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A brief trip into the way we form habits for every part of our lives, and how we can change them. I’d like to start with a couple of examples of how habits have been formed and examined in depth.
In a research study, five monkeys were placed in a cage with a ladder leading to a bunch of ripe bananas. One monkey headed towards the bananas, but hidden at the top of the ladder was a water spray which showered water over the monkey. So it abandoned the attempt. Another monkey tried; it too was sprayed with water. Each monkey in turn tried, but each was doused and eventually gave up.
The researchers turned off the water spray and removed one monkey from the cage, replacing it with a new one. The new monkey saw the bananas and immediately tried to climb the ladder. However, to its horror, the other monkeys leapt up and stopped it.
Over time the researchers removed and replaced all the original monkeys. Every time a newcomer approached the ladder the other monkeys stopped it from climbing up. None of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed, but still no monkey approached the ladder to reach the bananas. As far as they knew that was the way it had always been done, and so the habit was formed.
Ivan Pavlov famously discovered “Classical Conditioning”. When a dog encounters food, it salivates to ease swallowing the food. Pavlov became interested in studying reflexes when he saw that the dogs drooled without food in sight. It turned out that the dogs were reacting to lab coats. Every time the dogs were served food, the person who served the food was wearing a lab coat. Therefore, the dogs reacted as if food was on its way whenever they saw a lab coat.
In a series of experiments, Pavlov then tried to figure out how these phenomena were linked. For example, he struck a bell when the dogs were fed. If the bell was sounded in close association with their meal, the dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, at the mere sound of the bell, they responded by drooling.
How the brain works
When you learn a new skill, a new pattern is established in the brain. Each time you repeat the skill, the pattern becomes clearer, strengthening the connection between brain cells. This process builds the new pattern or habit into the chemistry of the human brain. The more you practise a new skill, the more the connections grow in the brain.
Imagine walking though a previously unexplored forest – if you are followed by 200 other people, the pathway becomes much clearer. In the same way, pathways and patterns of behaviour are developed in the brain. When you learn to drive a car, it takes a little time to get used to the controls and procedures to drive safely. However, it soon becomes second nature as you develop the new brain pathways to know what to do.
In a similar way, if you consider a journey you regularly make, there may be occasions when you feel you are driving on automatic pilot. You may even find one day that you take the journey unnecessarily, as your mind is programmed into the familiar route.
So, if we form habits by repeatedly carrying out actions, either real or imagined, can we form good habits? Habits that break other, old habits that we don’t want or need anymore? Can we change the way we think and react to events? Of course we can! It’s obvious isn’t it? Don’t we do that all the time? Don’t we learn new things that “overwrite” what we believed before? Once upon a time humans would have sworn that the World was flat? We changed that “habit”.
Have you ever heard of someone who swore that they used to have a phobia, but got over it/simply didn’t have it anymore/got help to get over it? Do you know someone who has a phobia currently, that restricts the way they lead their life? Do you know anyone that has a habit they wish they could change? Do you know someone that wants to give up smoking, but just can’t seem to “break the habit”? All we have to do is “overwrite” the old habits with new!
“ALL? ALL WE HAVE TO DO?”, I hear you say, “BUT SURELY MY PROBLEMS ARE INSURMOUNTABLE?”
The simple answer is yes, your problems are insurmountable, but only if you want them to be, and only with the way you currently think about them. I have quit smoking, and stayed off of them with no ill effects for a number of years now. I’ve overcome a phobia of needles, which was so bad that I would run screaming from the room at the very sight of a needle (hypodermic), or lash out with uncontrollable rage, or curl up and cry (anything to get away from the needles). Now I can quite calmly hold a needle up to my own eye with not the slightest panic!
At Ananda Healing I’ve also helped a number of people change their own insurmountable habits into new, better habits!