New beginnings, new habits

Change can be hard – new school, new job, or in my case, starting up a new tutoring business, mean adapting and making new habits. Habit is a very powerful thing, as anyone who has tried to stop biting their nails or quit smoking can attest. Why do we sometimes find ourselves doing something automatically, as if we were robots, programmed to run the ‘stop for a Coke on the way home’ algorithm?

According to Charles Duhig, in his book The Power of Habit, these mental loops exist in a very deep part of the brain, deeper than conscious thought, deeper than memory. He relates the story of Eugene Pauly, who suffered severe brain damage due to an infection which showed up in his cerebrospinal fluid. Massive doses of antibiotics saved his life, but could not undo the damage: he was left without a short-term memory. He did not know how old he was. He marvelled at computers, as if he had never seen one, though he had recently been proficient in using them. He could not remember whether he had had breakfast, nor the name of any new person, or how to find his way home from just a block away in his California neighbourhood.

He liked bacon and eggs, and would happily have them six or seven times a day, if no one stopped him, because he wouldn’t know he had already had the previous rounds.

“Eugene, what are you doing?”

“Just fixing some bacon and eggs. Want some?”

“Eugene, you’ve already had seconds and thirds of bacon and eggs today.”

“Have I?…”

Two minutes later, Eugene would be back at the frying pan: “Hey, I’m making bacon and eggs, you want some?”

He liked to go for walks around the neighbourhood, but would need someone to tell him which way to turn for home, on streets he had walked for years.

One day, Eugene went missing. Massive panic! He could be anywhere. Beverly got friends and family and police to help search the area for Eugene, but could not find him. Finally, he turned up at home. “Eugene! Thank goodness you’re safe! But how did you find your way back?”

He didn’t know. He could not remember anything about it. He did not know where he had been, let alone how he had found the way home. In spite of Beverly’s warnings and pleadings not to venture out alone, he continued going for walks, and finding his way home, without knowing how, sometimes arriving back with a rock, or pinecone, or puppy. He had no idea where he had got them. The part of his brain that would have held this information was simply gone.

Eugene became famous among psychologists and neuroscientists. They studied him and theorised that the answer to how he found his way home lay deep under the conscious, creative, thinking parts, in the basal ganglia, one of the most primitive regions of the brain, which controls automatic behaviours like breathing, swallowing, or flinching. Somehow, the scientists thought, this structure was guiding Eugene’s walks. Somehow he was turning the right way reflexively, and finding his way home.

So the scientists starting experimenting on Eugene, and seeing what else he could do ‘reflexively.’ What they found was fascinating: Eugene could be trained to sort cards with different shapes and patterns on them into ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ piles, based on whether he got a reward for which pile he placed the card onto. He got better and better at it, although he could not remember even doing the exercise. They had to introduce the routine to Eugene each time, explaining what he was to do, as if he had never heard of it.

So what can we learn from Eugene? Habit is powerful. It lives in a very deep part of the brain. Habits can become as automatic as breathing or flinching. So, if you want to learn your times tables or start running every day or speak a new language, build your learning into a habit feedback loop.

The habit feedback loop, according to Duhig, consists of stimulus, routine, reward. In my next post, I’ll describe this in detail, but now I want some bacon and eggs.

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