Dr. Jud Brewer on Addiction and the Science Behind Breaking Bad Habits – You Are Not So Smart

Check out the You Are Not So Smart Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Habit loops are made up of the following:
    • Trigger (seeing food)
    • Response (eating the food)
    • Reward (the dopamine hit)
  • Modern humans have learned unhealthy responses to feeling lonely, stressed, and/or bored
  • Dopamine is released once something pleasurable is obtained, but over time it starts being released in anticipation of the reward as well
    • This anticipatory release is what starts driving our behavior, leading us to form habits and addictions
  • The only way out of the blackhole of worry is to add information to the system that resolves the underlying problem (but worrying shuts down our prefrontal cortex, making us unable to accurately process new information)
    • This is where therapy serves its purpose. In therapy, someone can knock you out of that loop by saying, “Have you considered this?” or “Here’s some information you didn’t know.
  • Research has shown that if you’re presented with a political statement which goes against your beliefs, your default mode network lights up
    • This is the part of the brain thought to be synonymous with the “self” – you view the statement as attacking you personally

Books Mentioned

Products Mentioned

Intro

Disgust

  • Most of our reactions of disgust are automatic, cross-cultural, and independent of any learned behaviors
    • When we eat something poisonous, we immediately spit it out in disgust as our body require an immediate response to rid itself of the poison

The Mechanism Behind Learned Behaviors

  • In one study, participants were exposed to a synthetic, putrid smell and told it was either cheese or body odor. As predicated, if people were told it was cheese, they reacted favorably. If told the smell was that of body odor, they reacted unfavorably.
    • “What you’re seeing here is a behavioral habit loop where we’ve learned that socks smell disgusting and that cheese has this pleasant stinkiness to it” – Jud Brewer
  • The explanation behind the above can also be found in the origins of survival for homo sapiens
    • “We had to find food sources and avoid danger, and there’s quite a bit known about that now. It’s called positive and negative reinforcement, operant conditioning, and reinforcement learning.” – Jud Brewer
  • These learning mechanisms are what form our behavioral habit loops, which require three necessary and possibly sufficient conditions to fulfill:
    1. Trigger
      • You see the food/danger
    2. Behavior
      • You eat the food, or run away from danger
    3. Reward
      • Your stomach sends dopamine signals to your brain, or you live to tell your friends about the danger

Learning from Context

  • We form memories around the social context in which we learn certain behaviors
    • If we lived in a culture that believed that socks are wonderful and don’t smell, we would probably learn to respond favorably to the smell of socks

The Challenge of Modern Times

  • Using the same learning mechanisms as our ancestors, modern humans have learned unhealthy responses to feeling lonely, stressed, or bored
    • “You’re bored and feel bad, so you eat food. You feel better and then your brain says, ‘Do that again, do that again.’ So now we have an obesity epidemic.” Jud Brewer
    • “We learn to take pills when we’re emotionally or physically in pain” – Jud Brewer
    • “Social media is designed to get us to look at cute pictures of puppies, or kittens, or babies on Instagram as a way to tap into that old process that trumps any type of willpower we have” – Jud Brewer

Forming Habits

  • Our brains are designed to help us survive. Because of this, they have a heavy reliance on pleasure and pain, both of which help focus our attention on the source.
    • For example, our bodies release dopamine in the mouth and stomach when we eat to remind us to do it again
      • Although we idealize dopamine as the pleasure/happiness molecule, it’s more like a learning tool which helps the body remember and anticipate the source of that dopamine by creating pleasurable effects
  • Dopamine is released once something pleasurable is obtained, but over time it starts being released in anticipation of the reward
    • This anticipatory release is what starts driving our behavior, leading us to form habits and addictions
  • Jud explains the process further:
    • “The first step is getting some unanticipated reward with a certain behavior, which then gets laid down in memory”
    • “Second step would be repeating that over and over, which then shifts the dopamine firing to the point where that becomes habitual”
  • Here’s an example:
    • We learn to eat popcorn at the movie theater because the first time we did so the combination of fats, salts, and carbohydrates was extremely pleasurable
    • We then reinforce that behavior every time we eat popcorn at the movie theater to the point where it feels like something is missing if we don’t

A New Model of Addiction

  • Psychiatry is moving to expand the definition of addiction to include behaviors (alongside the classical understanding of substance addiction)
    • Studies have shown behaviors hijack the same dopamine reward systems as addictive substances (i.e., mindlessly scrolling Facebook or Instagram)
  • Researchers have learned that showing people “likes” on their posts activates dopamine reward pathways as well as the default mode network (DMN) in the brain (the DMN is basically your ego/self)
    • “It seems that there are now links made between reward and self. There is something inherently survival-oriented about this. People have speculated that in the modern day, social currency is actually a survival mechanism”. – Jud Brewer

The Black Hole of Anxiety

  • “There’s been a fair amount of work now that suggests things like worry can be laid down through negative reinforcement” Jud Brewer
  • Here’s the cycle:
    • Unpleasant thoughts like fear or uncertainty trigger our brain to act
    • Behaviorally, we then start to worry and try to predict the future to resolve our uncertainty
    • This gives our brain a short release of dopamine as it believes it’s actually accomplishing something
    • However, worrying doesn’t actually solve the problem, and itself feels unpleasant. The negative feelings that result from worrying turn into its own trigger, prompting further worrying.
  • “The worry becomes its own trigger, and then its own behavior, and then it’s just this ping-pong back and forth through this death spiral where it becomes its own habit loop” – Jud Brewer
    • The only way out of the blackhole of worry is to add information to the system that resolves the underlying problem (but worrying shuts down our prefrontal cortex, making us unable to accurately process new information)

Escaping the Black Hole

  • “Therapy is so powerful. In therapy, someone can knock you out of that loop by saying, ‘Have you considered this?’ or ‘Here’s some information you didn’t know.’” – David McRaney
  • Interacting with different people, as well as traveling to new places, also increases the likelihood of breaking the loop by exposing you to novel information
    • “You might get some insight as to, ‘Oh yeah, this is how I formed this habit,’ but it doesn’t actually help solve it. Once you have that insight, you might see why you’re doing something, but that’s just where we have to get very pragmatic and say, ‘Okay, in this present moment, what can we actually do about this?'” – Jud Brewer 

Chemical vs Psychological Addiction

  • All addictions have both chemical and psychological components, you can’t completely separate the two
    • “Thinking is a chemically dependent process”Jud Brewer

Mind-Body Distinction

  • In one study, people were told that a meal either contains 200 calories or 500 calories. Based on blood-testing after consuming the food, those who were told the food has 500 calories ended up having higher levels of circulating ghrelin (the hunger hormone).
    • Our bodies have learned behaviors (such as releasing more ghrelin when told that we’re eating a high-calorie meal)
      • This is is no different from being told that you’re going to get punched in the stomach, and then tightening your stomach muscles in response
    • Learned responses to these types of behaviors occur outside of our conscious awareness
      • If you realize a bus is about to hit you, you automatically move out of the way before you think, ‘That was scary and dangerous’

Willpower

  • “We have certain motivational factors that we rationalize. We say, ‘Oh, I was just ego depleted,’ or whatever at the end of the day. But in reality, nobody’s actually shown that we have this capacity of willpower that can be depleted.” Jud Brewer
    • For this reason, rational behavior changes, such as treatments for addiction which are based on willpower, don’t work very well

Mindfulness Traning (Reward-Based Learning)

  • Learning is based on the reward rather than the behavior itself
  • Mindfulness training helps people maintain accurate and updated information on the reward of the behavior, instead of habitually acting without thinking
    • Using this method, Jud helped a 40-year smoker finally realize that cigarettes don’t actually taste good
    • “The simple thing that it’s doing is helping our brains get this updated information because our brains are always looking for something better. So not only do they see how unrewarding these old behaviors are, but they also see that it’s pretty rewarding to be in the present moment.” – Jud Brewer

What is Jud’s definition of mindfulness?

  • “Being aware of our thoughts, being aware of our emotions, and being aware of our body sensations in a way that’s not assuming anything. It’s not making any judgments; it’s just simply being curious.” – Jud Brewer
  • Mindfulness helps people go from thinking “I am anxious” to ‘The organism is anxious and I am noticing that:

Group Behavior

  • Research has shown that if you’re presented with a political statement which goes against your beliefs, your default mode network lights up
    • This is the part of the brain thought to be synonymous with the “self” – you view the statement as attacking you personally
  • People are rewarded by a feeling of belonging to their own group when attacking others
    • That behavior will only be changed when they receive better rewards through connecting and engaging with others
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