Thich Nhat Hanh and the Science of “Habit Energy”

In the Western mind, habits can be described as connections between neurons–or bonds–that are strong and induce us to continue a behavior. The more that we do the behavior, the stronger the neural bonds, and the stronger the habit.

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Journalist Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in Life and Business, (excerpt here) was interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” a couple of years ago, and here’s a quick rundown on what happens when we create habits:

Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.

“In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” says Duhigg. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”

That’s why it’s easy — while driving or parallel parking, let’s say — to completely focus on something else: like the radio, or a conversation you’re having.

“You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all,” he says. “And that’s because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.”

The references to habits often refer to extreme habituated or obsessive disorders, such as gambling, drinking, or drugs; or to mundane things like parking a car while having a conversation, opening a door while thinking about something else entirely, or any number of “multi-tasking things” that we do. But in the mundane world of personal interactions, there is a tendency to not think of our behaviors as habits. In your work environment or daily life, the things you say and do are considered your personality. But here, we find habitual behavior as well–good and bad. What Thich Nhat Hanh is referring to in the quote above is reacting to scenarios with destructive, habitual behavior, such as anger, hatred, self-loathing. These behaviors are also automatic, built up over years of “practice.”

We know that the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) goes “”offline during habitual behaviors; we also know (from previous posts!) that a stimulated PFC helps govern the ancient Limbic/Amygdala brain, where fight/flight/freeze responses are triggered. Coincidence? Perhaps. But likely not–if the Basal Ganglia governs habit behavior and the PFC gets knocked offline during this behavior, would the same not hold true for habits that include anger, stress, anxiety, hatred, fear, during certain triggers–where the PFC is bypassed and the similes is “handled” by the Limbic portion of the brain?

Where does Mindfulness Come into Play? Think about Nuts. In habit behavior (grabbing a handful or two of nuts mindlessly and chomping on them, because you’re hungry before dinner, not realizing that you might be ruining your appetite for dinner, let’s say) you’re not actually very “present.” You’re not in the moment. You’re just repeating patterns of behavior mindlessly, without a lot of thought. Mindfulness enables you to stop or pause, and think about what you’re actually doing at the moment. The training that comes from mindfulness meditation actually helps enable you to be aware of what’s happening to you and what you’re doing, whether it’s snacking mindlessly before dinner of sending an angry email response that you just “know” that you probably shouldn’t send in response to whose own email  triggered you. That’s habit behavior, or “habit energy” as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, and it can be overcome.

Habits are, at their core, nothing more than neural (brain cell) connections, but the brain will repeat what the brain is “fed.” As I am won’t to say, the more one does something, the more one does something. As neural networks–and through the property of neuroplasticity–old habits can be changed to become new habits, and it happens all the time. The couch potato who, sick and tired of her or his sedentary lifestyle, becomes an athlete over time, and develops a daily habit of exercise. The angry individual who, sick of upsetting his co-workers and family members over his temper, engages in mindfulness meditation to build up an ability to “re-wire” his brain to be more calm and less reactive in stressful situations. Hey, it works, folks; I’m living (if occasionally faulty) proof! But you must keep practicing, otherwise, those dominant “negative” habits can just as easily come back at any time.

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Neurons that Fire together, Wire Together. It’s a well-known trope among neurologists, but it’s true: neurons actually connect to one another for learning to take place. Memory, then is actually used to maintain and sustain those connections. According to neural expert Dr. Joe Dispenza, author of You are the Placebo: Making your Mind Matterthe more that neurons fire together, they more that they wire together; and the more this happens through, say, memory or experience, the more that the bonds between them are strengthened.  

Although the following TEDx talk isn’t about “habits,” per se, it explains how “habitual neural networking” can be created–and disconnected–in a very clear, easily understood way. In essence, doing something “over and over” again reinforces the neural bonds, so that the behavior/reaction to various triggers becomes more automatic. But the key here is repetition–old memories/wiring are harder to “rewire” than newer ones, and it can take time to rewire one’s self away from old habits. But if you keep at it, it can be done–in fact, it will be done. Take a moment to watch this video for the science of behind it all; I think you’ll find that it’s remarkably similar to the quote from Thich Nhat Hanh.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness


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