Did you know that more than 40 percent of everything you do is habitual? Are you addicted to your phone or social media? Or are you simply responding to a well-worn neurological cue/reward pattern? Tony discusses the latest in habit research from the article "How to Conquer Your Primitive Brain" by Adam Piore. https://apple.news/A9pURuj3OQL-UNnUw6bnn9A
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Virtual Couch Episode 363 Transcript
Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 363 of the Virtual Couch. I'm your host, Tony Overbay. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified mindful habit coach, writer, speaker, husband, father of four, ultra marathon runner, and creator of the Path Back, an online pornography recovery program that is helping people reclaim their lives from turning to pornography or any unhealthy coping mechanism. So go to pathbackrecovery.com. Find out more about that. Or you can actually go now to Tony Overbay underscore LMFT on Instagram, link in the bio and there's a link tree that has everything you need to know, latest podcast episodes, how to sign up for my newsletter and also that link tree is going to be in the show notes. So we're just trying to make things easy, but I really would recommend that you go sign up for the newsletter and you'll find out so much exciting stuff that is coming soon to earbuds or monitors near you. So I'm going to jump in. Oh, one thing, this is a really cool thing. I had the, I want to say world renowned and he really is, Michael Twohig on at the end of last year, he's done so much research in the world of acceptance and commitment therapy. And that episode was one of my favorites and I still take quotes from that almost on a daily basis in my practice.
And he had an ACT for OCD and anxiety online course that it launched and it was there for a little bit. It was taken away, but there is a relaunch of that. And I will have the link in the show notes on how you can get access to that course. If you have a pen or a pencil, I guess that sounds kind of old school, you know, then stop your horse and buggy and scroll this down with some charcoal on a tablet. Or you can just jot it down in the notes on your phone, or it'll be in the show notes. But the direct link is HTTP colon slash slash man, I sound like I am coming right to you from the year 2003. But it's Praxisce, which is PRAXISCE.com/virtualcouch. And you'll find that ACT for anxiety disorders course, and it's, it really is amazing. I was able to take it myself when Michael was coming on the show. And ACT is just, it's phenomenal. I cannot say enough about what it can do to really help you realize that you have all the tools you need right there built within you. And it's a matter of unhooking from these the thought a thought is a thought and just unhooking from the ones that are not really serving you much of a purpose and getting away from those socially compliant goals of what you think you're supposed to do to make everybody else happy around you. I find out what your true values are and then just start living, living a life of value based goals and actions. And yeah, you have the ups and downs, the bumps, the bruises, but as you start to really live a more value based purpose filled life, it is phenomenal. It is. And you get away from that, what is wrong with me? I must be broken. I'm a human. The very first version of me that's ever been on the planet. And when you really unhook from those unproductive thoughts and really figure out what makes you tick.
And not need everybody else to tell you how you're supposed to think or feel. Again, I cannot even describe how amazing that is. That is acceptance and commitment therapy in this ACT for anxiety disorders workshop is amazing. It really is. So go click on the link in the show notes and get there. But today we're going to talk about something I just love. I really do. And I was sent an article about, I guess it's two or three days ago and just asked if I had comments on it and I love getting those emails. And so I hadn't planned on talking about conquering our primitive brain or talking about habits at all today, but then I thought there was a pretty funny spin on it. As somebody sent this to me, I guess I had made a joke at some point. That you wait till about the third week of January, and then you can pick up exercise equipment for cheap when people have moved away from their new year's resolutions. And I let that slide. I really thought about doing something funny about a month ago, talking about how your, how are your new year's resolutions working, not in a guilt or shame based way, but just being able to have some acceptance. And then was that really a goal that you felt passionate about? Or was it something you thought you were supposed to do? But then I was sent this article and it's from Newsweek and it says “How to conquer your primitive brain.” And it's that subheading that I think is so fascinating and why I really wanted to talk about it. I'm gonna read a lot from this article today and I'm gonna make some comments based on my own experiences.
But this subheading says “More than 40% of everything we do from washing dishes to spreading misinformation is habitual.” Science has some ideas about how to do better. And this is by a gentleman named Adam Piore. I could have mispronounced that. And the article is really neat. Has some great illustrations. It's so neat. I really did not realize that I sound like someone's great-grandfather talking at times, it's really swell. This thing is it really is. Trust me. But there's a lot here that I feel like plays on a lot of the things that I've talked about from Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit. As well as James Clear's book The Power of Habit, and I want to tell a quick story that I told them on a Waking Up to Narcissism podcast a few days ago that I just want to set the stage because I say a lot of things. I feel very passionate about it.
I am standing in what I like to refer to as a healthy ego and healthy ego is based on real life experience or the things that we know. And part of being able to stand in your healthy ego is recognizing that you don't know what you don't know. So as simple as that may sound. And when we're a little bit more emotionally immature brain, we often feel like we have to have an opinion on everything and anything. And then if we have a good idea about how something may work, then we often subconsciously go big and then we start to confabulate or create a narrative or a story that backs up how I feel like things probably are. So now over in that world of narcissism, narcissistic confabulation can be incredibly abusive because to the narcissist who is incredibly emotionally immature when you look at that comes from deep childhood abandonment and attachment wounds or neglect that then the concepts around confabulation or changing a narrative to fit what that emotionally immature person needs it to be in that very moment is a survival technique. And that's why gaslighting, if you really are around somebody that you are opening up to, and then all of a sudden they turn what you're talking about. And they make you feel crazy about that. That is true what gaslighting is in a nutshell. That if it's somebody that is incredibly emotionally immature or narcissistic and they are confabulating the narrative, it means in their brain. Well, it can't be that way. If you said, hey, you kind of hurt my feelings. If the gaslighting comes across, then in return, really well, you hurt my feelings all the time. As a matter of fact, I'm glad we're talking about feelings because I don't think you pay attention to mine at all. And as a matter of fact, the more I think about it, I really, I mean, you claim to be this person that is so emotional and empathic, but yet I don't feel like you ever validate my feelings. So here's this person that had just opened up and said, hey, that kind of hurt my feelings. And before, when the conversation is done, the person who had expressed that and all of a sudden feels like, oh my gosh, I didn't even know that I hurt this person's feelings so bad. And in the world of confabulation to that emotionally immature narcissistic person, they have had to create that narrative. And it happens in just a millisecond because it's a survival mechanism from their childhood, if they took ownership or accountability of something, first of all, they didn't see that modeled, which is part of the problem. But if they did, they would get in trouble. And if you get in trouble as a little kid and you don't have a secure, attached relationship with your parent, then you feel like, man, this might, I might get in trouble and they're going to kick me out of the house because we're thinking with little kid brain.
And so that narcissism or gaslighting becomes a childhood defense mechanism. Now, the reason I talk about this is that concept of a confabulated memory or changing the memory is just an amazing, fascinating thing because as I talk about what I know today about habits and things that I talk so passionately about on the podcast, I now recognize that I could have confabulated many of the stories or the data that I've just come to rely on. What I love now is being able to check in with an article like this one today. And to see him where the latest in science, a habit science is. And so this might just be a moment for me, but I'm going to be really open and honest. If there are things that go against or contradict the things that I've always believed to be the case and because the more you're aware of this concept around confabulation, I think it's a really great way to self confront but we create, we habitualize, there's so many things that we don't even recognize. I hope that as you even go throughout your day after hearing this episode, that you may notice or give yourself a benefit of the doubt of maybe, maybe I don't remember it exactly the way that I thought. And if somebody is saying to you, oh, I know exactly what happened then that, that may be the case, but then I will give them grace as well and say, well, maybe, maybe not. But I love their passion. So back to this article, more than 40% of everything we do from washing dishes to spreading misinformation is habitual.
Adam says, “Science has some ideas about how to do better.” So he says that most people associate bad habits with the kind of activities that wind up on a list of new year's resolutions, eating and drinking too much, spending too much time on their smartphone and avoiding the gym. But he said that bad habits are often more than just these little personal issues that we have and he talks about the neural machinery of habit formation. Which I love now, we're talking about how the brain works is also the root cause of many of the worst collective behaviors. Texting while driving. I haven't even thought about how that slowly becomes habitualized. That then that's something that we just start to feel comfortable with. When I think it first came out, texting, there was a thought of, I will never drive and text. I honestly remember having my Blackberry, I guess the theme of today is Tony's an old man. But I remember having my Blackberry and getting the first text plan that had, I think 200 texts in a month. And I thought this was crazy. Like I'll never go through 200. I mean now, boy, if you look at how many times you text throughout a day or a week or a month, it is a lot more than 200, maybe throw an extra zero, maybe even two onto there, but texting while driving, gossiping about coworkers, littering, mansplaining, he says farting silently in public, making a racist or unfair assumptions about strangers, even spreading the kind of misinformation online that some experts warn is threatening our democracy. He said that those are things that are actually beginning to become habitualized. The more that we look at the science of how the brain works, he says that many people who are aware of bad habits and recognize them to be potentially harmful, blame themselves for being weak or lacking the willpower needed to resist them.
But over the last few years, scientists have used advanced imaging technologies. So we can literally look inside the brain as habits are being formed. And then, these experts can even map out the habit formation all the way to the very structures in the brain structures that I love, how he says were formed so long ago in the blacksmith evolution. So we're talking about the blacksmith, the iron that was pounded in our brain in essence in the Smithy of evolution that humans share with other mammals. So research suggests that habits, which operate below conscious awareness usually cannot be tamed simply by resolving to resist them. And I love that concept so much. So just telling yourself not to do it, if anything, your brain is going to say, I will do it more. So I have to realize, first of all, I have to be aware of something that I'm not even aware of. He gives some examples where he says, okay, so again, research suggests that habits which operate below the conscious awareness can't be tamed just by saying I'm not going to do them or trying to resist them. Because he says, by the time you realize you're munching on a bag of potato chips, picking your nose, fighting with someone on Facebook, or veering into oncoming traffic while texting, it's too late. So, he says, if we want to change our habits, research suggests we need to understand how they work and we need to anticipate the cues that trigger them. And find ways to break our habit cycle before it starts. So taming a bad habit requires a lot of planning. And I love this concept. We need to reverse engineer the chain of behavior that precedes them. And then either remove the queue that sets us off altogether, or take the time to build new habits that will replace them.
And one of the key things involves acknowledging that much of what we do is habitual and not the result of our own decision-making. And that setting goals in a way that drives new behavior patterns. Let me talk about that. So in my Path Back recovery program, and I work with a lot of people that have struggled with unhealthy coping mechanisms. And I know that I talk so often about pornography, but it could be turning to your phone. It could be turning to food, work, or even exercise as a form of habitualizing something that we just, we begin to have this habit cycle and I say in my program, there's a trigger, there's a thought, and there's an action. And one of the go-to examples that I'd like to talk about is working with someone who was struggling with turning to pornography as an unhealthy coping mechanism. It was amplifying up his objectification of women. And caused him to be less present with his intimate relationship with his wife and we had identified that there was a two hour gap after he took kids to school and his wife went to work before he had to go into the office. So in those two hours, there were times and days where he would go and work out at the gym. There were times where he would try to get things done at home. But over the course of time, that two hour block became the trigger of when he could look at pornography. And so this was something that he wanted to move away from because he felt like he was wasting time. And again, dulling out the dopamine neuro blasting, his dopamine neuro receptors, and just, he had all these reasons of course, why he wanted to get away from looking at pornography. But then he would feel like it just continued to happen. And over time, as he even drove home, his brain was saying, well, we got, we got time. And I often say that one of the biggest triggers is what I call the crime of opportunity, or just being able to do something. If the bag of chips is in the pantry, that is a trigger that is a crime of opportunity. If you have to go buy a bag of chips at the store, there's a lot of opportunities for you to not. You can come back to the present moment or turn back around or stop wherever you were heading mentally, or even literally physically in your car.
But if the chips are in the pantry or if no one is at home and you know that the coast is clear. Over time that becomes the trigger. And so the trigger leads to the thought in this scenario, the person says I could act out, I could look at pornography. And then there's the behavior. Or the action. So we got the trigger, the thought and the action. That is the habit cycle. And so we can look at this a few different ways. Number one, ultimately we want to be able to put distance between thought and action. So if the triggers there he's at home alone and he has the thought, well, that's a thought. And I can breathe through the thought I can bring the thought of wanting to look at porn with me while I do other productive things, but that is an advanced level skill and advanced level mindfulness skill. Where at first, often what we have to do is I like what they say. Here we go back to that, we have to reverse engineer. And then we have to recognize that oh, okay I need to not be at home. So on the days where I go to the gym and then I even shower at the gym and go to work, nothing. I don't look at porn, but on the days where I go to the gym, go home, then my brain says, oh, remember home, what we can do. So you can reverse engineer and in this one and what is so fascinating about this example is that I believe there's also, if I go back to that whole path of enlightenment where he wasn't aware of what he wasn't aware of. Then he was aware. Okay. That is my trigger, but then he still didn't do it, he didn't take action as often as he would like, and that's a hard place to be because he would start to get angry and frustrated with themselves and say that he's broken and what's wrong with him. And so eventually though you go from, I didn't know what I didn't know to now. I know, but I don't really do what I need to do. As much as I would like to, then I do what I need to do and what I've set out to do more than I don't. So that would be where now I recognize this is my trigger and there is my thought that I want to act out, but now I take action. I put that space or I leave the house.
And then eventually it's just what you become. And you become someone who is aware of all kinds of thoughts and you entertain many of them, but you still take action on the things that matter. But in reverse engineering in this scenario, the person eventually found himself just going straight into the office or he would go to the gym and shower there. So we have to be aware of that habit cycle. But what I thought was really interesting too, though, is that I was talking with someone not very long ago and I'll change some of the details because this one, I really like this as well.
This person was really struggling if they would, if they were struggling with a particular unhealthy coping mechanism when they would leave work. And so in that timeframe, they were now aware that is what I need to just get home. That's what I need to do. But then there were times where they didn't and they would still struggle with that unhealthy coping mechanism. So as we broke down the game film, we said to this, let's say this was a female. And we said, okay, she could reach out to a friend. She could call, she could have somebody talk with her on the way home. And that's where she said, okay, I know I don't need to do that. I'm aware now, but then it continued to happen. As we continued to reverse engineer that entire habit cycle, she was able to recognize that it was when there were these particular things happening at work that were overly stressful, where she felt like there was a lack of guidance and direction. And then she would start to feel stressed and then on the way home, then she would just feel like, okay, I can't handle this. And so it sounds like one of these Disney endings, but in that scenario, we were able to reverse engineer what led to this trigger and the thought and the action to the point where she was able to speak up to someone at her place of work and they were able to change some things over time that helped her. But wherever we are, if we have to reverse engineer all the way to, when I walk in my office, I already am triggered because I don't like what I do when my brain starts to think of. I can't wait to tune out with an unhealthy coping mechanism. Then we really need to take a look at even the workplace itself.
So reverse engineering becomes such an important part of changing that habit, but Adam, back to the article, he says still, it's not easy to break a habit. And he said, nature has made sure of it. And that's what habits are. An essential tool of survival. Without them, the simple task of everyday life would overwhelm us. And he said, Americans spend an average of 43% of each day engaged in tasks that are largely unconscious, that it becomes so automatic that we're able to think and talk about other things while we're doing them. According to research by Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California. And I think what's really interesting is right now, as I am talking and recording this podcast, I have this forearm grip strength thing that sits on my desk. And I did not even notice that I was picking it up and I don't even know how long I've had it. But I already can imagine I've switched hands and I'm using this strength device just because it's there. It's more of like an ADHD, fidget cube, but gives you a little bit of strength in a sense. But as I'm reading that, I realized that was completely unconscious. I don't even remember where it was on my desk. I don't remember picking it up. And I can tell by the, I guess the pump in my forearms, that, that has been, I've been doing it for awhile. And I've been recording this podcast for a little while.
So it could have even been right from the start. Habits are a unique kind of a learning system. They're unconscious. So we don't have access to them. And the way that we have access to other decisions, Wendy Wood says, and she said, I think that's been overlooked in the popular press and that gets people into trouble. And again, why I love it. I really enjoyed this article. And here's another reason is because that sentence alone, that I think has been overlooked in the popular press and that gets people into trouble. What has been overlooked is that habits are happening at an unconscious level. So we may not even have access to them the way we have access to other decisions.
So I go right back to my favorite therapeutic modality, ACT. Where instead of saying, oh man. What is wrong with me? I can't stop doing this thing that I don't want to do. We now say, oh, check it out when this happens. Here's how I react. That's interesting because I can look at that with curiosity. But when I'm beating myself up. I'm still coming from this incredibly. I feel like, emotionally immature way to think I'm going to change is to get mad at myself and then maybe I'll change, but that's not a way to lasting change. I can control my behavior a little bit, that concept of white knuckling through something, but that is not going to lead to a sustained view of change. So understanding habits and learning how to gain some control over them creates possibilities, he says, for making the world a better place, we could all be healthier, happier, less distracted. And he says to hear Wendy Wood tell it, we might even be able to improve the state of our democracy habit hackers. So he says one demonstration of how the neural machinery of habit formation can work against us and how difficult it is to control is the phenomenon of new year's resolutions. So here we are, it's almost the end of February. And he did say it. He says last year, an estimated 40% of Americans resolved to change bad habits starting on January 1st. By the end of the month, roughly one third had already given up. And four fifths will eventually fail, says Katy Milkman, a professor of the Wharton school and author of the book How to change the science of getting from where you are to where you want to be. And what's more, technology has become a potent tool of exploitation in this. Oh, this one gets me, but he says that technology's become a potent tool of exploitation in our consumer culture because of social media, social media companies would use have become so successful at hacking the primitive unconscious parts of your brain involved in habit formation. That much of the world's population is now habituated to checking in with Facebook, Tik Tok, Instagram, and their smartphones multiple times a day.
And I have to tell you, this is one of those things that can just come out of nowhere. I have my daughter Sydney, co-host of Murder On the Couch, soon to be released, has been uploading a lot of video content that I've been creating on Tik Tok. And I have told myself that I will look at Tik Tok on occasion. But it can just suck up hours of your time. The algorithm is, I want to say, so fascinating, but It's addictive. It really is. And now that I have videos on Tik Tok, I told myself, yeah, we'll put them up there. It doesn't really matter. I just like creating content. Maybe it can help some people. And one of them I think is pushing a million views. And so I went from this place of thinking, I don't care to, oh, really? I better go check that out. And so the more I look at that, now I'm commenting or answering some of the comments and people are being hilarious and fun and I'm glad that it's resonating. And then while I'm there, then when you open up Tik Tok, then all of a sudden, I'm watching the videos and I'm scrolling through. And before you know it, I've got my whole feed full of little kids saying hilarious, funny things. People breaking out into spontaneous dance and animals that are doing hilarious things. And now I can't get enough of that stuff. And now I go there, my brain just tricks me into saying, well, just go see if there's any comments that you can answer on one of these Tik Toks. And I even found myself joking the other day, joking. I promise you, joking, but saying to myself, I mean, it's been three or four days since I had a viral video. You know, what's going on here as I'm scrolling through Tik Tok and then forget if you pause on an advertisement. I think I finally stopped getting advertisements for men's soap from the holidays where I made the mistake of looking. And I think I probably fell asleep with one of the articles, the ads for soap, just playing over and over again.
But that algorithm is just so conditioned to then hit on that subconscious and now we're going back and we're looking and we just feel like we have to now be aware or mindful of not looking. Back to Wendy Wood, she says social media sites are set up to form habits and they do it so effectively that people are responding to cues on social media often without thinking. And again, it says Wood, author of the book, Good habits, bad habits, the science of making positive changes stick, she said they aren't thinking about the consequences of what they're doing. As a matter of fact, they're really not thinking at all. And one of those consequences, Adam says, is the rapid spread of falsehoods through social media networks. So now misinformation has been attributed to growing partisan bias, tribalism, polarization, and other factors. But the true mechanism, says Wood, may in fact be habit, the mindless sharing of sensationalistic fake news automatically often without considering the impact of what we're doing. That's the premise of Wood's new research. She and her colleagues found that habits are highly predictive of whether a user of social media will post misinformation more so than whether or not the poster agrees with it, or even believes that to be true. And they published this work in January and the proceedings of the national academy of sciences. So in four studies, colleagues presented a series of 16 news headlines, some of which were false to thousands of volunteers and offered them the opportunity to share the headlines on social media. The authors assessed partisanship, critical thinking, and the strength of the social media sharing habits. By analyzing past sharing on Facebook and whether they're sharing behaviors seem consistent with automaticity. So in the process of being automatic. So on Facebook, the act of sharing information is reinforced and becomes habitual because users get recognition from others for doing so. Here we go. Now it is that thing where we just crave validation, we still build our sense of self off of external validation, where we need to be able to find what matters to us and not rely on that validation from other people.
But then she and I think this is so true. She said, once this reward based learning system has formed a habit, the authors conclude then information sharing is automatically activated by cues on the platform without users considering critical response outcomes. So when something becomes habituated, then now it just happens. And there are certain cues that happen on the subconscious. And now you just lean into that habit. Misinformation, she says, is one symptom of a far larger problem intentionally or not. Smartphones seem to be optimized for habit formation, offering a cue in the form of a notification, followed by a reward in the form of an email or message offering a social contact for giving it attention. And many of us are now controlled by them. Many people automatically reach for our phones the minute they wake up or shortly thereafter, and then they check them for email or news.
So Wood says, you know, it's common these days to attribute these behaviors to addiction, but she said that is inaccurate. She said the habit system is so much broader than that. She said it doesn't require a craving. The habits are a very common learning system that they're not necessarily addictions. She said we couldn't get through our day without habits. So I love the breakdown of that. Something becomes more habitual because I just did a podcast interview on unashamed and unafraid about pornography. And I loved it. I loved those guys. It was so much fun. But right out of the gate, they just hit me with the, so do you feel like, pornography is pornography addiction, and I said, man, I'm gonna meet somebody where they're at, but I feel like if it's an unhealthy coping mechanism or somebody, someone wants to get away from. Then whatever, if they feel like, okay, calling it a habit helps them feel like there's hope. Or if they feel like calling it a habit makes them feel like a less of a person then whatever, whatever works. I just want to help somebody move away from this unhealthy coping mechanism. And I don't feel like I've ever put it as well as obviously these, these wonderful studies.
But it becomes a habit. That is that it is the habit cycle. Whether we want to call it addiction or we call it, I mean, why this habit, but things are happening based on these cues. And then from that queue, we do things unconsciously. And if you’re like me, you like to nerd out a little bit about the neuroscience of things like habit making, then this next part of the article is pretty incredible. They reference 19 or no, I'm sorry. They referenced an 1890 article. “The principles of psychology.” Where someone named William James introduced the idea that is still at the heart of how habits are formed. So we're talking 130 years later, but it's the study of habits that says that once a habit is formed, a single cue, an idea, or a perception can serve as an unconscious command that kicks off this basically an automated chain of associated movements, which takes place outside of your awareness. Again, this was 1890 when William James wrote about this. So the brain groups multiple complex actions together into a single habit that can be performed automatically. James observed, for example, many people have had the experience of driving home from work and pulling into the driveway without consciously paying attention. And later they don't even remember driving home at all because their thoughts were elsewhere.
And that's a thing. Now that psychologists call it's storing multiple actions or ideas or thoughts into a single mental file folder in memory. Which they call now chunking. But in this article Adam talks about how the brain can not only perform these complex tasks without our conscious awareness. But it can also learn unconsciously to remember new information. So for example, if you are just walking home from the store, or what is or associated with a weather pattern. And these are things that are just happening at an unconscious level, but you still react to them. But here's where I start talking about the basal ganglia and I purposely held back on even reading more about this because here's where I feel like that concept of what I thought that I knew. And so here's my take or what I like to say about the basal ganglia, which is called the habit center of the brain. It's this little walnut sized part of the brain where when things become habitualized, they're moved into the basal ganglia. And here's the parts where I realized that I think I've put some pieces together that I assume are correct. And that is in the world of acceptance and commitment therapy that we operate from a point of view of the brain as a don't get killed device. And that the brain works in essence off of this fallacy, that it has a finite amount of electrical activity. So as everything it wants to habitualize things, because it will take less effort, less electrical activity. And if you use less electrical activity, then you will live forever, thinks the brain, and the brain in essence is again, a don't get killed device that wants to do whatever it can to live.
So in that scenario, the more we habitualize things, the more they go into this basal ganglia. And I think that those are the things that happen underneath consciousness, the things that we don't even really have to think about. So with that said, let's talk about what this article talks about with the latest in the brain science of habits. So they say that advances in neuroimaging and other neuroscience techniques have in recent years allowed scientists to watch the way this unique form of human learning operates in the brain in real time with increasing resolution. And then they've also mapped out the process with increasing precision to different parts of the brain structure. So explicit memories, which are the ones that we consciously make, are stored in the seahorse shaped part of the brain known as the hippocampus. But humans are also capable of implicit learning or implicit memory, which is what I quote from the Buddha brain, which is built off of the slow residue of lived experience or what it feels like to be you. And in this article, they say that the brain structures responsible for storing implicit memory, these types of memories and associations reside deep in the primitive center of the brain adjacent to the hippocampus known as the basal ganglia. So our old friend basal ganglia is back. So they go on to say the basal ganglia is the part of the brain that allows us to chew food, brush your teeth without thinking, and ride a bike. That it's also the instinctual quick thinking part of the brain that allows us to make snap judgements in response to sensory perceptions that signal danger. It's also what makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck or a seasoned soldier who unconsciously associates the sudden quiet in a Vietnamese jungle with enemy soldiers about the spring and ambush. And enables a soldier to dive for cover without being consciously aware of the impending ambush.
So it's a survival tool that evolution has given not only to humans but other animals as well. And this is where I remember one time hearing that things like squirrels and fish are all basal ganglia, that there is no other part of the brain. So they are just acting instinctively at all times. So the basal ganglia is also part of the brain where established habits reside, neuroscientists have observed. That it's activating when animals and human subjects engage in these habitual behaviors. So they say that although fully formed habits are unconscious, conscious thought is initially involved when we form new ones. So you have to be conscious of doing something in order to then habitualize it. Most people, for instance, don't think about how to ride a bike, but they remember where they were when they first learned. And the reason many of us associate habitual actions with conscious thought is because often we remember making the choice at some point in the past to perform an action. So then we put that we associate the choice of when we decided to, when we were riding a bike. That is this conscious thought of that as we were very intentional about that. So then brain imaging studies in recent years have consistently shown that conscious executive control systems of the brain located in the prefrontal cortex are often active in the first stage of habit formation when we perform a new task. So the conscious thought is there when we perform something new. So when we focus the spotlight of our conscious attention on learning to ride a bike or typing in a new locker combination at the gym or area, these areas of the brain become involved in conscious thought intentionally.
There's this intentionality and complex reasoning. They're all active. And this is according to a person named Elliot Berkman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who co-directs the center for translational neuroscience. So then for a habit to take root, not only are we consciously aware of our actions, but then those actions also usually bring a reward. So if you see a bag of potato chips, there's the cue. And you start shoveling them in your mouth. There's the action. And you get this flavor explosion going on and all the pleasure centers of the brain activating. There's the reward. Or then if a headline pops up on your newsfeed, which they refer to as the queue, you repost a new story on Facebook. There's the action. And receive a flood of positive comments, likes and re-shares from long lost friends. There's the reward. So in this first stage of habit formation. And then in the second stage, when we repeat the action, this is what Birkman calls consistent reinforcement. The experience of reward causes our brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine in the basal ganglia. Now all my friends are together. Dopamine, the basal ganglia. So the dopamine kicks off a chemical cascade in the brain that causes the basal ganglia to forge new connections between neurons that over time form into the brain circuitry required to automate a habit. I think that's so laid out beautifully. So there is conscious thought when there's that cue and then you take action and then you get the reward and then that is all then solidifying in that basal ganglia when that reward hits and you get that dopamine bump. And so then the brain says, I like it. Let's keep doing this.
So then once a habit is fully formed the services of the conscious executive control areas of the brain, they aren't even needed. This stuff's happening now under the surface. So now we can, they say that we're free to direct our limited attention to new things. They say things like the plot of a new TV show we're watching or as we eat the potato chips. So at this point, all the brain structures, the neurological structures involved in the habit shift to what's called this sensory motor loop, which includes the different parts of the brain, the basal ganglia, the areas of the cortex involved in motor control. So what you're doing with your hands, your, your face, your all these. So anytime the neurons are associated with a cue or activated, an example begins with the sight of that bag of potato chips. Or the appearance of a bold face news story on a Facebook feed. They trigger the firing of the neurons involved in the chain of action that bring about the desired reward and that is happening. Deep in our subconscious then, Berkman says the basal ganglia they're well-positioned to form habits because they're connected to the reward regions. But they are also intimately connected with the areas of the brain involved in motor control. So what do you do? This is my take on it then. So then what you do. That's the motor control area of the brain tied with the reward. So if we do things that bring a reward, then that becomes ritualized. He said, if you wanted to have a brain circuit that basically said, oh, this behavior just earned me a reward. Then it is perfect. It's ideally located and that's essentially what the basal ganglia does. So neuroscientists are still characterizing the exact locations of the phenomenon zooming and with increasing precision and resolution on how brain activity in the basal ganglia changes as habits take root.
They had a paper that they published in March, this behavioral neurologist or neuroscientist Ingo Willem, and his team at the Netherlands Institute of neuroscience precisely tracked the location and the release of dopamine in the basal ganglia during different stages of habit formation in the brains of rats. So it might be someday possible to develop drugs that help in breaking pathological habit loops associated with addiction and things like obsessive compulsive disorder. That's what he told Newsweek. So in his lab, Berkman's been studying personal values. And this is where I think that the ACT stuff kicks in a little bit. But the way personal values and abstract thought might be used to help change habits such as smoking or bad eating by developing techniques that keep personal values. And large concrete goals at the front of the mine. So they remain as salient and powerful as the unconscious cues that activate bad habits. So he says, for instance, if you have a goal like climbing Mount Everest, and the goal feels tangible and salient, he says, then you have a better chance of noticing when you're triggered to say light up a cigarette. The goal in other words, helps break the habit cycle. And that's what I, you know, when I look at things like for the heart or the height of my ultra running career, when I think I did, I'm running a dozen, maybe half a dozen or more races, a year of distances of over 30 or 50 miles. That the training schedule was constant. And I feel like that reward was there almost on a daily basis, not just from the daily exercise, but also thinking about completing one of these ultra marathons, because that gave me the most amazing euphoric dump of dopamine at the finish line. And then even the fatigue or the next few days, the soreness, it was all this odd reward system that made me feel like I'm alive and this is a purpose and values. So I love that description that they give of that if the goal does feel salient.
And that's where I feel like it's working with a value. If I had a value of fitness, which goes deep in my what it feels like to be me based on me wanting to be around and live and enjoy my kids and maybe seeing some of the people in my family, extended family that have had health concerns, so those are all those things that are part of what my implicit memory is or what it feels like to be me. But he says for run of the mill habits, we don't have to wait for a pill or even Berkman's new techniques. Wood, Berkman, Milkman, a whole host of others who study the phenomenon habits have had plenty of advice that has already been proven to work. So they say that basically to change a habit, the first thing you need to do is rethink your assumptions. So in the lab, they found that not only people tend to overestimate their ability to make decisions, but also they're resistant to the idea that they're operating out of a habit. And that's what I found in my office. There are some people that when they recognize that, oh, this is just a reaction that it's empowering. And there are other people that say, wait, this is a reaction you're telling me that I don't have control. And then they don't look at that as with acceptance of oh, okay. So if I don't, now I need to reverse engineer this habit cycle. And how far back can I go to then start to change the whole process? So in one study, they found habitual coffee drinkers consistently recognized that their coffee drinking was a product of both habit and fatigue. But they consistently overestimated the role of fatigue and conscious decision-making in their choices. What caused them to drink the beverage? They found that habit played a far greater role than the subjects reported. So they may have been associated with fatigue, but in essence, they just were drinking coffee a lot of times because they drank coffee and that's what they do. So people tend to interpret their habits as decisions that they've made, even when we can demonstrate that they're acting automatically on a habit, Wood said. So we found that people are a little resistant to that message.
And she just said, we all want to believe that we're in control of our behavior because most of our habits work for us. So then we tend to believe our habits are what we would have done if we were making decisions. But then with habits, they're not. That's why we often tell ourselves that if we could only rely on willpower, maybe we can just resist reaching for a cigarette or a cookie, or we would read a book rather than watch TV, but we mistakenly believe that habits or actions we consciously watch unfold in real time. And he hears the meat of this whole thing. I mean, that's if we can accept the fact that this is a reaction to cues that have given us a dopamine reward. Then we can start to recognize that, okay, thank you brain for doing what you thought was best for me, but now I actually have to consciously do something else in order to then change this whole neurological process. So in fact, what it says would often be that by the time we realize we're smoking a cigarette or eating that cookie or watching TV it's too late. Because we've already unconsciously fallen into a well established habit loop and then we've acted. So the most direct and effective way to change a habit, what our use is not to change or police your conscious thoughts, but to change your environment and then attack the cues that set off the habit in the first place.
If you don't have a cue again, if you don't have that bag of chips, if you don't have that opportunity, then you won't set off an unconscious habit sequence. So they, he said, take one common example: many of us by now have developed the habit of mindlessly picking up our mobile phones and checking our emails or texts. So the queue is often an obvious one. We see our phone or we hear a ping or we reach for it without thinking. And the next thing we know, we are doom scrolling. I did a podcast on that long ago. So Wood recommends the next time you're on vacation, placing the phone where you don't see it. You'd be surprised at how easy it will be to avoid checking your phone without those simple cues. If you're dubious, that might be because many popular habit books, Wood notes, conflate habits with addictions erroneously, suggesting that the absence of a phone will elicit a craving. But that is usually not the case. We don't need to check the phone. Or even necessarily want to, particularly when we're on vacation, Wood noted. We simply have trained ourselves to do so when presented with the queue. So that simple idea that we can break habits by controlling cues has wide, they go on to talk about wide public policy implications. Wood and collaborators suggest that it can help solve the problem of habitual sharing of misinformation on social media platforms. And they went on to talk about a study where Wood and the collaborators looked at thousands of active Facebook users, and they gave study participants a questionnaire that assessed the frequency of sharing and the amount of thought put into sharing.
And those associate, those with weak habits who put the most thought into sharing were almost four times more discerning about what they shared, then those acted more habitually. So the people that just acted habitually just in essence, shared whatever they felt was the queue. It is a headline. So the strongly habitual shares those in the top 15% of active posters in the study were responsible for 37% of the false headlines shared in the study. So when presented with false headlines, those with a strong habit for sharing posted 26% of them. While those with weak habits only shared about 3%. So notably those with strong habits, shared news that challenged their political beliefs as much as they shared news that backed them up. So to change this behavior on a mass scale, Wood and her colleagues argue the social media companies will need to tweak the visual cues associated with news items to reduce automatic sharing and at present the standard manner of presentation, photo source, and headline was sharing response. There's an arrow right underneath. It says, here's how you share. Is designed to promote sharing. And then another recommended change is the way Facebook rewards sharing. Wood talked about the algorithm that determines where content is displayed and user feeds often places the most liked content at the top. Instead Wood suggests that the unverified news content should be deprioritized until it can be approved by moderators. And I know that that can set off a whole argument in itself of who are the moderators and what's their agenda. But I just like looking at this from the neuroscience of how things work.
How things are habitualized. So in addition, content that seems to be generating disproportionately high rates of engagement from strongly habitual users. Those most likely to share an article, say without reading it, should receive extra verification. Facebook has said that apparently that has already prioritized original reporting from high quality news sources and its feeds. So providing some kind of reward or incentive for users to share accurate information might slowly change that habit. And then I think it's really interesting too. She went on to talk about from this article or from her studies, another option would be to disrupt habitual news sharing by adding new buttons to go alongside the share and like buttons. Such as fact check or skip. So this disruption or changing up the queue would cause some habitual users to stop and maybe just put a pause, which is a big part. I mentioned earlier in my addiction recovery program. So if you've got the trigger, the thought and the action, and really you're trying to find a way to put distance between that thought and action. So you can change cues, which disrupt habits, Wood says. You can also put people through a different learning experience. So they develop different habits oriented more towards sharing accurate information. So I really highly recommend this article. I'll have the link, obviously in the show notes, but I hope that you were, I hope that you saw why I felt like this was so important.
That even the concepts around things like addiction could be challenged in certain situations. That some things are more just acting on a cue or things that have been habitualized that are working out of our unconscious or subconscious mind. And so just having the ability to address. To be aware that I might just be responding and then I can go back and reverse engineer to really get to that habit. And full transparency, I used the descript editing software that I love. It's what I used to talk so much about. That will let you take out the uhs and the ums and edit audio or video podcasts as if you were editing a word document. I cut out a big chunk and I'm going to put that next, because I realize this is me just going off on a little bit of a curious tangent about social media, about self confrontation, about being authentic. So I just put that here toward the end. So for the next seven or eight minutes, let me take you on my train of thought about some things that I've learned in engaging more with social media over the last few weeks. So if this is the end of your destination, if you want to hear more than hang, hang on there, we've got another seven, eight minutes. But if that is something that doesn't interest you, then I just appreciate you being here.
And please continue to send your questions and comments and thoughts and spread this episode around if you feel like you can help somebody else. And if you are up for what I would almost call some bonus material or just some thoughts, ramblings of me then hang on because we're going to get to that right now. As I go back to talking about something like the videos that I've been putting out on Tik Tok, I think this could apply to Instagram reels or YouTube shorts. I would feel safe saying that most of the audience that listens to my podcast is fairly active on social media. Not even meaning that they post, but they probably have Instagram accounts and they look at the Instagram and Instagram reels and maybe they are, they find themselves down the rabbit hole of Tik Tok often or Facebook. And as a therapist in this space, I feel grateful for the success of the podcast, but I haven't poured as much resources or time into social media. And I am now thanks to the, my, the yeah yeah agency that's helping me. And, I have a daughter that's helping me put things on Tik Tok. And there's two things I think are really interesting from a place of self confrontation. One is, I didn't even realize that I was doing the acceptance and commitment therapy principle where I was saying, well, if I had time and I put more things out there that I'm sure that it would go well or it, that it would my audience would grow just like these other people, that their audiences are big, these other therapists or maybe coaches that are in the social media platforms.
But I would say, yeah, but I don't have enough time. I've got a full practice. I've got multiple podcasts. I'm working on another book. I've got a family. So man, if I only had time, so then when I finally hired the Yeah Yeah agency and I have my daughter help me more, what is fascinating is now I am engaging more. And so then I recognized, oh, there was a real fear that if I actually do this, what if it just played to crickets and you can see maybe where the layers of needy were, it needing invalid wasn't needing validation. Was it a fear of invalidation? A fear of failure of an imposter syndrome. So many things that were there. So then as I start to put the content out there more with people that know what to do with that content. There was, I found myself not wanting to look at my social media even more. Because I think of that fear of failure or the imposter syndrome. And then as things started to progress and more followers are starting to come on board and some of the videos and the reels and some of the Tik Tok videos are hitting the numbers that I think I had hoped that they would, but I was afraid that they wouldn't.
I realize it doesn't matter. And here's where I go with that next is I think that I tried to do this a few years ago. I worry that I really still would have been chasing the likes or chasing the number of new followers and not just trying to put out authentic content and do that just from a place of, I hope that this can help. Not from a place of, I hope people like me and I hope that people will follow me. And I hope that people will share my stories or reels or Tik Toks. And here's where I go with that next, you'll see certain people go from not a lot of followers and then all of a sudden they have a lot of followers. And then it's almost as if you watch this I don't, I don't know if it's an evolution of where the larger they get, the more people comment on posts and there are going to be a percentage of people that are going to say not the nicest of things. And then I can only imagine that the people that find themselves in those spots, all of a sudden if you know, you hear, don't look at your comments, don't look at the comments that people say, but then we're human beings. So it's hard not to do that. And then when you see the negative comments, it's hard to not either go to this place of a man, maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. Maybe that one person is right and those 99 other people are wrong. And that is interesting. That's one of those cognitive distortions. There are cognitive distortions, there's all or nothing thinking, black or white thinking. There's also a one that we don't talk about enough where you can receive 99 positive comments and one negative comment. And then we assume that that one negative comment is the one that's true. The other 99 people are just saying that because they have to, they're just being nice.
They don't really know who I am, but the one person, they must be, they must know what they're talking about. And so if somebody is trying to, and this is where I go back to the be someone that they're not, but they're doing it because they simply want validation, external validation, and they are just trying to find a thing that will get people to say, man, you're the best or here's these extra views. That's where I worry that if people are attacking whatever someone is putting out there on social media. That's where the person that is putting the data out on social media, I believe is the most vulnerable because there, they may not even recognize that they don't completely feel a connection with whatever the material is that they're putting out.
Here's the example. So on Tik Tok, I have been putting out things that I talk about on the podcast. Everything from the expectation effect to the man and a whole metaphor that we're using the wrong tool in certain situations to the drop the tug of war and the rope, a tug of war rope in your fight against the anxiety monster. And telling therapy stories and things that a narcissist would never say. And all of these things that I just, I love and I feel like I can speak from the heart. I can speak off the tip of my tongue. And so one of the videos, for example, the one that's pushing a million views. There’s almost a thousand comments and I would say 90, 85, 90% of them are positive. And it's, so it is validating for people to say the things, nice things about therapy and maybe this helps or what they identify with. But that leaves a hundred to 150 others that are not as nice and kind. And so that's the part where I realize now, if I am commenting on posts, then commenting on the posts, it's really easy to, did it say thank you? And to try to be witty and fun in the comments. But the people that are absolutely trying to get a rise or poke the, poke, the bear, so to speak. Now I look at that and it's like, oh man, that's that makes me sad that they feel like that makes them feel good. Or it gives them that dopamine bump to be able to try to take down somebody that they don't know who is putting out content in the hopes of helping people.
But I recognize it doesn't affect me. It doesn't bother me. It really is coming from a place of oh, that would be hard if they felt like this video, if it resonated in the exact opposite way as it was intended. And so I'll bless them, but that doesn't mean I want to say oh, yeah, you're wrong. Because then I feel like, oh, now that person is just wanting to engage. And I feel like that almost goes back to this attachment wound, that person is almost saying, hey, I think you're dumb. And then, you know, do you see me? Because if I engage now all of a sudden, yeah. See that guy is super dumb because he doesn't even get how dumb he is and look at how he's interacting with me. And so I just, I really feel that goes back to this concept around authenticity. And that the more you are operating from a place of authenticity, you are working within what is called your healthy ego and healthy ego again is built off of real life experiences. And when you have a healthier ego, and I love talking about people with healthy ego Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, mother Teresa, Martin Luther king. And these people that just feel so confident in who they are and their cause that then that healthy ego is more of this thing that is it's internal. You cannot, you may be able to dent the outside. But you're not going to affect who that person is at their core, because they have had to get to a place through real life experience to get to the place where they are expressing things that they feel confident about, because those are the things that matter to them. They're not trying to just simply say things to get attention or to get validation. I just think that's so fascinating. I think I've watched a handful of people that I have known or been aware of that have had a bit of a, maybe even a meteoric rise in the social media world. And then you can almost feel a negative vibe take over on certain occasions where I think that they are responding to the haters, to the critics, that sort of thing. And I feel like that is coming from a place of them feeling like, how dare you attack my ego. When, if you are coming from a place of healthy ego, then all bless their heart, that they don't see the message that I'm trying to put off. So I just thought that was really interesting. Okay. I am back in real time. If you have hung on there this long, man, I probably should send you something. Thank you for joining me today. I appreciate all the support and taking us out per usual, the wonderful, the talented, the also on Tik Tok, Aurora Florence with her song, “It's wonderful”. Have a great week. And we will see you next week on the Virtual Couch.