Without thinking: Which bad habit you wish you could break right now?


Whether you’re a smoker or a serial relationshipper, you probably couldn’t answer that straight away. Not “without thinking”. Ironically, our habits seem to happen exactly that way – without us giving ’em much thought – like we’re on autopilot.

Maybe we reach for a bowl of candy, a cigarette, or a wine glass when we’re stressed. Not until after indulging, do we beat ourselves up about it. So what causes these habits? Or keeps them hanging around like unwelcome in-laws after the holidays have ended? Most importantly – how do we change them? I’ve written about habits before, but an article I read yesterday shone new light on the topic… literally.

Could we Eternal Sunshine Style “zap” away compulsions?


Scientific American’s article started by describing how the brain practices a habit repeatedly because of the reward we get at the end of it. If you task train a rat like he’s Rocky preparing for a fight – by treating him with a reward at the end – the task itself gets ingrained. Once that happens, the rat will keep doing the task to get the prize – no matter what negative stimulus gets associated with it. You could have a block of heroin covered cheese or a torturous Kardashian marathon at the end, and by that point he’ll maniacally complete the act to acquire the reward in either case.

But there’s red tape between learning the task and it becoming habit.

One part of the brain lights for a good while before the “observing” part of the brain says, “alright. Let’s keep this chunk of cyclical activity.” Once that practice gets green lit, it turns into a constant rerun in your head whenever the right triggers set it into motion. Boom. It’s a habit.

So why are they so hard to change? Well, just like undoing bad habit practices, their formation moves at sloth speed as well. The average Jane just might not realize it because she’s getting the “reward” until one day it dawns on her that those daily trips to Dunkin Donuts have caught up with her waistline. By then, though, the desire to relinquish her muffin topped mom jeans has trouble trumping the new ritual itself and cream-filled reward. I get this concept. If I’m starving or fiending for caffeine, the simple act of cooking soup or stepping into a café can turn me from hangry or sleepy to serene and awake. In a way, the ritual becomes almost part of the reward. #PavlovsLatte

Even worse? Our subconscious remembers everything – including habits we’ve worked hard to change. They say “all we can do is suppress it”. So once we do decide to change, the actual process of changing them takes time, an alternative, and commitment to wrist-slap ourselves when we get outta hand.

(Oops. Wrong Carrey flick.)

Alright, so what news does science have to offer about this?

There’s this thing called optogenetics. Essentially, scientists planted light sensitive molecules in Mickey Mouse’s brain (specifically, the habit section). When they shine a light on this section (with the molecules now in it), that neural activity shut off. And so did the rat – from his reinforced ritual.

And he went right back to his old habits.

Yep – right back to an earlier one he’d learned in the past. Flicker the light again, and the rat would return to the new ritual. Regardless of the reward, he’d oscillate between these two activities, with a simple flicker. Just like in Kaufman’s film – when Joel and Clem find each other anew or when Mary pursues the doctor again – the brain below’s like an elephant. It doesn’t forget.

So can we install neocortex light receivers? Methinks we’re not that close. And neither does the SciAm author of the article. But would it even work for us if we were?

The thing with rats is that (like most animals), they live in the perpetual “now”. Their reward and motivation at either end of a “habit” can be one in the same. Humans, contrarily, have emotional attachments to everything. We become convinced about the memory of an old habit – that it’s part of us and who we are. Do you think the rat asks “What does this mean? Where am I going with my life? Will I still become a chef in a Pixar movie five years from now if I change this part of my identity?”


Probably not, right?

Soup might be a nice reward for surviving an elliptical sesh. But it’s definitely not a motivation to get on the machine. I do that because I delude myself into thinking that enough similar sessions will turn me into Heidi Klum (beauty desire?). Or I do it when the scale asks one of me to step off (fat fear?). Or I do it when my work starts to look like the screen from the matrix (desperation? madness?)

I’m no neuroscientist, but I wonder if our emotional circuitry is tied into the habit stamping enough that it’d eliminate both with a photon flicker. And, if so, would our important memories get erased with it too? Even one’s we wanna keep?

Till that happens, it seems like the three main keys to habit breaking are

1. An emotional motivator (to start – like fear or desire)
2. A substitute habit (to take its place)
3. A new reward (so we keep doing it)

Because we’re emotional creatures, the motivating force is best when it touches something deep and emotional enough in us to open up that, “Maybe I could try…” part of us. The substitute behavior is crucial as a net to catch us after we tell what’s familiar to go eff itself. But because old ways don’t truly go anywhere, we’ve gotta watch for it – simmering under the surface – in our subconscious. This is why rehab fails. People remove an obsession after years of addiction, and then what? If I am “what I repeatedly do” and suddenly quit what I’ve repeatedly done all my life, who the eff am I?


Rats returning to former habits in the lab provide the perfect example of this. That’s why rehab of any sort requires a tandem program of living – so people can see the rewards they’re working toward (“Oh, you used to smoke crack and eff hookers under the bridge too? And now you’re wearing platinum watches and Gucci suits? Maybe I can give this a try after all…”)

I’ve had some terrible habits in my life (who hasn’t?) and they’re always difficult to change (duh). But you know what? It’s like creating art or writing – the most difficult elements (for me at least) are always getting started and doing it daily. Once I’m “in it”, it’s less hard. Habit breaking has been comparable: the big challenge is finding a motivating force to alter my course, and then allowing time for the new course to become habit. Straying off course doesn’t always mean I blow my life up. I just lose momentum and contentment until I re-motivate.

We may not yet have a literal light switch to eternally sunshine our bad loops for us.

But we do “see the light” when we open our eyes and meet the world halfway.