How Habits are Formed and Broken – A Scientific View

1. We are lucky to be in an age when many of the Buddha’s teachings are not only confirmed but also strongly supported with additional evidence that were not possible during the time of the Buddha. Here is another instance where the evidence is coming from research on the workings of the brain.

2. The Buddha basically said to follow the following procedure to break a bad habit and to instill a good habit:

  1. understand the reasons why a certain habit is bad,
  2. stop engaging in activities that enhances the habit,
  3. deviate the mind from such bad activities by focusing on opposing good activities,
  4. contemplate on the “release” or “cooling down” that has already resulted by following the above procedure,strengthen the resolve to stay on course, and keep doing (i) through (iii).

With time, the bad habit(s) will go away and the good habit(s) will take hold. There comes a time when one will automatically follow this procedure; it becomes a “way of life”.

3. The reasoning behind is based on the key factors that we discussed in the previous posts:

  • We do many things automatically (i.e., without being mindful or without deliberate thinking); these are done via our habits that we formed during this life or even coming from previous lives.
  • There are both good and bad habits. We want to keep and cultivate good habits and discard bad habits.
  • Changing (cultivating) habits first require some “external adjustments” like one’s physical environment, friends, etc and, more importantly, the four steps listed above.

4. Beginning in the early 1990’s or so, scientific investigations in several fields (effects of meditation on the brain, behavioral studies on animals and humans, neurology, etc) have come to similar conclusions. We will discuss these in detail in the future, but here I want to just point out the main similarities. Furthermore, discussing how the mechanism takes place in the brain provides an alternative way to visualize these changes. We are indeed fortunate to live at a time when we have evidence from science to provide additional evidence.

5. As I pointed out in the posts on the manomaya kaya and and physical body, our physical body is “prepared” by the kamma seed that was the cause for this life. But the manomaya kaya is constantly making “adjustments” to the physical body based on the current status of the mind.

  • Many kamma vipaka are “built-in” even at the conception; some may be avoidable by taking care of the body (exercise, food, etc), and the mind (contemplation, meditation, etc), but some may not be avoidable because they are so strong: We will never know when a cancer, an accident, or even a natural calamity can drastically change our lives; this is anicca, “the inability to maintain our lives the way we would like to”.
  • Thus we need to spend at least sometime to work towards a meaningful solution to the “problem of existence”.
  • Another factor we need to remember is that our “sansaric habits” are built-in to our brain. We keep changing/adding such habits as we grow up, influenced by our family, friends, and the society in general. Thus one’s “character” (gathi) are in constant flux, either by choice or influenced by the environment.

6. This is a key point: We need to make sure that we do not “go with the flow”, i.e., let past kamma or our environment determine our future.

  • As humans, we have the capability to change our destiny. We DO HAVE free will, unlike an animal. Since we do not know what our next existence is going to be, we need to make sure to to get on the “right path” as soon as possible.
  • This may sound like a broken record, but 100 years of this life is NOTHING compared to millions and billions of years life in “unknown territory” in the future; thus we need to make use of this opportunity.

7. As we discussed in the “Truine Brain – How the Mind Rewires the Brain via Meditation/Habits”, only the humans have a developed neocortex, that makes possible ‘thinking, and decision making”. The animals either do not have it, or have a primitive version of it.

  • Therefore, the animals basically only use the “mid brain” or the “limbic system”, where decisions are made FOR THEM according to their ingrained habits that have evolved over many, many lives (as we discussed, the physical body is formed based on the manomaya kaya). The response from the limbic system is instantaneous, and the animals can only REACT to external stimuli.
  • All sansaric habits are built-in to the limbic system, and the animals react according to the way the limbic system is wired up; this may change some during growing up due to external environment, but the main “character qualities” (gathi) do not change very much. That is why you see adorable dogs as well as vicious dogs. Even our pets have “a personality”.
  • WE can change their personalities by teaching them things, but they are unable to do it on their own. It is easier to “teach” more evolved animals like monkeys because they have a bit of a neocortex.

8. But we humans  have a neocortex that is well-developed and is capable of much more than we normally believe it to be capable of. It is this neocortex that makes us, humans, different from animals (actually, it is more accurate to say that “our current bhava” is superior to an “animal bhava”).

  • Even though we also REACT first, especially to a threatening stimuli, our “thinking brain” starts to kick in quickly, especially with training. Many people get into trouble because they are  “REACTIVE”, i.e., they do not try to develop the habit of using the “thinking brain”.
  • But we can be PROACTIVE. We can teach ourselves to “take corrective actions” even if we do some things on impulse. Even if the initial reaction to a sudden temptation is to “take it and enjoy it” or “hit him” or “kill that annoying dog”, we can always take a breath, stop ourselves, and think about the consequences of such actions. This is what we call “mindfulness”.
  • Some people are more proactive than others even at birth (via sansaric habits). Some people change from being reactive to proactive or other way around even without knowing due to the particular environment they grow up in.
  • The key point is that we can WILLFULLY change from being reactive to proactive; we all are reactive at least to some stimuli: the one’s we have “tanha” for! In other words, we like to get attached to certain things and like to dislike other things with PASSION; see, “Tanha – How we Attach via Greed, Hate, and Ignorance”.

9. In terms of science the key is in the neurons in the brain, and how we can train our neocortex to fire the right sets of neurons more frequently. The “frontal lobes” of the neocortex is the command center for brain activities.

  • The frontal lobes can be visualized as the boss. If it is a lazy boss, it will just assign duties to the limbic system to carry out things “as usual”.
  • But if the boss is energetic and always looking for ways to “improve things”, then it will start investigating new approaches. And once better approaches are found, it will get them “hard wired” and they will essentially become the “new limbic system”.
  • This is the key to “developing a new you” by discarding bad habits and developing good habits. Essentially you need to get the frontal lobes to be an active, energetic boss for the brain.

10. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz is a psychiatrist specializing in treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD), and has pioneered in using “habit makeovers” to treat OCD. He has written several books, but I highly recommend the two books, “The Mind and the Brain” and “You are not Your Brain”.

He has developed a “Four Step” method to change one’s habits that give rise to OCD:

  1. Identify the problem area.
  2. Recognize the need to change.
  3. Deviate from automatically “going along” with old ways and re-direct attention to “new paths”.
  4. Re-assess the situation, and keep working on accelerating the process.

11. He has kept records of brain scans of his patients which clearly show the improvements in the brain with time, and of course most patients are able to get rid of their compulsive behavior.

  • The key is to slow down the “firing of neurons” associated with a bad habit and to increase the firing of neurons associated with an opposing good habit.
  • There is a rule called Hebb’s rule that says, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together”. The more one keeps doing a certain activity, a set of neurons start to fire together and that neural connection gets stronger by the day. It is just like strengthening one’s arm by “doing more liftings” with it.
  • In the same way, when one is decreasing the use of a certain activity, the set of neurons allocated for that activity gets weaker, fewer neurons participate, and eventually it loses being a habitual act.

12. Here is a figure from Dr. Schwartz’s book, “The Mind and the Brain”  (p. 362), that illustrates the “re-wiring” of a new network in the brain and the concomitant weakening of a network for an undesirable habit (click to open it):

Habit Formation Figure

This figure explains how a patient who had an obsessive disorder to constantly wash his hand, got rid of that habit by WILLFULLY stepping outside to the garden when he got the urge to wash hands. As he kept doing it, the wiring to “wash hands” got weakened, and instead wiring for “stepping outside” got stronger, and eventually he lost the compulsive urge to wash his hands too often.

13. The same principle has been used to get rid of such annoying habits as well as serious disorders. We can use the same procedure to stay away from immoral habits and cultivating moral habits; this is the basis of “anapana“, see, “Key to Anapanasati – How to Change Character and Habits (Gathi)“.

Next, “10. Magga Phala and Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Saptha Bojjanga“, …….

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