The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love—Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits
Judson Brewer and Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D.
See cool. Smoke to be cool. Feel good. Repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward. And each time we perform the behavior, we reinforce this brain pathway, which says, Great, do it again.
So we do, and it becomes a habit. A habit loop.
With these insights, Skinner introduced a simple explanatory model that was not only reproducible but also broad and powerful in its ability to explain behavior: we approach stimuli that have been previously associated with something pleasant (reward) and avoid stimuli that have been previously associated with something unpleasant (punishment). He propelled reward-based learning from sideshow to spotlight. These concepts—positive and negative reinforcement (reward-based learning)—are now taught in college introductory psychology courses across the world. This was a breakthrough.
Analogously, we spend much of our lives mindlessly and reflexively reacting in accordance with our subjective biases, losing sight of changes in ourselves and our environment that no longer support our habitual actions—which can lead to trouble. If we can understand how subjective bias is set up and operates, we can learn to optimize its utility and minimize any damage it may cause.
is there a way that we can remove or at least reduce the amount of subjective bias that conditions our behavior, whether we are sales representatives, scientists, or stockbrokers? Can understanding how our biases are molded and reinforced improve our personal and social lives, and even help us overcome addictions? And what truly human capacities and ways of being emerge once we step out of our old sea slug habit modes?
Many of our MBSR participants are dealing with acute or chronic medical issues, yet broadly speaking, they all share some type of dis-ease. Something is not quite right in their lives, and they are searching for a way to cope, a way to feel better. Often, they have tried many things, without finding anything that fixes the problem. As in the chocolate example above, something works for a little while, and then, infuriatingly, its effects die down or stop working altogether. Why are these temporary fixes only temporary?
In other words, what if we used our feeling of stress or dis-ease as our compass? The goal is not to find more stress (we all have plenty of that!), but to use our existing stress as a navigation tool. What does stress actually feel like, and how does it differ from other emotions such as excitement? If we can clearly orient ourselves to the needle of “south” (toward stress) and “north” (away from stress), we can use that alignment as a compass to help guide our lives.
“The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
“human capability” of “learning how to stabilize attention and dwell in a lucid space of non-reactive awareness.”
mindfulness is about seeing the world more clearly.
mindfulness becomes the map that helps us navigate life’s terrain.
“The point is to gain practical knowledge that leads to changes in behavior that affects the quality of your life; theoretical knowledge in contrast, may have little, if any, impact on how you live in the world from day to day. In letting go of self-centered reactivity, a person gradually comes ‘to dwell pervading the entire world with a mind imbued with loving kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity.’”5 This may sound too good to be true, yet we now have good data to back it up.
When we scratch the wound and give into our addictions we do not allow the wound to heal. But when we instead experience the raw quality of the itch or pain of the wound and do not scratch it, we actually allow the wound to heal. So not giving in to our addictions is about healing at a very basic level. —Pema Chödrön
addiction is continued use, despite adverse consequences.
I could line up their habit loop in my head. Trigger. Behavior. Reward. Repeat. In addition, they used substances as a way to “medicate”; by being drunk or high, they could prevent (or avoid) unpleasant memories or feelings from coming up, or not remember afterward whether those memories had surfaced.
In a study entitled “Hooked on Facebook,” Roselyn Lee-Won and colleagues argued that the need for self-presentation—forming and maintaining positive impressions of ourselves on other people—is “central to understanding the problematic use of online media.”6 The researchers showed that the need for social assurance was correlated with excessive and uncontrolled Facebook use, especially in people who perceive themselves as being deficient in social skills.
Ego, the self which he has believed himself to be, is nothing but a pattern of habits. —Alan Watts
This story is a great example of subjective bias—mine in this case. I had developed the subjective bias that Lance was clearly the best cyclist ever. This bias led me to get caught up in the story. I couldn’t let go of my idea that Lance couldn’t possibly have doped, which caused me a fair amount of suffering. Remember: addiction can be broadly defined as repeated use despite adverse consequences. Was I addicted to Lance? And why couldn’t I simply look at the facts as they began piling up? It turns out that these two questions may be related, and understanding this relationship may help shed light on how habits, and even addictions, are formed and maintained.
It was a good fit. Prasanta’s area of expertise was in simulating data to optimize real-world systems. In my lab, he set up a number of Monte Carlo simulations—those that use random sampling methods to predict likely (probabilistic) outcomes in systems with many unknowns. Monte Carlo simulations run through numerous scenarios and, based on available information, suggest which ones would be most likely to happen if they were played out in real life.
We learn to view ourselves in a certain light over and over again until that image becomes a fixed view, a belief.
In his novel Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Just because we think we’re so wonderful doesn’t mean we really are.” It can be helpful to become more aware of, and even challenge, our own views of ourselves. Sometimes flaws or strengths need to be pointed out to us, and our task is to learn to thank the messenger and take the feedback graciously—instead of shrinking away from constructive criticism or, at the other end of the spectrum, being unable to take a genuine compliment. Feedback is how we learn. At other times we can learn how best to (graciously) point this out to others, or at least start by putting up a sign in our mind: “Warning! Do not feed the egos.”
Knowing that anticipation gets our dopamine flowing, businesses use this to get us to click on their ads or apps. For a nice example of anticipation, here are three consecutive headlines from the front page of CNN’s website: “Star Wars Stormtroopers: What’s Their Message?,” “Affluenza Teen: The Damage He Caused,” and “Why Putin Praised Trump.” These are written not as fact-based messages, such as Putin praises Trump for being “lively” and “talented,” but instead as teasers to get our anticipation juices flowing—to get us fired up, and our dopamine neurons firing, so that we will click the link to read the article. No wonder they call such attention grabbers “clickbait.”
They found that almost 50 percent of the time, people reported that they were off task. That is half of waking life! Here is a key, counterintuitive finding: when the researchers correlated happiness with being on or off task, people reported being less happy, on average, when their minds were wandering. The study concluded, “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
In other words, thinking and all that goes with it (simulating, planning, remembering) is not the problem. It is only a problem when we get caught up in it.
Taken together, these data revealed the mode of subjective experience that lined up with PCC activity—not perception of an object, but how we relate to it. In a sense, if we try to control a situation (or our lives), we have to work hard at doing something to get the results we want. In contrast, we can relax into an attitude that is more like a dance with the object, simply being with it as the situation unfolds, no striving or struggling necessary, as we get out of our own way and rest in an awareness of what is happening moment to moment.
These brain studies of the default mode network may reveal something important in our everyday lives that we can start to pay more attention to—namely, getting caught up in the push and pull of our experience. On my meditation retreat, I really bore down, fighting my addictive thinking and trying to push it away. If we become habituated or even addicted to a certain way of thinking, whether simple daydreaming or a more complex ruminative response style, it can be hard to keep from getting caught up in “stinkin’ thinkin,’” as my patients with alcohol use disorders like to say. Our brain data filled in a critical piece of the puzzle: how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors relate to us. A thought is simply a word or an image in our mind until we think it is so great and so exciting that we can’t get it out of our heads. A craving is just a craving unless we get sucked into it.
How we relate to our thoughts and feelings makes all the difference.
We learn to see the world through a particular set of glasses over and over, to the point that we take the view they provide at face value as who we are.
The self itself isn’t a problem, since remembering who we are when we wake up each morning is very helpful. Instead, the problem is the extent to which we get caught up in the drama of our lives and take it personally when something happens to us (good or bad). Whether we get lost in a daydream, a ruminative thought pattern, or a craving, we feel a bit of tightening, narrowing, shrinking, or closing down in our bodies and minds. Whether it is excitement or fear, that hook always gets us.
It was only after several more years of practicing loving-kindness that it began to dawn on me what selfless love actually felt like. By the time I began residency training, I was starting to notice a warmth in my chest, a loosening up of some type of contraction in my body when I was doing the practice. Not all the time, but sometimes. I was certainly intimately familiar with the excited, contracted type of romantic love. Might this different feeling be metta?
Noticing that I wasn’t exactly bringing good cheer to my patients, I started testing what would happen to my contraction (and attitude) if, instead of yelling at the cars, I used their honks as a trigger to practice loving-kindness. First, a phrase to myself, “May I be happy,” and then a phrase to the driver, “May you be happy.” This helped break the cycle of self-righteousness and the contracted feeling that went along with it. Great—this was helping. After a little while longer, I noticed that I was arriving at work in a much lighter state. The contractedness was gone. Then it hit me: I don’t have to wait until someone honks at me to practice wishing people well. I can do it with anyone I see. I started arriving at work positively joyful on most days. This stuff seemed to be bottomless.
Later in the same sutta is a list of the “seven factors of awakening.” They are as follows: mindfulness (Pali: sati), interest/investigation (dhamma vicaya), courageous energy (viriya), joy/rapture (piti), tranquility/relaxation (passaddhi), concentration (samadhi), and equanimity (upekkha).10
Since anger and anticipatory excitement move us in the opposite direction, we need to find which types of activities foster joyful states.
The relevant insight from tradition and experience boils down to this: if you go around all day acting like a jerk, it will be hard to sit down and meditate. Why? Because as soon as we try to focus on an object, everything that was emotionally charged from the day will come marching into our heads, making it impossible to concentrate. If we come to the cushion not having lied, cheated, or stolen, there is “less garbage to take out” as Leigh Brasington, a meditation teacher specializing in concentration practices, likes to say. If this kind of virtuous conduct is the second step, what about the first, generosity?
The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow” in the 1970s while studying why people were willing to give up material goods for “the elusive experience of performing enjoyable acts” such as rock climbing.1 It became his life’s work to define how we conceptualize “being in the zone.” In an interview with Wired magazine, he described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” When that happens, wonderful things occur: “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”2
Elements of flow include the following: Concentration being focused and grounded in the present moment The merging of action and awareness A loss of reflective self-consciousness (for example, self-evaluation) A sense that one can deal with whatever arises in a given situation because one’s “practice” has become a form of implicit embodied knowledge One’s subjective experience of time becoming altered so that the “present” is continuously unfolding An experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding3
“In principle any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer if one is so inclined.”
“The important thing, however, is the attitude toward these disciplines. If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost. The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.”
For example, if we meditate in order to reach some fantastic state or to “be holy,” there is an implicit self-reference in the equation. As the self contracts or grabs onto an experience, “we” become separated from “our” experience. The two can’t be merged at that point. In other words, “I” am riding “my” bike. I can’t describe some self-transcendent experience unfolding in the now because I am not in it. In other words, the more we work to achieve flow, the more the contraction of excitement may be holding us back from reaching it. Our “me” is in the way.
YODA: “You must unlearn what you have learned.” LUKE: “All right, I’ll give it a try” YODA: “No! Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try.” Yoda is pointing out that self-defeating attitudes such as worry or doubt can get in the way—they are still self-referential, after all. If we stop wondering or worrying whether we can do a task, as long as it is within our skill
set, it gets done. The self is optional.
Is it possible that finding the right conditions and practicing them carefully helps our brains reinforce the neural pathways that support flow? It is not surprising that once we identify conditions that trigger intrinsically rewarding behaviors (such as mountain biking, meditation, music, and others), our brains will learn this “behavior,” just as it might with anything else.
Ironically, instead of getting lulled into mindless habits that leave us disengaged from the world, such as watching television, drinking alcohol, or getting high, we can tap into the same reward-based-learning brain pathways to become more engaged with the world.
Another way to look at the young monk carrying his (optional) burden is through the lens of resilience. Resilience can be defined as follows: The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness As
For in fact there is no simple list of rules to be followed in the pursuit of happiness (or holiness). A common formula for happiness is if X, then Y. But that type of happiness is dependent upon something external to ourselves, and doesn’t take into account the fact that we, and our environment, are constantly changing. Many, many times, the “if X, then Y” formula doesn’t work or quickly becomes outdated simply because our world has changed. The same is true of the habits that we form as we go through life. In our constant search for stability, we develop habitual if-X-then-Y responses based on external and internal triggers, which also become outdated.
She got caught up in resisting what was happening, not wanting it to be so, which made it harder for her to be present and work with it.
Worse, they tell me how they relapsed because they couldn’t handle the stress. Without some type of training to increase their pliancy or resilience, the old habits come back with a vengeance—“This is just what I do when things get tough,” they tell me. Their prefrontal cortex goes offline from the stress, and they revert to the familiar and automatic habits of smoking, drinking, or using drugs. And by automatic, I really mean automatic—they often describe “waking up” in the middle of smoking a cigarette or going on a bender, completely confused about how the half-burnt cigarette got in their mouths.
When I don’t take suffering personally, that freed-up energy can get recycled into helping. In fact, when seeing suffering clearly, I feel a natural movement to help. Many of us have had these experiences. Whether a friend calls on the phone in emotional distress, or we see a major natural disaster on the news, when we step back from worrying about ourselves, what happens? Paradoxically, we lean in, moving toward the suffering, whether by lending an ear, sending a donation, or otherwise. Why? Who knows for sure? As we know with loving-kindness or generosity, it certainly feels good to help. And by helping us learn to let go of our reactive habits, including self-protection, this type of reward should naturally increase our resilience.
The Buddha focused his teachings exclusively on suffering: “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering [dis-ease, stress] and the end of suffering.”
“The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this: . . . association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not receiving what one desires is suffering.”
He shows that there is a logical nature to our actions, which is as straightforward as a compass lining up according to the laws of physics. When someone yells at us, it doesn’t feel good. Nor does it when we are separated from our loved ones. And just as a compass continually orients to north and south, repeating these actions generally brings about the same results.
“The Noble Truth of the Origin [cause] of Suffering is this: It is this craving.”
“Giving [craving] up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it” results in “the complete cessation of that very craving.”
Finally, the Buddha lays out a path to the fourth truth, which leads “to the cessation of suffering.” He provides a detailed map. In After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor describes these four noble truths as a “fourfold task”: to comprehend suffering, to let go of the arising of reactivity, to behold the ceasing of reactivity, and to cultivate a . . . path that is grounded in the perspective of mindful awareness8
In life, we habitually react to our circumstances based on our subjective biases, especially when we don’t get what we want. Dropping into a mindful awareness of our habitual reactivity helps us step out of the cycle of suffering—resting in awareness itself rather than being caught up in reactivity. Batchelor lays this out in no uncertain terms: “‘The arising’ denotes craving; greed, hatred, and delusion . . . that is, whatever reactivity is triggered by our contact with the world. “‘The ceasing’ denotes the ending of that reactivity.”
When we are resilient, we can bend with new circumstances as we begin to experience them. When we are resilient, we don’t resist or avoid the grieving process. We recover faster our ego attachment and feeling of threat; we move on without holding on.
As we go through the day, seeing how many times we react to or resist things beyond our control can help us see more clearly that we are training our own resistance. We are building up our muscles to be able to fight that “bad” (new) idea. We are building our defenses to fend off that hurt when we get dumped. The extreme end of this spectrum is to steel ourselves, to not allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable. In their song “I Am a Rock,” Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel describe building walls of protection so that “no one touches me,” an ill-fated attempt to avoid the emotional roller coaster of life. Isolation as the solution to suffering: an island never cries.
The more clearly we see this unwanted result arising from a repeated behavior, the more disenchanted we become, and the less we will be naturally drawn to move toward that behavior. The excitement that was formerly a supposed source of happiness no longer does it for us. Why? Because the reward of letting go and simply being feels better than dis-ease. Our brains are set up to learn. As soon as we clearly see the difference between a contracted, self-reinforcing reward and an open, expanding, joyful self-forgetting one, we will have learned to read the compass. We can then orient ourselves and begin moving in the other direction—toward true happiness. Knowing how an instrument works is tremendously empowering; we can use it to its fullest extent. With our own suffering, instead of shrinking away from it or beating ourselves up for having gotten caught up in yet another habit loop, we can pull out our compass and ask ourselves, “Where am I headed with this?” We can even bow to our habit in a gesture of gratitude because in fact, in this moment, it is acting as a teacher, helping us learn about ourselves and our habitual reactivity so that we can grow from the experience.
When starting any type of un- or antiresistance training, whether taking a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course or using some other way to change, we can apply these three types of gym metrics to our reactivity as we go about our day. How often do we react by taking something personally? The simplest way to find out is to look for some type of internal contraction denoting an urge or attachment—remember, this physical sensation occurs with both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. How heavy is the burden, meaning, how contracted do we get? And finally, how long do we carry it around? Gaining a clear view of our reactivity will naturally point us to its opposite: letting go. We can use the same metrics to check our progress in this area. How often do we let go or not habitually react in a way that we used to? When we pick something up, is it lighter than before, meaning, do we not get as caught up in it? How long do we carry it around? And if we notice that we have been carrying something around, how quickly do we drop it (and not pick it back up)?
Orienting to stress and its opposite doesn’t lead us to something in particular. Instead, paying attention helps us start moving in a particular direction, at any moment.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning;
You can’t enforce happiness. You can’t in the long run enforce anything. We don’t use force! All we need is adequate behavioral engineering. —Mr. Frazier, in Walden Two, by B. F. Skinner
We have explored throughout this book how it is possible to get addicted to almost anything: cigarettes, alcohol, narcotics, and even self-images. It isn’t our fault. It is in our DNA to pair action with outcome, stimulus with reward, in order to survive. Studies of behavior by Skinner and others have shown that understanding how these learning processes work can help us change them for the better.
Seeing broader implications of this discovery, Skinner took the notion a step further, suggesting that this learning process can apply to everything, including sex and politics. Walden Two (1948), his only novel, is set just after World War II somewhere in America’s heartland. It describes an intentional, utopian society—a natural progression and societal extension of his work with animals. In Walden Two, Skinner emphasizes the engineering of self-control as a way to achieve this ideal, which, while a noble idea, may have some inherent limitations given our current state of brain evolution.
Interestingly, the Buddhist psychologists may have stumbled on a solution when they examined the same processes as Skinner. Focusing on the self and the development of subjective biases through reward-based learning as the core of the afflictive process, they may have identified not only a key component (craving and reactivity) of the process, but an elegantly simple solution as well: paying attention to the perceived rewards of our actions. Seeing the outcomes of actions more clearly helps us reduce our subjective biases, and this reorientation naturally leads to our stepping out of unhealthy habits, moving from stress toward a type of happiness that isn’t dependent upon our getting something. Making this adjustment frees up vital energy, which can be redirected toward improving our lives, whether that means being less distracted, engaging with the world more fully, finding greater happiness, and even experiencing flow. If any of this is true (and mounting scientific evidence continues to point in this direction), what is getting in the way?
Behavioral engineering happens in every industry in which Skinnerian techniques can be employed. Why wouldn’t they be? If we are trying to get people to buy our stuff, we need to figure out what motivates them to move (their “pain point”).
I am not pointing out this ubiquitous feature of contemporary life in order to scare people. These are long-standing practices that will gain momentum as markets expand and we become more globally interconnected. Besides, as Skinner pointed out, fear can be used to manipulate, too. As a psychiatrist, friend, husband, teacher, and brother, I have seen so much suffering that my pain point has been reached—it hurts to suffer and to see others suffering. Feeling this pain, I became motivated to do something to help. And so I am using what I have learned about the causes of suffering to help educate people so that they can develop their own tools to decrease it—both for themselves and for others.