Breaking habits

How to break habits, art by Catherine Lepage

I’ve been reading “50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do” which summarises the work of the greatest psychologists.

It’s amazing because it can keep up with my goldfish attention span and fill me with bite sized chunks of amazing information. It’s honestly made me want to go back to school and become a psychologist.

I came across one yesterday by the great William James, the father of modern psychology. He was a poetic little guy who described the human consciousness like the aurora borealis, the luminous northern lights whose “whole internal equilibrium shifts with every pulse of change.” His work fused the worlds of philosophy, poetry and psychology at time when the discipline was just coming to light (in the 1870’s.)

He actually started out as a Philosophy professor teaching units of Psychology. He defined psychology as “the science of mental life”. He believed it to be understanding the minds of each individual that feel and experience life in relation to the world they experience. He considered psychology to be a natural science that required analysing our feelings, reasonings, and desires.

One of the most interesting things he talks about, to me, is habits and how to break them.

“When we look at creatures from an outward point of view, one of first things that strike us is that they are bundle of habits”

He defined habits as discharges in the nerve centres involving a pattern of reflex thoughts that are successively woken up. Once one of these paths have been forged, it becomes easier for the nerve to pass along the same path again.

“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results.”

If we want to form new habits, we need to work extremely hard to achieve results. The problem is of course, there is no easy way. It simply requires deliberative work and application every single day. The brain needs to “grow” to our wishes and the path will not be made unless this repeated action takes place.

Basically he explored the idea of neuroplasticity long before it became a buzzword in modern popular neuroscience,

Plasticity … in the wide sense of the word, means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.

The key to breaking a habit? Makes your nervous system your ally instead of your enemy.

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”

In just the same way an alcoholic must take life one moment at a time, those of us who always want to break a habit must do the same.

Each time we do that we forge a deeper path in our brain. Until one day it will be our default.

Featured image by the amazing little Canadian artist, Catherine Lepage.

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