Usually when we want to achieve something, we try hard to build some habits, as we’re told that habits are the fundamentals of success. However, if we examine the functions of different parts of our brains, habits turn out to be something that hinder us in achieving our goals rather than assisting us. When we’re practicing our habits, we’re actually using the primitive brain, which is not the preferred one for achieving goals…Here’s why.
First we need to understand how our primitive brain works.
The “Primitive Brain”
The human primitive brain, otherwise known as the limbic system, has developed over millions of years. Our ancestors had three straight forward goals that they needed to keep in mind if they were going to survive. These goals were:
- Find food
- Find a mate
- Stay safe from predators
Humans had only their superior intelligence to rely upon. Unlike other animals we did not have great strength or speed, sharp teeth or the like. The primitive brain developed in such a way to help us achieve these three goals.
When we saw the possibility of acquiring food we experienced high energy levels that prompted us to go after the food. When the potential to reproduce presented itself we experience great desire, and when we felt that we had pushed ourselves too hard we felt the desire to rest.
So our primitive brain is constantly telling us to seek out food and sexual pleasure; it also tells us to rest rather than motivating us to do some exercise.
On the contrary, the modern brain tells us to control ourselves…
The “Modern Brain”
The modern brain, otherwise known as the pre-frontal cortex, developed after many years trying to survive on one’s own. People decided that it would be easier to achieve the three goals of survival if they worked as a group; thus tribes were created.
As humans started to cooperate and work as a group they needed to learn how to cooperate and work in unison. This meant that it was necessary to learn control over certain actions. Social rules were developed, such as:
- Do not seal someone else’s food
- Do not take someone else’s mate
- Respect others’ property and do not try to steal their shelter
To respect these rules and make sure we did not break them we need to develop a new type of intelligence. This intelligence would be used to control the basic desires of our primitive brain. The new intelligence may be referred to as self-control.
So it is up to the modern brain to override these primitive drives and to steer us towards higher goals. We constantly experience a fight between short-term desires and long-term goals. It is up to the modern brain to consider the consequences of our primitive desires and to make decisions that will help us in the long term.
So How Do Habits Hinder Us?
Habits are formed in the primitive brain and as such do not require thoughts. When we try to use habits to attain our long-term goals we are, in effect, telling our short-term brain to take charge. And the short-term primitive brain has different aims to the long-term modern brain. So the result will not be in keeping with our higher aims.
When you set out to help your modern brain achieve its goals do not aim to create new habits.
You may have tried meditating at some point in your life and no doubt you experienced the difficulties associated with maintaining focus on one particular thing, for example your breath. Trying to force yourself to concentrate on something will often prove futile. This is because we are fighting a reward-based learning process that is caused by positive and negative reinforcement. A habit is formed when, for example, we see food, eat it and decide that it tastes good. For human being calories equal survival. We remember the rewards we experienced after we ate the food and repeat this process. It goes as follows: trigger behavior reward; see food, eat food, feel good and repeat. Then what should we do instead of building habits?
Use Curiosity to Break Unwanted Habits
In an experiment researchers told people instead of forcing people to, for example, quit smoking, they told people to be curious about their habits. They actually told people to smoke and be really curious about it. One of the participants said: “Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals,YUCK!” She had decided on a cognitive level that smoking was bad for her. She was no longer captivated by her habit.
When the prefrontal cortex is not engaged we tend to fall back into old habits. When we are tired, stressed or involved in making tough decisions we can easily fall back into our old ways. Curiosity helps us take notice of our experience rather than trying to get rid of the experience (habit).
As it says in the article titled: Using Curiosity to Break Bad Habits: “What does curiosity feel like? It feels good. And what happens when we get curious? We start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations — oh, there’s tightness, there’s tension, there’s restlessness — and that these body sensations come and go. These are bite-size pieces of experiences that we can manage from moment to moment rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we choke on.”
When we are curious we stop fearing our habits and reacting automatically to our habitual patterns. We activate our modern brain and are able to reflect more effectively on what we are doing in a scientific and isolated way. So next time you experience an unwanted habit or find yourself focused on short-term goals try to engage your long-term modern brain and become curious about what you are doing.
Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com