Researchers at MIT attached brain scanners to rats and placed them in mazes to find the exit. They learned that a great deal of activity took place in their cerebral cortex while learning the maze.[i] However, after numerous attempts, the rats learned the route and the cortex registered less activity.[ii] The brain converts the sequence of actions into chunks or bundles and transfers those bundles down to the primitive part of the brain, the basal ganglia. This transfer frees up the cerebral cortex for good slow thinking.[iii] In this regard, we are like rats.
One way in which we think fast is to form habits. According to Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, we respond to cues, such as time of day, location, or our emotional state with routines that deliver a reward.[iv] Cue, routine, and reward form the “Habit Loop.”[v]
Rewards are pleasurable by definition, but habits can be good or bad. For instance, forming the routine of taking the stairs rather than the elevator not only delivers immediate pleasurable endorphins (neurotransmitters or chemical messengers that help relieve stress and pain), and other pleasure chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin in your brain, but over time it improves your health.[vi] Other habits are routines that deliver immediate pleasure, like smoking a cigarette, that delivers pleasure from increased levels of dopamine in the brain triggered by nicotine, but have harmful long-term effects.[vii]
To realign our lives around healthy behavior we need to STOP. First, we need to get off the fast lane, pull into the pit STOP to do some slow thinking, and go to the lookout tower and assess our behavior objectively. Imagine you are looking down on your behavior from a tower, emotionally detached. At the next pit STOP we can do some more slow thinking and begin to redesign how we make choices and swap out new routines and test different rewards that allow for new fast thinking with pleasurable short-term and healthy long-term effects. These pit STOPs are like tune-ups for our brain. They allow us to STOP some unwanted behavior, purging the gunk of bad stress and replacing it with clean, pure-flowing well-being and joy. The key is to STOP.
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Joy to you!
[i] Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (New York: Random House, 2012). The following four citations are from this source.
[ii] Duhigg, The Power of Habit.
[iii] Duhigg, The Power of Habit.
[iv] Duhigg, The Power of Habit.
[v] Duhigg, The Power of Habit.