Category Archives: Life Habits

Good Habits, Bad Habits, and the Brain

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).

Becoming an Expert

There’s good news for those who want to excel in their work and leisure-time activities.  A number of studies over the years have shown that “talent” is a myth, and that anyone who will practice, practice, practice, can become an expert virtuoso in any pursuit.  Those who say, “I’m not good at ——” (fill in the blank) bring a negative attitude to the task and they have simply not practiced enough.

[Note: If you comment on this posting and the HBR 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).]

These studies looked at a wide range of pursuits from music to sports to chess to, and to the professions that require “expert” knowledge such as medicine and law.  They could find no direct correlation to age, I.Q., gender, and several other variables for most pursuits.  In athletic pursuits, researchers have found that age, body size, and gender significant, but only because the body is the principal tool an athlete uses.  For most other pursuits, it’s the mind that counts, and its capacities can always be improved (barring brain injury or other mental incapacity) through focused and frequent practice over time.

Here’s an excellent article from the Harvard Business Review on the “Making of an Expert” (appears in a new window or tab):  HBR Article

New Studies on Binge Drinking

According to the Washington Post, 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States is by people age 12 to 20, and most of that is in the form of a “binge”–consuming five or six drinks (beers, shots) within two hours.

It seems to even be a regular thing that people that age (and even into the later college years) consider “blackout” drinking (consuming so much you retain no memory while you are drunk) or even “passout” drinking–consuming so much you lose consciousness–to be good sport.

Both seem to be seen as games, even here at SOU.

The trouble is, younger brains are even more susceptible than those of older adults to serious and permanent damage as a result of such drinking.

By the way, that old idea that you have brain cells to spare–that we only use 10% of them and if some are wiped out by drinking it’s no great loss–that’s nonsense! As a neurologist.

Here’s a shortened link to the Washington Post article:

If you don’t drink now, don’t start. If you do and you think you need help stopping, there is a solution. If you’re interested, let me know.

Be a Napster for Better Studying

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:

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

and one in Medical New Today:

A Hard-Liner

Dr. Steven Dutch

Dr. Steven I. Dutch of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay has had a long and full career as a professor of Earth and environmental science, as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve in Iraq and Bosnia, and as a working scientist with a long list of in-the-field research. Through all that, he has had a clearly-defined ethos of personal responsibility and effort. As a university professor, he urges this ethos on his students, and judges them accordingly. Though I have a few quibbles with his wording (especially his endorsement of the use of “customer” in higher education), I find his points of views to be both interesting and refreshing.

The following is from his web document, “Top Ten No Sympathy Lines.” Continue reading →