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Good Habits, Bad Habits, and the Brain

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Do you have any bad habits you want to get rid of?

Are you always late for appointments and other events? Many are, and though you always seem to have a reason for your tardiness, it’s clear that lateness is a bad habit. Do you habitually put off your studies until you’re forced into cramming mode? I bet you could create a list of some of your worst habits with only a few minutes of thought.

And do you do good things every day without realizing they’re actually habits?

Do you work out every morning before breakfast? Are you always on time (or early) for appointments?  I’m sure that, on reflection, many of the things you do are good habits that you don’t really have to think about. You just do them.

Well, on today’s Associated Press web site there’s a fascinating article on habit formation and the brain.  Here are a few of its key ideas.

As it turns out, when you repeat an action over and over, especially at the same time every day, the neuron connections in your brain actually change to fit the pattern of the habit. Neurologists and other brain scientists have known for some time that the brain in “plastic” –that is, it changes depending on a wide variety of stimuli.

So you crave chocolate? Why? Well, because it tastes good, right? Yes, but only to a certain extent. I like chocolate too, but I don’t crave it. I can go indefinitely without it, but some people have great difficulty resisting. Why?  Because the “reward circuits” of your brain have become habituated to the pleasure you get from chocolate.  It forms a habit of chocolate eating.

Okay, so how to you break a bad habit? Well, you acquired the habit in the first place by repeating the action you took over and over until your brain formed a neuron path that then prompts you to go on repeating it. To break a habit, you use the plasticity of your brain to form a new path. Instead of eating chocolate when you crave it, eat an apple (or anything else, for that matter) instead. Before long, your old habit will be replaced by the new one.

According to the AP article, “New Year’s resolutions? Brain can sabotage success,” the science of habit formation has enormous implications for various addictions, including drugs and alcohol. It also can relate to the establishment of attitudes that you bring to your life and your work.

What is an attitude? It’s simply a habit of thought, and it is formed (or broken) the same way any habit is.

Here’s an example of an attitude: suppose you think or say, “I’m not any good at math.” Now, that statement could be merely factual and supposedly provable by concrete evidence: scores, grades, and the like. But do you know why you fail with mathematics? Usually not, and often it’s used as a kind of excuse, a “cop out.” But now think of that statement as an attitude, a habit of thought, formed early in your schooling as a result of a few bad experiences. You then repeated the habit over and over thereafter.

What this means is that all these years you’ve been giving and reinforcing input– an instruction–to your brain. You’ve been telling your brain you can’t do math. Well, after that kind of conditioning, it’s no wonder your brain has complied and turned your attitude into a reality. You’ve “rewired” your brain to block comprehension of mathematics.

Can this habit be broken?

Sure, just replace it with a new one: “I do well with mathematical concepts and problems” (phrased, like the bad attitude, in present tense). Repeat that again and again, over a period of time, and you will have a new attitude. Your plastic brain will rewire those portions of itself that deal with symbolic reasoning, and that’s what math is. Don’t be surprised that as you then practice doing math problems with a new attitude you will get better and better.

Life is getting more and more complex and demanding of our mental resources. The last thing any of us need is to have our own brains working against us. Click on the link above and take a look at the article. It’s fascinating.

If you comment on this posting and the AP article, relating them to your own experiences, you’ll receive 5 extra-credit points in whatever course of mine you are registered. It is your responsibility to call my attention to your comment. Click on the “Comments” link below (it might say “No Comments” if you are the first one).

How to Protest Without Making Things Worse

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Protest signThere are many people, at Southern Oregon University and elsewhere, who would say that I’m about the  last person to consult on how to successfully interact with other people.  Some  days it seems as though I’ve been issued a punch card with only so many spaces to be punched each time I annoy or offend someone.  I’ve used up all my punches on many an occasion.

Nevertheless, SOU is, after all, a place of learning and I’ve learned a few things over the years on how to get my point across without pissing people off.

Here’s a few of those things.

1. Assume the person or persons with whom you vexed have the best of intentions in spite of your disapproval of his, her, or their actions.

2. Assume whomever you disagree with has carefully considered other options and has tried hard to make the best decision.

3. Make sure you know what you are talking about when you address the issues at hand, and that the supposed problem you wish to protest might not exist anymore, or has in some other way been addressed.

4. Do not do anything to deliberately piss people off.  It may feel good at the time, and there are some spectacular examples of how direct civil disobedience has worked in the past.  In reality, however, such cases are rare.  If you keep assumptions #1 and #2 in mind, you will find that a simple letter, or a respectfully-phrased petition, will do more good than picket signs and bullhorns.

5. Carefully consider that those in positions of power might suspect that student protesters where organized and egged-on by a department or by a specific member of the faculty.  Such suspicions can serve no useful purpose. It can, however, create a corrosive relationship between faculty members, academic departments, and the upper administration.

6. Keep in mind something the (Liberal) novelist Wallace Stegner once wrote: “Radicals are people who take a bad situation and make it worse.”

Well, with some of you, I may have just used up today’s punch card.  So be it.  I won’t be the first time.

Would You Pick Your Nose in Public?

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Here’s an excerpt from an article in today’s Washington Post about people who are obsessed with staying “connected” on their smartphones:

You see these tethered souls everywhere: The father joining in an intense Twitter debate at his daughter’s dance recital. The woman cracking wise on Facebook while strolling through the mall. The guy on a date reviewing his fish tacos on Yelp. Not to mention drivers staring down instead of through their windshields.  Physically, they are present. Mentally, they are elsewhere, existing as bits of data pinging between cellphone towers. ”My wife has physically pulled the thing out of my hands a couple times,” said Ferrari, who has been nabbed checking his Twitter feed at, among other places, his in-laws’ dining room table. “She says it’s like I’m picking my nose in public.”

Here’s the link to the full article:  http://bit.ly/cGY64C

Be a Napster for Better Studying

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

You ought to take a look at this article on the LifeHacker blog: “Naps Can Seriously Improve All-Day Learning.” Here’s an excerpt:

Taking a 90-minute nap the day of a test or presentation sounds like a ludicrous luxury. But a recent study on the brain’s ability to recall facts found that napping at noon could mean a lot more brain power at 6 p.m.

Here’s the link: bit.ly/aJ1lSM

Here’s a link to a similar recent article in Scientific American:

www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=to-learn-better-sleep-on-it-10-02-24

and one in Medical New Today: www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/180304.php