension, so that their necks, backs or arms will stop hurting. In the process, they discover that learning to change their physical habits has broader beneficial effects, including a greater capacity to choose to remain calm and thoughtful in situations that previously provoked anxiety.

So I couldn't help wondering as I read Coates' piece what would happen if a critical mass of individual participants in the financial system were to take Alexander Technique lessons. Imagine whole trading desks of traders who were able, in the face of financial panic, to stop tensing their necks, calm down their breathing, and take time to think about how to respond. Could they avoid being swept up into the mass unreasoned reactions that Coates describes, and minimize the damage to their own health in the process?

If you are a day trader who would like to stop allowing your hormones to drive your decisions—or just an average stressed-out New Yorker who would like to feel more in control of your life—find out more about the Alexander Technique:

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Kreuger.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]KAREN G. KREUGER became a teacher of the Alexander Technique after 25 years of practicing law at two major New York law firms, receiving her teaching certificate from the American Center for the Alexander Technique in December 2010. Her students include lawyers, business executives, IT professionals and others interested in living with greater ease and skill. Find her at her website: http://kgk-llc.com. [/author_info] [/author]


A Nobel Prizewinner’s Perspective on the Alexander Technique

by Witold Fitz-Simon http://youtu.be/XXr-9kQZ0ow

Nobel Prize winner Nikolaas Tinbergen was so impressed with the work of F. M. Alexander that he devoted almost ten minutes of his Nobel lecture to the Alexander Technique. Tinbergen won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for his “discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns.” Tinbergen, and his fellow prizewinners Karl Lorenz and Konrad von Frisch, performed studies on fish, insects and birds to observe genetically programmed patterns of behavior. They studied what the origins of these behaviors were, how they developed, and what stimulated them to be triggered. Tinbergen’s work had a profound effect in the field of behavioral sciences as a whole.

Tinbergen’s Four Questions

Tinbergen is famous for developing four essential questions that must be asked about any form of behavior in animals, human or otherwise, if the behavior is to be fully understood:

    1. Causation: What causes the behavioral response to be triggered? How is that changed by what the individual or organism might have learned for itself? What are the different mechanisms that come into play as part of the behavioral response?
    2. Development: How does the response change over time as the individual or organism ages?
    3. Function: What impact does the behavior have on the individual or organism?
    4. Evolution: How does the behavior compare in other species? Why might the behavior have evolved in the way it did rather than in some other way.

Watching and Wondering

In his speech, Tinbergen discusses how his time-honored process of “watching and wandering,” as he calls it, can be applied to the relief of human suffering, especially the suffering caused by stress. In the first part of his speech, he looks at Early Childhood Autism. His second example of an application of modern ethological methods (ethology is the term given to behavioral studies) is F. M. Alexander and the Alexander Technique. He praises Alexander for using these methods fifty years before they had become widespread in the scientific community:

"This story, of perceptiveness, of intelligence, and of persistence, shown by a man without medical training, is one of the true epics of medical research and practice.”

The Kinesthetic Feedback Report

One interesting scientific discovery Tinbergen talks about in his lecture (he skips over it in the above video, but you can find it in the written text here on page 12) is the way in which the brain uses the kinesthetic, or “feeling,” sense and how that can cause us trouble:

“There are many strong indications that, at various levels of integration, from single muscle units up to complex behavior, the correct performance of many movements is continually checked by the brain. It does this by comparing a feedback report, that says ‘orders carried out,’ with the feedback expectation for which, with the initiation of each movement, the brain has been alerted. Only when the expected feedback and the actual feedback match does the brain stop sending out commands for corrective action… But what Alexander has discovered beyond this is that a lifelong mis-use of the body-muscles (such as caused by, for instance, too much sitting and too little walking) can make the entire system go wrong. As a consequence, reports that ‘all is correct’ are received by the brain (or perhaps interpreted as correct) when in fact all is very wrong. A person can ‘feel at ease’ e.g. when slouching in front of the television set, when in fact he is grossly abusing his body.”

    • Tinbergen’s entire speech can be seen here.
    • You can download a PDF of his speech here. The section on the Alexander Technique begins on page 10.
    • To read more about Tinbergen, you can find his Wikipedia page here
    • To read more about Tinbergen’s “Four Questions,” you can find the Wikipedia page here.
    • To read more about the kinesthetic feedback report, you can find a Wikipedia page on “efferent copies,” the scientific term for the potentially faulty kinesthetic model that the brain stores and uses as a reference for what “feels right,” here.

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.acatnyc.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/After-crop1.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]WITOLD FITZ-SIMON has been a student of the Alexander Technique since 2007. He is certified to teach the Technique as a graduate of the American Center for the Alexander Technique’s 1,600-hour, three year training program. A student of yoga since 1993 and a teacher of yoga since 2000, Witold combines his extensive knowledge of the body and its use into intelligent and practical instruction designed to help his students free themselves of ineffective and damaging habits of body, mind and being. www.mindbodyandbeing.com[/author_info] [/author]