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Cues, Chunking, and Neural Pathways: The Science of How Habits Are Formed

In my work as a hypnotherapist I am fascinated with how and why we do what we do. So I wanted to share the science of our habits and the reason they are not set in stone. ~ Janet Montgomery

This article was written by Tony Khuon - posted in Evolutionary Psychology

How are habits formed? Science is beginning to tell us the answer.What’s clear is that more of our lives are ruled by habits than you might think.

The brain

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
— Aristotle

Prolific author and writing teacher Dean Wesley Smith reminds us that summer is when many writers let their writing habits slip (emphasis added):

We are in the “writers forget” days. This period of time is when many, many writers let their writing slide, let learning slide, lose focus on goals and dreams. Most writers tend to come back (I call it wake up) around August (Although many don’t come back until the end of the year because they feel they have failed.) But the ones that return in August wonder why they didn’t get much writing done in the last three months. There are lots of reasons for this, of course, and all valid to each writer. Mostly, the writer just forgets to make the time to write a little each day, or learn a little each week.

As a writer myself, I can understand what Smith is talking about. The months he is referring to here mean summer in the northern hemisphere. The summer months are a bane of productivity. The weather’s nicer, the social calendar fills up, and the heat breeds lethargy.

Willpower is a finite resource. You get a set amount each day to achieve what you want to achieve. Expending willpower to beat the heat and refrain from social activities leads to sagging motivation at the keyboard.

But what if there was a way to not expend willpower to write? What if sitting at the computer and getting started happened automatically, without your consciously forcing yourself to do it?

Welcome to the world of habit formation.

“The Effortless Custody of Automatism”

Mason CurryMason Currey writes about the work habits of famous authors, artists, and composers on his blog and in his book, Daily Rituals.

One of Currey’s subjects is the American philosopher and psychologist, William James. Here’s James talking about the benefits of habit formation (emphasis added):

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation

What’s funny is William James himself was a chronic procrastinator. He could never keep to a schedule and led a disorderly, chaotic life. In his advice as a lecturer, he was diagnosing a problem within himself.

Recognizing the dangers of not having any kind of routine, James advocated the benefits of productive work habits to his younger colleagues and his students.

But James is essentially correct. Imagine if you had to use “express volitional deliberation” AKA willpower to do everything. Brush your teeth, make your coffee, start your car. Your life would be a living hell. You’d be mentally exhausted 45 minutes after waking up.

Your life doesn’t look like that because you’re able to form habits. Those habits fade into the background processing of your mind, freeing your conscious mind to expend brainpower on problems that really matter.

But in order to get those habits to work for you (instead of against you), you have to build specific triggers. Those specific triggers are called cues.

Cue and Response: Habit Triggering 101

Habits are triggered by specific cues. When a person says “Thank you” we are cued to respond with “You’re welcome.” When we wake up in the morning, most of us are cued to immediately brush our teeth.

In a 2010 study published by Health Psychology, researchers Sheina Orbell and Bas Verplanken demonstrated that automated habits can last long after the initial need that gave rise to them has gone away. The author Caroline L. Arnold, in her 2014 book Small Move, Big Change, cites the following from the Orbell and Verplanken paper:

[A] person’s initial decision to eat a cookie when drinking a cup of tea might be guided by an active goal state (e.g., feeling hungry). However, over time the goal becomes less necessary as cookie eating is repeated and becomes integrated with the act of drinking tea so that it can be triggered by the cue alone.

Later in the study, the researchers describe an experiment where the benefits of dental floss are related to volunteers and given a package of dental floss.

One group was told to write down where they intended to floss for the next four weeks. The other group was told nothing.

When they tracked the results, the first group of volunteers had flossed significantly more than the second group. The first group had created a cue for the flossing habit.

You don’t need a research scientist to prompt you to create these cues. You can do it yourself.

Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author Charles Duhigg writes about the science of habit formation in his 2014 book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg describes how habits are formed in the following passage:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional.

inally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Becoming aware of this process lets you build better habits. Critically, you can also learn to avoid creating bad habits (like overspending). So long as you encounter consistent cues and receive consistent rewards, certain routines can “lock in.” That’s how an afternoon treat turns into 5 pounds of belly fat.

But on some level, these are the “easy” problems. Tying shoes, brushing teeth, and refraining from eating candy bars hardly compare to the level of thorny problems that we’re asked to deal with day-in and day-out.

How are habits formed when they involve more complicated tasks? Can we use the science of habit formation to get better at our jobs or do more cognitively and creatively demanding work?

Chunking and Carved Neural Pathways: How Complex Habits Are Formed

playing chess

Photo Credit: practicalowl via Compfight cc

In The Art of Learning, author and national chess champion Josh Waitzkin talks about chunking, a concept that is critical to learning complex skills:

Chunking relates to the mind’s ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles particular to a given discipline.

Waitzkin cites the work of Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot (1965) and William Simon and Herbert Chase (1973). The psychologists studied chess players of varying degrees of skill. The chess players were asked to look at various chess positions and game states and told to reproduce them on an empty board.

The stronger players demonstrated better memory when they were asked to replicate the game states of other strong players.

Waitzkin says, “they re-created the positions by taking parts of the board (say five or six pieces) and chunking (merging) them in the mind by their interrelationships. The stronger the player, the more sophisticated was his or her ability to quickly discover connecting logical patterns between the pieces (attack, defense, tension, pawn chains, etc.) …”

What’s interesting is that this “chess memory” went away when the chess positions were random or the board represented nonsensical states. If the stronger chess players’ superior performance in the study were solely about working memory, then they would have been equally adept at memorizing “good” and “bad” games of chess.

But they weren’t.

In Waitzkin’s formulation, carved neural pathways are the navigation system between chunks. He likens it to carving a path through dense jungle. Clearing a path could take days. But once it’s cleared, you can move quickly through the pathway.

If you built a road, it would become faster still.

The strong chess players were stumped by nonsensical board states because they didn’t possess the carved neural pathways for them.

The pathways between chunks of information allow you to create meta-habits, like tackling complex problems or making decisions under uncertain conditions.

These carved neural pathways are created by repetition and deliberate practice. The more chunks of knowledge and experience you connect, the more the adjacent possibilities open up to you and the more you improve at your craft.

Building Your Trigger: Routines Become Cues

In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin also describes helping a man named Dennis build a routine for relaxation:

• Eat a light consistent snack for 10 minutes
• 15 minutes of meditation
• 10 minutes of stretching
• 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan
• Play catch with his son

After he fully internalized the routine, Waitzkin suggested to Dennis that he perform the routine the morning before an important meeting.

“He did so an came back raving that he found himself in a totally serene state in what was normally a stressful environment,” Waitzkin reports. He now had a method to put himself into a good frame of mind before any high-leverage situation, like a critical business negotiation.

Over time, Dennis can iteratively change the routine so that it takes less time and becomes more “portable” without sacrificing its effectiveness.

Fifteen minutes for meditation becomes twelve minutes. Ten minutes of stretching becomes eight. Bob Dylan turns into one song. Playing catch with his son becomes a chat on the drive to school. And so on.

In time, the routine will become so compact that it itself becomes a cue. A cue to enter into a more relaxed mental state. Better communication becomes the new routine, and the reward is the satisfaction from more productive and effective meetings.

How can you build a cue for better habits today?

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Reduce your stress and feel relaxed with hypnosis

Woman Smelling Pink RosesHypnosis and guided imagery is a naturally stress reliever and increases serotonin, the body’s natural “High”. You can train the body to access mood enhancing neurotransmitters through the images and relaxation. It teaches an alternative way of coping with stress and stopping the worry cycle loop. Your whole body is directed to relax and release tension, breathing is deepened and relaxed.

The imagination is directed to visualize pleasant and inviting scenes that evoke calm feelings, elevates endorphins “feel good chemicals”, reduces anxiety, reduces cholesterol, reduces blood pressure, and speeds up healing, alleviates pain and pulls you away from obsessing over a problem. Imagery is primarily a right brain activity, dealing with sensing, perceiving and emotions instead of the left brain, thinking, judging, analyzing and deciding. This is why it is so effective in dealing with stress; your mind takes a mini vacation away from an immediate problem. More desirable outcomes and solutions can be introduced into the mind creating a sense of relief.

If you would like to reduce your stress using hypnosis, please contact Janet Montgomery HERE.

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6 Powerful Questions That Will Change Your Life Forever

By James McWhinney

self knowledge

“Information is not knowledge.” ~Einstein

A few years ago I was lost. Frustrated. Scared. Unsure. Anxious. Trapped. Unfulfilled. Stuck in a dead-end job. Smothered by society’s expectations. Didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life.

I cared for myself enough to change my life, but I didn’t have the slightest clue where to start. I spent my days wishing that things would change—that I could escape a life that my soul could no longer bear.

The worst part of all, I was living the life that society had always told me to live. “Find a secure job, work hard,” they would say. “Get a solid job and work your way up the ladder.”

I don’t know about you, but it turns out that for me, the “right thing to do” sucked the joy out of life.

Imagine feeling trapped in an unsatisying existence. Wasting your precious time doing things that you really don’t want to be doing. Being afraid to express your uniqueness. Having fun on the weekends then dreading the upcoming week. Maybe you don’t have to imagine it; maybe your life is just like mine was, few moments of satisfaction drowned out by a constant grind of work that doesn’t fulfill you.

Then something hit me. It was a proverbial hammer to my head. I’d heard it before, but it had never sunk in. Then, as if out of nowhere, a voice in my head spoke loudly and clearly.

“Discover who you truly are and fully give every aspect of your uniqueness to the world. This is your path to an extraordinary life.”

I followed this wisdom as if my life depended on it. And I can tell you that my life has changed for the better since I followed this guidance.

I can tell you without any doubt that the greatest piece of wisdom that I’ve discovered in my life thus far is this:

If you want to live an extraordinary life it is imperative that you know who you truly are, and to do so you must explore who you truly are. 

These 6 questions changed my life forever. They will also change your life forever by allowing you to find your true self, and in doing so, discover why you’ve been born into this great world.

I’m not talking about the “self’” that others demand you to be or the self that acts a certain way to fit in and conform with what society accepts. I’m talking about the true you—the you who wants to authentically express your special and unique qualities to the world.

By answering these questions you will discover your unique passions, strengths, values, desires, and motivations, which are all yearning for your expression.

You have a unique purpose. Discovering the answers to these questions will allow you to align yourself with that purpose and bring real magic into your life.

Self-knowledge is the greatest knowledge that you will ever acquire. Why? Because your ability to fulfill your unique internal drive will determine your ability to fulfill your potential, which in turn determines the quality of your life.

The questions below are designed to help to know yourself deeply and find what is truly important to you. We all have an unexpressed potential; the exercises are specifically designed to help you find yours.

1. What do I absolutely love in life?

List anything that you love about the world and the people in your life. Think about any activities that get you excited and enthusiastic and make you feel most alive. This can be absolutely anything: music, sports, cooking, teaching others, learning, watching movies—anything. Within your love for these things lies deep passion.

2. What are my greatest accomplishments in life so far?

List all of the moments that you are proud of as well as the times that you’ve succeeded. To have accomplished these, you would have used some of your key strengths. See if you can identify why you succeeded. Also, list any activities, hobbies, or anything else that you do that you complete with ease. Within these lie greatest strengths.

3. What would I stand for if I knew no one would judge me?

List everything that you would do if you weren’t afraid, even your wildest dreams. This will help you discover your greatest values.

4. If my life had absolutely no limits and I could have it all and do whatever I wanted, what would I choose to have and what would I choose to do?

Describe your ideal lifestyle. List what you would do throughout the day if you knew that you were bound to be successful, what kind of person you would be, how much money you would earn, and where you would live.

This question allows you to realize who you would truly want to be if there were no limits. By aligning with this you can begin working towards the life that you truly want to create. Know that you wouldn’t have a desire if you didn’t also have the ability to fulfil it.

5. What would I do if I had one billion dollars?

List everything that you would really love to do if you had all the money in the world. Okay, so you would probably travel the world, buy a house or two, and give some money to your family. Then what would you do with your time?

This question helps you to think without limitations. When we are able to remove limitations and boundaries, we can discover what we really want to do.

6. Who do I admire most in the world?

List your greatest inspirations and the qualities that you admire about these people. Think about what really inspires you in this world. What you admire about others is also a quality that is in you. Know that you admire someone because they have similar qualities to you.

Taking the time to answer these question will change your life. The more that you can implement your passions, strengths, values, desires, and motivations into your days, the happier your life will become!

You can study to become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or anything else, but this knowledge will only take you so far. Meanwhile, discovering the deep wisdom of self-knowledge will ensure that your life is far more meaningful and fulfilling. I’ve got a feeling that is what Einstein meant when he said “Information is not knowledge.”

The most valuable knowledge that you will ever discover is, and always will be, within.

Photo by Vinny123

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Reframing – It’s All How You Look at It

By Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

Original article

Reframing Your MindHave you ever noticed that two people can face the same situation and one person can describe the situation as a harrowing ordeal while another sees it as a minor inconvenience? Or have you had one of those days when it seems that everything is going wrong–until you hear someone else’s troubles that make yours pale in comparison, showing you that your stressors really aren’t so bad? Have you faced a challenge in your life that initially seemed like a negative event, but that eventually brought gifts and gains that cause you to look back on the event as positive? These situations all involve a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as ‘reframing’.

What Is Reframing?

Reframing is a way of changing the way you look at something and, thus, changing your experience of it. Reframing can turn a stressful event into either a major trauma or a challenge to be bravely overcome. Reframing can depict a really bad day as a mildly low point in an overall wonderful life. Reframing can see a negative event as a learning experience. Reframing is a way that we can alter our perceptions of stressors and, thus, relieve significant amounts of stress and create a more positive life before actually making any changes in our circumstances.

How Does Reframing Affect Stress?

Using reframing techniques can actually change your physical responses to stress because your body’s stress response is triggered by perceived stress, not actual events. If you perceive that you are threatened–physically or psychologically–by a situation, your fight-or-flight response will kick in. Your stress response can be triggered by events ranging from annoying to frightening, and can remain triggered long after the triggering event has passed, especially if you’re not practicing relaxation techniques. Reframing techniques are a way of minimizing the stressors you perceive in your life, thus easing the process of relaxation.

How Does Reframing Work?

Using reframing techniques can be simple and easy, especially with practice.

  1. Learn About Thinking Patterns. The first step in reframing is to educate yourself about some of these negative thinking patterns that may exacerbate your stress levels. See these common cognitive distortions to see which ones, if any, may come into play in your life. Also, read about negative explanatory styles to learn the particular way that pessimists view their life experiences; since pessimists tend to experience more stress and less success than do optimists, it’s important to understand how they think, and work to adopt a positive explanatory style instead. Educating yourself about thinking patterns and how they affect people is important for laying the groundwork for understanding and change.
  2. Notice Your Thoughts. The next step is to catch yourself when you’re slipping into overly negative and stress-inducing patterns of thinking. Being aware of them is an important part of challenging and ultimately changing them. One thing you can do is just become more mindful of your thoughts, as though you’re an observer. When you catch negative thinking styles, just note them at first. If you want, you can even keep a journal and start recording what’s happening in your life and your thoughts surrounding these events, and then examine these thoughts through your new ‘lens’ to get more practice in catching these thoughts. Another helpful practice is meditation, where you learn to quiet your mind and examine your thoughts. Once you become more of an observer, it’s easier to notice your thoughts rather than remaining caught up in them.
  3. Challenge Your Thoughts. As you notice your negative thoughts, an effective part of reframing involves examining the truth and accuracy (or lack thereof) of these thoughts. Are the things you’re telling yourself even true? Also, what are some other ways to interpret the same set of events? Which ways of seeing things serve you better? Instead of seeing things the way you always have, challenge every negative thought, and see if you can adopt thoughts that fit your situation but reflect a more positive outlook.
  4. Replace Your Thoughts With More Positive Thoughts Have you even been to a hospital and noticed that the nurses often ask people about their ‘discomfort’ rather than their ‘pain’? That’s reframing in action. If the patient is in searing pain, the term ‘discomfort’ becomes annoying and seems to reflect a disconnect in understanding, but if the pain is mild, reframing it as ‘discomfort’ can actually minimize the experience of pain for many patients. This is a useful reframing trick that we can all put into practice. When you’re looking at something negative, see if you can change your self talk to use less strong, less negative emotions. When you’re looking at a potentially stressful situation, see if you can view it as a challenge vs. a threat. Look for the ‘gift’ in each situation, and see if you can see your stressors on the more positive edge of reality: see them in a way that still fits the facts of your situation, but that is less negative and more optimistic and positive.

That’s the gist of reframing, and you can do it as often as you’d like. Most people are surprised at what a big impact reframing can have on their experience of stress–changing the way you look at your life can truly change your life

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The Power Of The Subconscious Mind

Power of the Subconscious MindThe magic of positive thinking is real. Adopting behaviors like positive self talk and daily positive affirmations can change the brain’s structure and ultimately influence the subconscious mind.

So how does the power of positive thinking work its magic in your mind? Together, the conscious and subconscious minds direct the show that is your life. So altering their function will lead to new and different ways of being. Let’s begin with a few definitions:

The Subconscious Mind: It’s worth noting that the “subconscious mind” I’m speaking of, is what Freud called the “unconscious mind”. There is no subconscious mind in psychoanalysis. It is more of a new age, self development term.

So when referring to the subconscious mind, I’m talking about that part of the mind that stores feelings, perceptions, complexes, beliefs and desires that are all outside of our conscious awareness, yet have a powerful influence over the actions and behaviors we take in every moment.

The unconscious mind is associated with the dreaming, reflecting, meditating and sleeping state. It is intuitive, easily making associations and connections between thoughts, ideas and feelings. It does your perceiving and feeling.

The Conscious Mind: The conscious mind is the antithesis of the subconscious mind. It does all of your intellectual thinking.

It’s the part of your mind responsible for your self-talk, the endless stream of mind chatter that can on occasion almost send you crazy. The conscious mind likes logical order and sequential information. It likes things to make sense, to have reason. At any one time, the conscious mind can manage awareness of about seven or eight bits of information.

While we like to think we have conscious control over what we attract, what we do in life, and how we behave, the truth is, the subconscious has most of the control. So when you aren’t attracting what you want in life, it’s an indication that unconsciously you have low

expectations for yourself. Even if on a conscious level you make every effort to achieve something, unless your unconscious carries synergistic expectations, then it will be difficult to achieve.

expectations for yourself. Even if on a conscious level you make every effort to achieve something, unless your unconscious carries synergistic expectations, then it will be difficult to achieve.

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