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How To Break A Bad Habit Using Nothing But Curiosity

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
How A Neuroscientist Breaks A Bad Habit Using Nothing But Curiosity

Illustration by Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

It's right around this time of year that New Year's commitments get tested by old temptations. For many people, the internal dialogue of mid-January sounds like some variation of: "Yes, I gave up added sugar—but one cookie couldn't hurt, right?"

This is the type of self-talk that Jud Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., has spent the last 15 years trying to challenge. As an addiction psychiatrist and a neuroscientist, he studies how negative habits form and how they can be broken. And he's come to the conclusion that simply getting curious about your vices could be the key to moving past them.

How curiosity can help you break bad habits.

According to Brewer, all habits start with the same feedback loop: At some point in our lives, we were triggered by something (say, a piece of cake); we exhibited some behavior (we ate it!); and then we were rewarded (in this case, with a quick hit of dopamine). As a survival mechanism, our bodies are hardwired to remember where we found this reward source, so we can access it again if needed. So once we associate cake with reward, it can be difficult for the brain to challenge that association as time goes on.

This becomes problematic when we start to seek this known reward not when we're hungry but when we're sad or stressed or bored. "That cave-man brain is sitting around in the modern day, where everyone has a refrigerator," Brewer tells mbg. "Habits are set up to help us chunk information so we don't need to retrieve all the details; we can just remember the reward value of something. The problem is that the reward value may not be that high anymore."

This is why you feel the urge to reach for sweets as an adult, even though you know they'll make you feel sick later. "To change the habit," Brewer explains, "we have to be aware of what the actual value is now." This is where mindfulness comes in. For example, if you focus your attention on what it actually feels like to eat and digest that cake, you may find that it's not as enjoyable as you remember.

"People become disenchanted with this old behavior simply by bringing awareness to it," Brewer summarizes. "Instead of using willpower, which is the weakest part of the brain, we tap into the strongest part of the brain—the reward pathway—and help that value get updated."

To put this mindset shift into practice, Brewer recommends recruiting your sense of curiosity. Approach the habit as if you're doing it for the first time and investigate how it really makes you feel. Once you've done that, you can find what Brewer calls the "bigger, better offer"—a new habit that is more beneficial to you right now.

So if someone was stuck in a habit loop of negative self-talk, this would look like getting curious about what it really feels like when they engage in that behavior, then trying some self-kindness and thinking about how that felt.

About 10 to 15 repetitions of this embodied curiosity practice has been enough to help break habits in some cases. A clinical trial testing Brewer's phone app that guides people through this mindfulness strategy found that it reduced craving-related eating by 40.21% over the course of three to seven months.

Curious what curiosity could do for you? There's only one way to find out.

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