Mindful vs Mindless   Active Pause®

Inspirational stories: Breeding habits

Some things are easy to change. You don't need help for those: you just do it.

Then, there's the other kind, the kind that seems to keep defeating you. You try... it's working for a while, then it's not. You try again, then stop... and you feel like a failure.

Why is this so difficult?

You could think of a bad habit as a "virus" of the mind: It makes use of our mind's abilities to work against us.

Our smart mind enables us to "learn" a habit, and to keep memorizing it as we repeat it, so it becomes more and more ingrained. Not only that, but our mind makes connections which root the habits even deeper, the way a tree's roots get ever deeper and wider into the soil.

From the metaphors of the virus, and of the tree and its roots, I'd like to shift to yet another metaphor: How breeding animals leads to reinforcing certain traits. And I'd like to share a story with you.

Forty-some years ago, a Russian scientist started an experiment. From a sample of rats, he separated the tamer ones from the more aggressive ones, and he bred them selectively in order to accentuate the differences.

Has this worked? A New York Times article quotes a researcher: “Imagine the most evil supervillain and the nicest, sweetest cartoon animal, and that’s what these two strains of rat are like.” The mild ones are cuddly and want to be petted. The wild ones are ferocious and scream when they see visitors.

The goal of the experiment was to recreate, over a relatively short period of time, the process through which wild animals were tamed by humans.

You may wonder why I am writing about this. Well, I see this as a very powerful image.

Think of this story as two “before – after” pictures. In the “before” picture, is a homogeneous population of rats. In the “after” picture, we see two vastly different populations, as different from each other as day is from night. All of this happened within a relatively small time span.

If you just see the “before” and “after” pictures, you may be puzzled as to why rats from the same initial stock ended up so different.

The explanation: This difference is the result of a series of decisions. For each successive generation, when it came time to breeding, the researchers adopted a consistent strategy: wilder with wilder, milder with milder.

Now, I’d like to use this story as a metaphor for how we reinforce habits. Time after time, when confronted with a choice, we make the same decision. We’re often not conscious that we are making a decision; not conscious that there even are options available. We automatically opt for the “default” mode. And, the more we do so, the more strongly entrenched the “default” mode.

Habits do not exist in a vacuum, they are intricately linked to many of the ways we think and feel and behave. For instance, smoking is not just the about the physical habit of smoking cigarettes; overeating is not just about consuming too much food...

The problem is, all these emotional links function pretty much below our consciousness. "Compulsive behavior" essentially means that we feel powerless over it.

It is difficult to change habits that are deeply ingrained... but it is not impossible. It helps to have a healthy respect for the difficulty of this task... but to not let this intimidate us.

When I work on this with clients, I think of what I’m doing as using a slow motion replay. This way, it becomes easier to see where there are forks in the roads, where it is possible to proceed other than in “default” mode.

You can be more proactive once you become aware of choices, and of the consequences of these choices.

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