Have a habit you could do without? Checking the phone every 10 minutes, smoking, drinking, eating when stressed? In this interview, I tackle taking control of these bad habits and how mindfulness can help you build good habits.
Meet Judson Brewer, an M.D. and Ph.D. and a thought leader in the “science of self-mastery,” having combined nearly 20 years of experience with mindfulness training with his scientific research. He is the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at UMass Medical School.
Judson: My college career was all about striving, a little bit type A. I went to Princeton, was a chemistry major, decided late in the game that I wanted to go to medical school…and was very, very driven.
Half way into my senior year, I got engaged to be married. Then my fiancé and I, who were going to do this program together, broke up right before we started medical school. I was really suffering at the time. I was having trouble sleeping, and somehow this Jon Kabat-Zinn book landed in my lap, and I started meditating my first day of medical school. I quickly learned that during boring medical school lectures, I could pay attention to my breath.
Judson: We started by doing some work with alcohol and cocaine dependence and found that mindfulness training was a gold standard treatment in helping people not relapse to drug use. And it was better at helping them not get physiologically stressed out when we gave them little stress scenarios.
We then turned to doing mindfulness training for smoking cessation and found that it was five times better than gold standard treatment. So the simplest way of thinking about this is that habit is formed through a trigger of a behavior and a reward.
So, if we get stressed out, that’s the trigger. The behavior is smoking a cigarette and then the reward is feeling a little bit better. We can see how this habit gets formed over multiple times a day, over multiple years.
We discovered that helping people pay attention to that habit loop itself could help them step out of that and could instead turn their awareness into their bodies, which is typically where they wanted to run away from.
There are bite-sized pieces that we can ride out. And through that insight, people can learn to ride out their cravings and quit smoking.
Judson: So, when people go out for a smoke, they have their cigarette in one hand and their phone in the other. So, we have developed an app “Craving to Quit”. This gives them the tools literally right at their fingertips so they have it with them all the time. We have beta testers using this app and we are getting feedback that it is helping them change their eating habits. A lot of people don’t quit smoking because they are worried they will gain weight, as the substitute candy for cigarettes. So, eating candy, pizza rolls or “insert your favorite food here” is not a long-term solution.
Judson: We look for specific pain points. So, for example, stress eating is a pain point. So, we’ve just launched this stress eating app called “The Eat Right Now,” as in eating correctly in the present moment. And eventually, we’ll be able to roll out versions and probably a general addictions program that will be a version of “Craving to Quit”.
But the idea is, if we can help people identify what that pain point is, whether it’s, distracting themselves on their phone when they’re bored or checking their Facebook feed. We can train them to pay attention to that behavior, get curious about what that feels like and then notice that joy of letting go.
This is something that people can take into their everyday lives.
Simply notice what that trigger is, which is the most important piece because we’re typically on autopilot at that point. And then just turn toward it with our awareness and get curious. It’s like we put on our Sherlock Holmes cap and say, oh what does this feel like in my body? We can explore that without the need of an app, and then we can just notice what it feels like as the sensations come and go. We simply train people to note what their sensations; it might be tingling or tension or tightness, or burning or heat, and every time we can note that, it helps us ride out those waves.
Judson: Mindfulness is getting a lot of attention because we use our phones more than ever and because it’s an internet age where everything is so connected but where we are also being pulled in a thousand different directions. It’s really a perfect storm with phones at our fingertips because we have a ready source of distraction, so anytime we’re uncomfortable we can look at our phone. Even when you pull up at a stoplight and you look around and everyone’s crotch is glowing blue. People don’t know how to be alone with themselves anymore. People are uncomfortable being alone, they feel like they can’t function without their phones. Hello addiction.
Judson: One thing that has come from our neurobiological understanding is we’ve identified a brain region that’s part of what’s called the default mode network that seems to get activated when we get caught up in our experience. Basically, we get in our own way.
If you and I were having an argument and suddenly we’re both defending our position, that defense feels like a contraction. Just like anger or fear or anything like that. Now, what curiosity feels like? Is that contraction or expansion?
Exploration, that’s an opening. So literally, it seems that this brain region gets activated when we’re contracting and it gets deactivated when we’re getting out of our own way when we’re expanding.
Judson: We were using our FMRI machine, and one of my colleagues at Yale developed this tool where we could give people feedback in real time. We started testing different simple practices, and gratitude was one of the practices tested. Our hypothesis is that gratitude gives us expansive qualities. We had people practice gratitude and measured this brain activity and saw that, in fact, it was causing a decrease in the brain activity, just like other types of meditation work.
I think gratitude helps us tap into this expanding joyful quality. I think it’s a wonderful practice.
Judson: We can get in our own way when we get caught up in something. This is like we’re driving the car with one foot on the gas and one on the brakes. When we get out of our own way, it’s like taking that foot off the brake, so that our car can drive more efficiently. We’re just allowing our brain to do what it does best. This is flow when we’re completely out of our own way. It seems we get entangled and literally trip ourselves up.
Judson: It’s interesting when you look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow and how he describes it, people can get into it. He talks about picking an activity that’s challenging but that’s not too challenging. If we’ve mastered something, then our minds are more likely to wander, or we’re going to start thinking about something else or get in our own way.
The brain is not engaged enough and if it’s too hard, we’re going to get in our own way because we’re going to say, “oh I can’t do this.” He suggests trying to find this sweet spot, where there’s enough engagement where we don’t have time to be thinking about it. We must be doing it.
That sweet spot is there, I think that’s one way to get into flow. He also described that meditation was another way because a lot of meditative practices are geared toward helping us realize that we the captain of the ship.
If we just get out of the way, we can just flow along with life. So, we can tap into that at any time. I love to do it when mountain biking nature is a great way for us to get out of our own way.
Judson: In my own personal experience, I would say yes, because the more we can get out of our own way in our daily life, the more we realize we can tap into this all the time. We’ve seen experienced meditators drop into flow while we’re scanning their brains. In real time, we get a snapshot of that. I haven’t seen that with novice meditators.
The state of being and getting out of our own way start to become habitual. There have been studies showing with jazz improv, I think with freestyle rap, different ways where people are just completely out of their own way. This self-referential brain network does get quiet.
Judson: The first thing I would say is to find something that we do habitually and then get very curious. The curiosity is key here, and the more we can tap into curiosity, all the time, the more that becomes our habit where we’re literally starting to get out of our own way.
Even if we walk into the kitchen, and if there are plants in there or there’s a window we can look out, and just get curious or look at the color of the leaves on the tree. Or even look at the texture on the countertop. There are lots of ways that we can just notice these everyday things that we take for granted. Just let our curiosity rip, we can’t force the curiosity, but we can certainly let ourselves trip into it. I mean, obviously, like meditation can be one that can be part of the morning routine, I think the things you’re talking about are great and applicable throughout your entire day to day experience, from the time you wake up until you go to sleep.
Judson: I love that my wife and I meditate together in the morning. And we’ll often do a little bit of yoga together before we sit and that’s one routine. Yoga is a simple practice of mindful movement.
In one sense, it’s a great way to give the body some movement and some stretching to prepare the body to sit for a meditation. That’s where the corpse pose comes at the end of the yoga routine because the body is now settled. It’s a good condition that’s created so that the mind can practice.
Judson: We’re really interested in seeing how we can use technology for good rather than evil.
It looks like we’re just going to get some funding from the NIH to study the neurobiology of how our app-based training helps people change habits. As the second phase of that study, we’re going to pair the app based training with neurofeedback, so we can give people feedback from their brains, in real time while they’re starting to learn these practices.
We’re really interested to see if this type of feedback helps them learn what it feels like to get caught up and what it feels like to let go. In a way that helps them learn these practices more accurately.
Pay attention to the habit loop, step out of that loop and instead turn your awareness into your body, which is typically what we want to run away from.
Whether it’s distracting ourselves on the phone or checking our Facebook feed, we must pay attention to that, get curious about what that feels like and then notice the joy of letting go.
Gratitude helps us tap into an expanding joyful quality, which is a wonderful practice. If we just get out of the way, we can flow with life and then can tap into that feeling at any time.
Michael Leip is Founder and Creator of Panda Planner