Human beings make tens of thousands of choices every day. Almost half of these daily actions are habitual — conducted on “autopilot” without much conscious thought.
And when we try to shake up our behavior, we often think it comes down to willpower: having the self-control to decline a second glass of wine, head to the gym after work, or skip a cigarette break.
But according to psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer, willpower is a pervasive but misleading myth. It's steeped in our collective psyche but has little neuroscientific basis. While self-control certainly exists, it's one of the worst ways to change behavior.
"From a neuroscience perspective, there is no such thing as willpower," Brewer says. It's "just not how our brains work," Brewer adds.
Brewer is a researcher and professor at the School of Medicine at Brown University and executive medical director of behavioral health at the digital health company Sharecare. Brewer recently summed up his two decades of scientific discoveries in his upcoming book, Unwinding Anxiety (March 9, 2021, Penguin Random House).
"The long and short of it is it's a really nice story, but it's not a true story," Brewer says.
Instead of relying on willpower, the brain makes choices and forms behavior based on a built-in, primitive, reward-based system called reinforcement learning. Whenever the brain has a choice, it gravitates toward the more rewarding option.
By intentionally bringing awareness and curiosity to any action, you upend the reward value of a habit, and in turn, change your response to it.
When you dig into the moment-to-moment sensations of an action — whether you're a smoker, overeater, or anxious worrier — you often realize it's not all that rewarding. In turn, you become "disenchanted" with the action, and, over time and repetition, lose interest completely.
"Curiosity is contagious," Brewer says. "The more we practice it, the more we want to practice it because of its intrinsically rewarding qualities — because it feels good."
The brain's reward-based learning system is its oldest survival mechanism. It helps us find food and avoid danger but can trip us up in modern life.
That's because initially rewarding activities are quickly embedded in the brain. As the activity is repeated, it becomes more and more entrenched as an automatic response to a certain trigger, even when the process is no longer rewarding.
"It turns out, this is where mindfulness comes in," Brewer explains. "If you want to change behavior, you have to update the reward value. And the only way to update a reward value is to bring awareness in and see very, very clearly what you're actually getting from the behavior."
Oftentimes, when people turn inward and engage with the present experience, it disappoints — a psychological phenomenon called a negative prediction error. They're expecting it to be rewarding, but reality brings a different result.
Can you be aware of your behaviors?
Can you be aware of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations?
Can you bring an attitude of curiosity to those?
Instead of prejudging what's happening, like saying, "Oh, this is good or this is bad?" can you simply be curious and observe what is happening right now?
Brewer has seen hundreds of people become "disenchanted" with some of their most long-standing habits, from consuming chocolate to cocaine.
One patient, a long-standing smoker, had a visceral feeling of disgust when she paid attention to the second-to-second experience of smoking a cigarette.
Smoking smells like "stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck," Brewer recalls her saying.
"It only takes 10 or 15 times of somebody really paying attention, whether it's a mindful eating exercise or a mindful smoking exercise, that the reward value drops to or even below zero," Brewer says.
Brewer has hammered this technique into app-based mindfulness programs and tested their efficacy with smokers, physicians struggling with anxiety and burnout, and people who overeat.
Brewer found that mindfulness can be the "brain hack" that subverts addictive behaviors, sometimes better than standard treatment.
In a 2011 study, Brewer observed that four months after treatment, mindfulness was found to be five times better at helping people quit smoking than gold-standard treatment programs.
In 2018, his team found that a mindfulness eating program called Eat Right Now reduced craving-related eating by 40 percent in overweight and obese individuals. It also reduced eating in response to negative emotions by 36 percent.
Taken together, the evidence suggests mindfulness — bringing awareness and curiosity to an action — is potentially as good or better than medication. Instead of temporarily curbing symptoms, you can "get at the root cause of the problem," Brewer says.
"There is hope, and we can back that hope up with data," the researcher says.
Still, even though this technique appears simple — intuitive even — practicing awareness and curiosity isn't always easy. Especially in times of stress, turning inward can be exceptionally difficult.
"Old habits are familiar and therefore comfortable," Brewer says. "So anytime we move out of our comfort zone, typically, we move into a panic zone."
But it's possible to move into a "growth zone" if we engage awareness and curiosity.
"This is the only thing that's going to help, and the sooner we learn to turn toward [our habits], the easier it's going to be, because the less solidified those habits will be," Brewer says.
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