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The Science Behind Changing Bad Habits

The Science Behind Changing Bad Habits
The Science Behind Changing Bad Habits
The Science Behind Changing Bad Habits GUESTS:Tina Gremel, assistant rofessor of psychology, UC San DiegoMatthew Bruhin, Matthew Bruhin & Associates, psychoanalyst and addiction specialist

Maureen: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. It’s six days into the New Year. How are your resolutions doing? It’s sad to say but many resolutions probably didn’t even make it through the weekend. As most of us discovered at this time of year it’s one thing to want to change, it’s another to be able to carry it out. So why are the habits we don’t want so difficult to get rid of and the habits we want so difficult to acquire? People have been trying to figure that out for centuries but now brain research has given us some insights about our habits. I’d like to welcome Tina Gremel, she is assistant professor of psychology at UC San Diego. Tina welcome to the show. Tina: Thank you for having me Maureen. Maureen: And Matthew Bruhin is a psychotherapist and addiction specialist here in San Diego. Matthew welcome. Matthew: It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you. Maureen: Now Tina you do brain research, right? By studying the behavior of mice, does it seem that the habits we have are actually encoded in our brains in some way? Tina: Oh, definitely. I mean generally we think of two different response strategies that control how we do something. A good example I’d like to give is turning on a light. Let’s say you walk into a room, you flipped the light switch. Now that action may be controlled by I want to turn on the light because I want light in the room, or it may be controlled because you always flipped the light switch when you enter the room. So we have these two different processes – this habitual process that’s really effective at controlling and helping our behavior throughout the day, and we have a goal process where we do a particular behavior because we want something. The problem when you come across habits is something we start doing things that no longer are what we want but we keep doing them anyways. Maureen: Right, because if we didn’t have the ability to form habits we’d have to learn how to put the key in our driver’s, you know, we’d learn how to drive all over again everyday basically, right? Tina: Exactly, habits allow us to be very efficient in our normal lives and we need this balance between being able to be very efficient and then to stop and be flexible when the need arises. So a lot of neural research as of late has focused on how are these two different processes represented in the brain and how are they controlled and is there ways that we can perhaps tweak these systems to better allow for emergence of one type of behavior over the other. Maureen: Yeah, and what have you found? Tina: Well so what it seems to be is that the cortex relays information down through the brain through the basal ganglia. Now we now know that both habits and goals are represented through different cortical basal ganglia streams. So habits are represented in the basal ganglia by this portion called the putamen and goals are represented by this portion called the caudate. Maureen: So you can actually track this? Tina: It seems so. Researchers have both looked at functional studies in these areas. They have recorded from neurons within these areas. And also imaging studies of humans and primates have shown that these areas are involved in these different types of behaviors. Maureen: So is it a question of activating one part and deactivating another? Tina: Well, it’s interesting. It looks like probably most of what we do is represented to some degree by both systems, and it maybe that they’re actually competing for control of the final behavior output. So it’s trying to understand how this balance between the two happens and then what happens when the balance is uncontrolled. Maureen: That’s fascinating. Matthew Bruhin, as I said in the opening, a lot of people just I mean most people don’t have any success in carrying out their resolutions for any length of time, what are some of the reasons that people give up? Matthew: I think there can be several barriers, one is faulty planning, I mean people need to come up with an adequate goal structure, things need to be broken down in systematic ways that are measureable and small enough that they can actually visualize and experiencing some growth and success. And the other is old fashioned teamwork. I’m a big fan of the buddy plan, a lot of times we need motivation from external factors to break through barriers. And so I think those are a couple of things that maybe at play. Maureen: Is it possible that the reason some people don’t carry through that they don’t stop smoking or lose weight or eat sweets or start exercise whatever their goal is or their resolution, is because they really don’t want to? Matthew: I don’t believe so. I mean I think inherently human beings want to be actualized where they want to grow, get to a better place in their lives. So I believe the motivation is there, I think for most people they just either don’t understand exactly how to move down that path or they don’t have the assistance and help that’s required to make those changes. Maureen: From your research Tina, it sounds as if the idea of just saying you want to stop doing something or you want to start doing something isn’t quite enough to get your brain excited about the idea, it’s seems that you sort of have to have a reason, a goal for doing this? Tina: Yeah, it seems. So what’s really interesting with habits? I mean we can look at these in animals and in humans too. What we see is that habits are really insensitive to changes in the outcome value. So if you do something for a particular reason when you are doing it habitually, it’s independent of that reason. You just keep doing it because you’ve always done it and generally it’s been good or bad or it’s just been a long time of you doing it. So that’s why it makes it really hard to break habits is because they are fairly insensitive to a lot of changes that you may make in your daily life or you’re going after certain outcome. They’re really resistant to any kind of reevaluation processes. Maureen: I think a lot of people think of habits as just something we do over and over again. Is it as simple as that if we force ourselves to do something good, let’s say “good” over and over again, will that become a habit? Tina: I think it’s hard to say that. We do know that if you do something, the same exact thing over and over again eventually you seem to recruit more of these circuits in the brain that underlie habits. Now and maybe though if something is more complex even if you do it over and over and over again it’s much harder to recruit those circuits because you’re having to stop and evaluate what you are doing as you are doing it. Maureen: And Matthew clinically in what you see, people are trying to make changes in their lives. Is there a length of time where if you continue to do the thing that you want to do that it becomes easier to do that thing? Matthew: I actually reviewed some literature and studies on that today and it seems relatively inconclusive. There is some publishing done in 1960 that seemed to equated right around three weeks. Everyone talked about this 21 day period which seemed to be what it took to form a new habit. We know now that that’s probably not exactly correct, I mean obviously there’s different length of time. And the other thing that people forget is that we’re all different, everybody has a different brain and the mechanisms in our brain are largely different in some ways. So you know each person can have a different amount of time and it also is going to depend on what habits they’re trying to change. Maureen: Because you are an addiction specialist as well, when we talk about addictions we talk about trying to give up smoking and trying to perhaps cut down on problem with drinking that’s a different category really than trying to get up a little earlier to exercise. Can people do that kind of change on their own? Matthew: Again it’s a very individual question. I mean statistics would point that most need help of some type and kind and I think that in general forming new habits people need help as well. I think there are some people that may possess maybe greater motivational factors or have a different set of circumstances that might aid them in either stopping a bad habit or implementing a new habit. But like I said previously I think the idea of having some sort of support seems to be one of the keys to success. Maureen: Yeah you ran through a number of keys to success earlier on. I wonder if you would go back and elaborate on them a little bit. You mentioned the buddy system. What are some of the other things that can help people succeed in changing their behavior? Matthew: Well and goal setting is a strategy that we use clinically and it’s used in the business world. I mean people usually like to break things down in small measureable chunks. A lot of times individuals have lofty goals but it’s very difficult to see measured success and gain over a course of time. So when you decide to make a new habit it’s often helpful to have a very short term and intermediate term and then a long term goal and have markers so that you actually see some reward or you experience some positive outcome for the direction that you are trying to go. Maureen: It may take a long time to get to the Olympics? Matthew: It might take a long time. Maureen: So you have to– so that you can’t set yourself up for failure, you have to set yourself up for success, right? Matthew: Absolutely, brains are– we like rewarding. We want to have some notion that we’re making progress on where we’re going and if we feel like we don’t have progress then usually our behavior stops relatively quickly. Maureen: Is it possible to kind of trick your brain into accepting a new way of doing things or giving up something you want to give up? There was a fascinating story on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday about the idea of changing location, the location of where you actually do these things or even something as simple as using a different hand than you usually do to either smoke or your ice cream, that can sort of alert your brain to the fact that you are falling into a habit or perhaps even making the experience itself not as pleasurable as it used to be? Tina: Yeah, I heard that story too. I found it very interesting. I think that you are really on to something there. When you have to stop and reevaluate whether you’re doing that by changing the location or changing your hand or just changing something very small in that pattern that maybe allows more time for brain circuits involved in goal directed behavior to try to take over and control and stop your behavior and make you think about what the consequences may be. Maureen: It gives you just that second that maybe the other thing wouldn’t give you in order to evaluate do I really want to do this? Tina: Yeah, maybe by perhaps breaking the habitual sequence it gives you a little bit of time to stop and readjust your behavior. Maureen: I want to ask you both about willpower because people talk a lot about willpower when they talk about changing habits. So sticking to a diet, sticking to an exercise plan, what’s your opinion on willpower? Let me start with you Tina. Tina: I think of willpower I think of self-control. Now both habits, I think it’s important to both habits and goal directed behavior are stuff that we initiate and that we do because we’re motivated for some reason. It’s just really what motivation, what the motivation controlling your behavior is. For habits it’s just used to be more independent of the direct consequences. Maureen: And what do you think about the idea of willpower, Matthew? Matthew: I think it’s a little bit of an antiquated notion. I think willpower is something that’s a little bit difficult to define in that kind of phrase. I know that’s certainly people struggle with different factors, people that may have adult ADHD, that they have some impulsive characteristics. Maureen: You must hear that all the time though, I just don’t have the willpower. Matthew: You know I do, I do. Yeah. Maureen: And so what do you tell people? Matthew: Better planning. Maureen: What does that mean? Matthew: Better planning, more support. I mean I guess that I think everyone needs to have a roadmap. If you are relying on some internal force that is hard to define to navigate you though a situation, I think your outcome is not going to be very good. Maureen: What do you tell people on how to get back on track? I mean it’s so demoralizing. Let’s say you made a nice big plan for yourself on January 1st, you know, I’m going to change my life in a significant way, and then by Monday morning you know you’ve already slipped up. What do you tell people to help them get back on track? Matthew: Yeah, I constantly remind my patients the measure of a person or a man is as the saying goes is not how many times one falls down but how many times one gets themselves back up. Inevitably we’re all human beings, we’re all going to make mistakes and we’re all going to fall short of our goals. It’s again having positive support around you to motivate you and also to remember that Thomas Edison failed 999 times before did invent the light bulb. Maureen: And I want to give you the last word too if I can Matthew because it’s actually not too late to come up with some New Year’s resolutions. So how do you come up with goals for the New Year that are doable? Matthew: Again, I think you need to sit down, evaluate what the changes are that you want to make, again break it down into small pieces, start with something that maybe could be done in the next week. Maureen: And should you just pick one thing? Matthew: I think focusing on one thing is usually best. If you spread yourself too thin a lot of times you can lose drive. So I think picking something and then like I said having a short term and enough plan that you start to feel like you can see yourself making success early on enough perhaps evaluate what would equate success after a week, after a month, and then maybe after three months and then again always finding ancillary support, people that are going to be in your corner, motivating you and helping you if you do happen to slip up. Maureen: Thank you both so much. I have been speaking with Tina Garmel, she is assistant professor of psychology at UC San Diego, and Matthew Bruhin, he is a psychotherapist and addiction specialist here in San Diego. Thanks a lot. Tina: Thank you, Maureen. Matthew: Thank you so much for having me.

Losing weight and quitting smoking lead the list of New Year's resolutions. But many won't even make it through the weekend without going back to old habits.

So, why is it so hard to get rid of the habits we don't want, and so difficult to acquire the habits we do want?

People have been trying to figure that out for centuries, but now brain research has given us some insight on what forms a habit. Does it take more than willpower to succeed? How important is repetition?


"Generally, we think of two different response strategies that control how we do something," said Tina Gremel, assistant professor of psychology at UC San Diego.

"Let's say you walk into a room, you flip the light switch. That action may be controlled by, 'I want to turn on the light' or it may be controlled because you always flip the light switch when you enter room. We have two different processes — this habitual process and we have a goal process," Germel told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday.

Matthew Bruhin, a San Diego psychanalyst and addiction specialist, told KPBS it takes about three weeks to move from a short-term effort into a habitual behavior pattern. He said many people fail at keeping New Year's resolutions because they tried to do too much at once instead of setting small, intermediate and long-term goals.

Related: Only 44 Percent Of Americans Made New Year’s Resolutions

"I think there can be several behaviors," Bruhin said. "One may be faulty planning. The other is old-fashioned teamwork. A lot of time we need motivation from external factors to breakthrough barriers."


Bruhin said it's important to break your goals into manageable parts. Instead of just resolving to lose weight, figure out how you will get there. Will you exercise everyday, three times a week? The goal is more realistic if it's more clear, he said.

He also suggested rewarding yourself and not being too hard on yourself if you don't reach your goals.

"Inherently, human beings want to grow and get to a better place in their lives," Bruhin said. "The motivation is there. For most people, they just don't understand how to move down that path."