Using Curiosity to Break Bad Habits

Judson Brewer Mindfulness

“People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are better off almost any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier. Their relationships are more satisfying and last longer. They make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict, and overcome adversity. They even live longer.”

[Kelly McGonigal]

Most of us have at least tried meditating at some point. Which is how we learned that a simple instruction like “pay attention to your breath” is difficult to follow. Our mind wanders, we bring it back, likely a few times — it quickly becomes exhausting.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Psychiatrist Judson Brewer says:

studies show that even when we're really trying to pay attention to something — like maybe this talk — at some point, about half of us will drift off into a daydream, or have this urge to check our Twitter feed.

So what's going on here? It turns out that we're fighting one of the most evolutionarily-conserved learning processes currently known in science, one that's conserved back to the most basic nervous systems known to man.

This reward-based learning process is called positive and negative reinforcement, and basically goes like this. We see some food that looks good, our brain says, "Calories! … Survival!" We eat the food, we taste it — it tastes good. And especially with sugar, our bodies send a signal to our brain that says, "Remember what you're eating and where you found it." We lay down this context-dependent memory and learn to repeat the process next time. See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward.

This is how we develop a habit. A cue triggers a specific kind of behavior after which we get a psychological reward.

Our brain is creative, and it uses this loop to help us feel better when the trigger is something unpleasant. The stimulus is not coming from the stomach, it's coming from emotions, but the brain is helpful in responding with the same mechanism to feel better. Which is why we eat chocolate or ice cream when we feel bad.

What was useful for survival is unhelpful when it comes to bad habits. Bu what if we could use mindfulness training to counter over eating and smoking? What if instead of trying to stop overeating and quit smoking we encouraged being curious about the act itself? Brewer adopted this approach at his Lab.

Just like trying to force myself to pay attention to my breath, they could try to force themselves to quit smoking. And the majority of them had tried this before and failed — on average, six times.

With mindfulness training, we dropped the bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious. In fact, we even told them to smoke. What? Yeah, we said, "Go ahead and smoke, just be really curious about what it's like when you do."

And what did they notice? Well here's an example from one of our smokers. She said, "Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!" Now, she knew, cognitively that smoking was bad for her, that's why she joined our program.


Now, she moved from knowledge to wisdom. She moved from knowing in her head that smoking was bad for her to knowing it in her bones, and the spell of smoking was broken. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.

Neuroscientists have found that people who meditate shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex—brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety. There is also
less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear.

Cognition controls our behavior and it has only so much power. Brewer says when the youngest part of our brain, the prefrontal area of the cortex goes offline, all bets are off:

When the prefrontal cortex goes offline, we fall back into our old habits, which is why this disenchantment is so important. Seeing what we get from our habits helps us understand them at a deeper level — to know it in our bones so we don't have to force ourselves to hold back or restrain ourselves from behavior. We're just less interested in doing it in the first place.

We can relate to this — when we're tired, stressed out, or spent the day making hard decisions, anything can light our fuse. Mindfulness helps us turn inward to observe more clearly what is going on.

This willingness to turn toward our experience rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible. And this willingness to turn toward our experience is supported by curiosity, which is naturally rewarding.

What does curiosity feel like? It feels good. And what happens when we get curious? We start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations — oh, there's tightness, there's tension, there's restlessness — and that these body sensations come and go. These are bite-size pieces of experiences that we can manage from moment to moment rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we choke on.

In other words, when we get curious, we step out of our old, fear-based, reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we're eagerly awaiting that next data point.

Brewer and his team have developed app and online-based mindfulness training programs to target the core mechanisms to help us step us out of our unhealthy habit patterns. In Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about the power of noticing. He says:

Try noticing the difference in how you feel and how you handle stress in periods when you are into the discipline of daily meditation and yoga practice and in periods of your life when you are not. See if you can become aware of the consequences of your more mindless and automatic behaviors, especially when they are provoked by pressures stemming from work or home life.

How do you carry yourself in your body in those periods when you are practicing and when you are not? What happens to your commitment to remember non-doing? How does the lack of regular practice affect your anxiety about time and about achieving certain results? How does it affect your relationships? Where do some of your most mindless patterns come from? What triggers them?

Research from 163 different studies suggested that mindfulness-meditation practice had an overall positive effect on improving anxiety and stress.

When we engage our curiosity, we learn to explore what and how we feel and potentially to expand our boundaries. A side benefit of becoming more curious through mindfulness is that it promotes ‘Divergent Thinking’ a type of thinking that allows us to generate many new ideas. 

Watch the 9-minute talk below.