New directions in our understanding of addiction: 1. The science of habits

Since retiring from the university about a month ago, my “career” seems to be better defined than ever. I’m a science writer and a speaker. And because I get invited to write articles and give talks, I’m obliged to continue to update my understanding of my field, which happens to be addiction.

And things keep changing. In the realm of neuroscience, there is more attention to neuroplasticity, more attention to cellular changes and the molecules involved, new findings in genetics, epigenetics, the biological sequels of early trauma, and so much more. In the treatment realm, harm reduction and decriminalization have become centre stage, 12stepthere is increasing opposition to court-ordered attendance at 12-step groups, and the glaring discrepancy between the brain disease model and 12-step methods continues to…well, glare. At the interface between science and treatment, there’s new thinking about the benefits of psychedelics, new research on how meditation changes the brain, investigation of smartphone apps that might help control urges, and increasing precision in the debate between the disease model and the learning model — as both sides advance their weaponry.

I want to do a few posts that identify and explore these new directions.

To start, let’s go back to the fundamental question of definition. If addiction isn’t a disease, then what is it? As you can imagine, I get asked this a lot.

My first reaction is to call addiction a habit of mind. But what on earth does that mean? Calling it a habit of mind at least avoids having to choose to focus on cognition, emotion, or behaviour: rather, all three are on the table. Which respects the flockfinding that cognition, emotion, and behaviour can’t be clearly differentiated in brain structure or function. They overlap entirely.

But what do I mean by habit? It’s an old word, a colloquial word…how much traction can we get from such an everyday term?

ecosystemTo explore that question, let me tell you how scientists define a habit. And for that, we need to take a brief tour of complexity theory. According to complexity theory, a habit is a stable state in a complex system — a system composed of many interacting parts. Complex systems — such as ecosystems, societies, cultures, family dynamics, flocks of birds, herds of cattle, individual minds, individual bodies, and certainly individual brains — are made up of components (birds in a flock, family members at the herddinner table, plants and animals in an ecosystem) that continue to influence each other. As a result, the relations between them continue to change, which means that the whole system (e.g., the family, the flock, the body, the mind) can continue to alter its form. Change is intrinsic; it doesn’t come from outside the system. Change means change in the interaction patterns, the relationship of the components, not the components themselves.

trumpYour sister makes a caustic remark at the dinner table, then your mother puts down her fork, and then your father gets silent and distant, and then Aunt Jenny starts to criticize your sister. So the shape or form of the family dynamic changes, all by itself, with no particular push from the outside world.

But if complex systems can change so easily, why do they tend to fall into the same familiar patterns time after time? In fact, stable, recurrent patterns — or “habits” — are fundamental to all complex systems. They are called attractors, because they literally “attract” the system. The flock of birds continues to fall into its characteristic V shape, family arguments always devolve into a familiar but infuriating script, and individual minds fall into familiar concerns or interpretations (e.g., “nobody really understands me!” or “I’m just so cool”) every hour of every day. Attractors aren’t necessarily attractive!

When we talk about people’s minds, what do we generally call these attractors — these habits of mind? Well, if they last only a few hours, we can call them moods. But if they recur week after week, month after month, year after year, we can call depressionthem personality patterns. Personality patterns (or traits) emerge more and more predictably during childhood and adolescence. (Of course, most people have several and can even be seen switching from one to another — e.g., grumpiness to guilt — as circumstances shift.) These patterns recur, they get reinforced, they set synaptic connections into particular configurations (or recurring synaptic configurations set them, depending on how you look at it), and anxiousthey stabilize. In fact they become incredibly stable. Traits consolidate with development and they perpetuate themselves, becoming  “stuck” over the lifespan.

Complex systems naturally fall into habits. Otherwise, they would waste a lot of energy trying and discarding different patterns, different forms. That’s called chaos, and nature doesn’t like chaos. Complex systems fall apart if they can’t cohere into patterns. In fact, a large-scale pattern actually maintains the interaction of its parts in a very particular (and energy-efficient) configuration, which recreates the large-scale pattern again and again. So the (global) pattern and the (local) interactions literally cause each other (called circular causality). That’s what makes habits so resilient. aggressiveThat’s why it’s so hard to achieve deep, lasting change through psychotherapy. Hard, but not impossible.

What does this have to do with addiction? As I see it, personality traits or habits include what we might consider mental health problems. Such as: depression, anxiety disorder, overdependency, ocdparanoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, aggressive or antisocial personality style, etc, etc. All those patterns emerge and stabilize over development (even if they get a boost from genetics). They usually become stuck by early adulthood, they cause a lot of misery, and they are hard (but not impossible) to change. Addiction is just another such pattern.

So addiction isn’t really different from other mental health issues: it’s a sticky, long-lasting habit in the development of the self. And when you look at how complex systems work, how they get stuck, you see that addiction is actually natural. It’s not some kind of aberration. (Of course that doesn’t mean it’s good!)

Addiction is a habit in a very real sense. It’s a self-perpetuating way of thinking, a self-cohering set of beliefs, a self-reinforcing progression of emotions (desire-excitement-disappointment), and a limited (stuck) behavioural repertoire. Addiction is a habit of mind.

53 thoughts on “New directions in our understanding of addiction: 1. The science of habits

  1. Kevin Marshall September 3, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    A very interesting post on the connections between habit and addiction. I am an addict (I still call myself that after thirty odd years of recovery) and I know the power of habit in my life.
    But when I look back at my life before addiction, I can see that I had a number of personality traits – a greed for pleasure, avoidance of difficulties, extreme self-consciousness etc. – which I believe made me a dead cert for some form of major difficulties in my life ahead. Addiction (mainly alcohol and benzos with lots of other drugs thrown in) pushed me to a point where it was either deal with my difficulties or die. I think that otherwise I would have gone through life as lost as I was as a teenager.
    I’m not sure about addiction as a disease but I do like Gabor Maté’s ideas around early attachment and brain development in children.
    Again, thanks for an interesting post

    • Marc September 4, 2016 at 5:00 am #

      You’re very welcome. I’m glad it resonates with your experience.

    • Terry September 5, 2016 at 1:12 am #

      Hi. Like Kevin I am attracted to Gabor’s ideas (not really his alone) because the formation of the personality, which is the sum of ones habits of thought and behaviour begins in early childhood and is influenced in my mind by possibly a sense in the child of being loved and accepted or not. This sense creates self esteem, the view of the self by the person and this view dictates over time how a person treats themselves. A person with a poor view of themselves created by whatever means or simply in their perception of the world around them (meaning that even children raised in seemingly good families can succumb to negative behaviour) will see little reason to treat themselves well. After all no body wants me anyway. A person who feels loved and is somewhat grounded will treat themselves better, will have different self values so to speak. Low self esteem is very common in addiction, as is anxiety or a sense of being unsafe in the world. This affects the individuals view of themselves and the world around them. They dislike themselves for being unlovable and dislike the world for not loving them. Insecurity and anger pervade. Then along comes drugs and that insecure unlovable person sees both a different person and a means of escaping the inevitable truth of themselves or what they think is the truth. Thence begins the slowest form of suicide, the self flagellation drug and alcohol (and any out of control addiction) brings. Habits are set up early that are self defeating and negative and addiction loops continue the story, around and around until for some reason the values change or the perception of the self becomes realistic and accepted. Then change occurs almost spontaneously, usually in the 40’s and 50’s, the growing up period of addiction. Least that’s one view. Duhigg writes about habits well and gives a good understanding of the loops used by the brain to save time and effort; trigger, behaviour, reward. Drug addicts find triggers in almost anything and almost everything in time. The cure for addiction, is to find another addiction, one that is better for you. Terry

      • Marc September 10, 2016 at 4:44 am #

        I agree with just about everything, and my book, Biology of Desire, stresses the idea that addiction is a continuation or extension of personality development. I wish I could remember where I read (or perhaps it’s so obvious that no source is needed) that low self-esteem is the single factor underlying almost all mental health problems. I like Gabor’s take on this as well.

  2. Paul Smith September 4, 2016 at 5:17 am #

    Hi Marc good read as ever.
    Interestingly I have just finished a Batcheors at Bath uni (UK) in Addiction counselling and part of the brief was a group leadership module. A core part of this was Transformational learning and habits of the mind (Mezirow)

  3. Karen Tutt September 4, 2016 at 5:25 am #

    I’ve thought this when reading some of Marc’s earlier posts – that substance addiction is similar to the tendency that abuse victims have, to repeat the same pattern in a succession of relationships. Poor self esteem, poor impulse control, difficulty in self-regulation, difficulty in goal setting, motivating self, experiencing pleasure or a sense of achievement. It’s like you get addicted to being abused, controlled, manipulated, and you lose all those other, more “natural” functions of a healthy mind.

    • Marc September 4, 2016 at 5:54 am #

      When the term “natural” is used to indicate something we value, then okay. But if “natural” just means the way things behave in nature, then addiction is as natural as anything. All these features that you mention tend to reinforce or perpetuate each other. In other words, they form a feedback cycle. Feedback is the primary mechanism, the glue, that holds habits in place. So, yes indeed, you get a highly resilient habit of self-abuse (or submission to abuse by others) and low self-esteem.

  4. Spencer September 4, 2016 at 5:33 am #

    Another great comment Marc, I watched you both nights when you were in London recently, you are the first person to truly articulate how I understand my own addiction from the inside out. I’ve used traditional 12 step rehab and meetings since, but deep down I know that brain plasticity and learned embedded pathways are both my problem and the solution. For me 12 steps has forced me away from the alcohol for enough time for me to start to form new synapses and make old pathways less prominent, but it’s been tough. I’ve got so many ideas for research in this area I’m on the process of starting at Kings hopefully to do an MSc neuroscience with aim of subsequent PhD, at 38 and this would be a change of career from banking to medicine, but I feel pulled into this like it’s meant to be. You were the Catalyst for making this possible for me and for that I’m grateful, Marc – would love to get a coffee with you he next time your in London, Spence

    • Marc September 4, 2016 at 5:57 am #

      I’m glad this perspective is working for you, Spence. And it sounds like 12-step groups were beneficial as well. Hopefully we’ll get that coffee some day.

  5. Peter Sheath September 4, 2016 at 6:03 am #

    Hiya Marc
    Sorry it’s been so long. This is a brilliant piece, I love it. Habit as order, I’ve never even considered that before, I’ve always equated addiction with chaos. It makes perfect sense to me now as I’ve always, in some way, seen my habitual use of substances, and various other behaviours, as solutions to the disordered thinking, feeling and behaviours that I engaged in without them. So long as I was an addict, behaved like an addict, felt like an addict and used like an addict, all was relatively well. The moment I stopped the volume went up, everything seemed to speed up, nothing made sense and I was totally disconnected. Chaos ensued. As you say, nature doesn’t particularly like chaos and must, almost inevitably, move towards order. One little tiny tenth of a gramme of heroin administered in the right way, order restored. I suppose the same happens naturally, as our neurology adjusts in recovery, it just takes a lot longer.

    • Marc September 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm #

      Hi Peter. This is a really insightful way to make sense of how order vs. chaos play out in addiction and other personality outcomes. Indeed, addiction organizes a life that was previously disordered. The only problem is that the order becomes too attractive to give up. I mean to say: not only does it have its own built-in stability, but that simplification and order is something we cling to. No, nature does not like chaos — but we don’t like it either. The emotion that goes with disorder or chaos is anxiety.

      Other outcomes also bestow order in a devastating way. Depression is a good example. It organizes your thoughts and feelings, closing down many avenues of exploration and possibility. Life becomes relatively simple, and simply awful. That’s partly why depression can lead to suicide. Not because it’s so painful (though it is) but because it’s so hard to dislodge.

      • matt September 13, 2016 at 3:10 am #

        Approach, avoidance; attraction, repellency; order, disorder; control, chaos. Nature does not like chaos. Nature is chaos, or rather the dance between chaos and homeostasis. Addiction is the elusive, illusory attempt at trying to control and manage that chaos, instead of accepting it. If addiction is about trying to control the chaos in our lives, “recovery”– or whatever the f— we decide to call it– is about awareness (of the chaos), acceptance (of the chaos), and balance. In the negative state we call addiction (there are positive states of addiction-like hyper-focus and deep learning that move us forward and don’t keep us “stuck”), our brain is out of balance and is messing with our mind. Meetings, therapy, CBT, the serenity prayer, 12-Step, SMART Recovery, Buddhism, medication, meditation, yoga, etc., etc…are all viable paths to strike that balance. When we accept the fact that there as many paths to recovery as there are to addiction, we can dissolve the psychic butt plug that keeps us all working at cross purposes.

        • Lisa September 20, 2016 at 11:33 am #

          psychic butt plug! LOL. Hi Matt!

  6. Louise Sutherland-Hoyt September 4, 2016 at 6:18 am #

    Very refreshing! In my own practice here in Florida, I have begun to refer to addictions as “Behavior Attachments” to a very powerful “Feeling State” that consists of 3 elements: Internal positive cognitions such as “I am loved, accepted, safe, can be myself”, secondly, emotions such as elation, happiness, relieved, or satisfied”. Thirdly, there is a very powerful, positive physiological sensation such as rapid heart rate, tingling in the skin, or sensations in the abdomen. This would explain why “addictions”, whether behavioral or chemical, are interactive, that is when abstinence from one behavior results in the manifestation of another behavior that results in the same positive feeling state described above. I use EMDR to minimize the link between the behavior and the feeling state as described by Dr. Robert Miller, Ph.D. in his Feeling State Addiction Protocol. Thanks for your articles!

    • Marc September 8, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

      Indeed, the elements that tend to feed back with each other and coalesce into a stable habit are sticky, so to speak. These elements, being volatile and also versatile, can sync up with each other or with other elements, creating new self-perpetuating constellations that also stabilize — to your detriment. That’s what can take you out of one addiction and into another. The excitement you mention is one such element.

  7. Mark September 4, 2016 at 6:48 am #

    Marc, you’ve probably come upon the social policy research on Wicked Problems.
    Clearly, many bad habits fall into that category, which makes addressing them difficult, but not impossible. https://hbr.org/2008/05/strategy-as-a-wicked-problem
    It helps to know the degree of complexity a challenge presents.

    • Mark September 4, 2016 at 8:31 am #

      P.S. I’m doing my best to help people open to possibilities … https://www.bastyr.edu/civicrm/event/info?id=2018&reset=1

      • Marc September 8, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

        Thanks for these references, Mark. No, I haven’t been aware of problems defined in this way. I’ll have to think about the goodness of fit, but one thing seems to make a direct hit: the problem can’t be resolved through conventional methods.

  8. matt September 4, 2016 at 7:15 am #

    What’s the name they’re using a lot now in the literature…hedonic homeostatic dysregulation… a pleasure balance problem? Works for me. Sometimes you can even see the gradual shift to a new habit’s labored emergence, the balance between cognition, emotion, belief and behavior coming back to the system– from feeling controlled to feeling in control. It takes a while to stick, but if you catch a person expressing something resembling it in a meeting, pointing it out to them can help grease the wheels a bit. It’s keeping attention focused on it that’s the bitch.

  9. matt September 4, 2016 at 8:08 am #

    Another thing I believe is relevant to the intersection of all these human functions, is the physical/psychological phenomenon most addicts experience when they know their reward is imminent. Diarrhea abates, feeling like crap lessens, a certain calm descends. The “knowing you’ll get” tempers the “wanting to have.”

    • Marc September 8, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

      That’s very true, and I think that’s what Peter refers to above when he talks about addiction as literally resolving the chaotic character of a person’s life. Calm descends, the diarrhea abates…exactly…as you feel the orderliness of the addiction condensing your consciousness into something familiar and manageable (for now).

      • matt September 9, 2016 at 3:10 am #

        …and in control… and safety. No matter what those naïve to addiction may assert about addicts being out of control– this is all about being in control. As addicts, we know how to predictably change our internal state, and we know how to do it instantly. A very compelling neuro-chemical proposition to the brain, but not one that is re-acheivable experientially like that first compelling feeling of safety and comfort or control. Hence, you can never go back again, we continue to chase that ineffable “first high”, and continue to motivate the behavior that 12-Step characterizes as “the disease of more.”…or different…or better.

        Successful “treatment” entails doing whatever it takes to bring ones’ neurochemistry, one’s brain, one’s life back into balance…something that will be different for everybody. It’s a goal of life, not “treatment.”

        • Marc September 10, 2016 at 4:49 am #

          I agree that addiction (or the repeated acts that result in addiction) are primary means to establish control. And with drugs…it works extremely well. What a revelation it was for me that I could swallow something that would provide a desired mood change. It felt miraculous for the first year or so, and I probably would never have quit if it had continued to work the way I wanted it to.

  10. cheryl September 4, 2016 at 9:07 am #

    Nice post! Habits are hard to change but not as fatalistic as a “chronic disease”.

  11. Helen September 4, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    Marc-
    Over thirty years in “recovery” accompanied an unsettling internal response arising when sitting in meetings hearing the word “disease”. My new language of recovery supported my change in behaviors, and then the questions came, and never stopped. Educating myself into the deeper workings of the mind, which then created more curiosity. ” The Power of Habit, followed by ” The Biology of Desire ” addiction as a habit. Bingo
    Helen

    • Marc September 10, 2016 at 4:51 am #

      The Power of Habit has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, and I’ve been habitually ignoring it. That’s one habit I can break. Thank you.

  12. Helen September 4, 2016 at 11:50 am #

    …. and ” Virus of the Mind” Richard Brodie.

    • matt September 4, 2016 at 12:01 pm #

      Great combination! I think “The Power of Habit” is a nice complement Marc’s book. A good description of how we learn and unlearn habits.

  13. matt September 4, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

    I think whatever addiction is– a habit, a disease, a choice– it is a relationship. A relationship we can control– until we can’t anymore. I love the “Biology of Desire’s” description of it being like the obsession of falling in love. You can’t get them/it out of your mind. Then you get together and it’s very intense for a brief time. But then, it’s like,

    “Well, he’s not that great…he kinda chews with his mouth open and needs to rethink those shoes…Do I really want a relationship with him?”

    Then you leave and once again you can’t get him out of your mind.

    But the coping mechanism relationship, the one that we can control unlike all the other scary relationships in our lives– it gets so deeply entrenched as to be automatic.( Like driving a car, riding a bike, or tying your shoe). How do we get our recovery behavior to be an automatic behavior. Because if it doesn’t, we will eventually revert to the established automatic habit.

    Marc, could you say something about the role automaticity plays in addiction— and recovery. 12 pages should suffice. 🙂

    • Marc September 10, 2016 at 4:55 am #

      How about just two sentences:

      Coping with negative emotion is the mother of all habits. Babies learn to suck on something to do just that, and they begin to do it automatically because it works. Our self-regulation methods evolve out of this basic self-soothing habit, but they remain deeply entrenched, intimate, and essential.

      Okay, three sentences.

  14. William Abbott September 4, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

    Oh good– full time writer now hmmm.. now that means you can write that next book Ive been bugging you about :))

  15. Sally September 4, 2016 at 6:43 pm #

    What then, given this model, is advice you would give to families of addicts?
    I’ve been on a devastating journey of 20 years with an adult child, addicted like Kevin to alcohol, benzos and recreational drugs thrown in. I’ve read everything and anything.
    Marc, your books make sense but I’m searching for practical advice.
    What resources would you recommend?

    • Marc September 10, 2016 at 4:59 am #

      That’s too hard a question to answer in a comment, Sally. But my first thought is that I would give up after 20 years. An adult is an adult, and their behaviours are their responsibility. You need to live your life without this continual sink-hole.

      And changing that enmeshed dynamic could trigger a cascade of all sorts of other changes…positive changes…in that other person. But that’s not your responsibility.

  16. Adriana September 5, 2016 at 5:28 am #

    Thanks for another brilliant piece Marc!
    This is genius. I’ve always felt you had the least emotionally loaded view of addiction (thankfully, as I feel there’s enough complexity and emotionality to process in addiction as it is!) but the view that addiction is a ‘natural’ habit of the mind as opposed to chaos is amazing. Legend!
    I’m happy you’re back writing, missed your style and insight!

    • matt September 5, 2016 at 9:20 am #

      Thanks for this insight, Adriana

      I put together “commitments” at detoxes and other facilities culling from members of a recovery center that embraces all paths to recovery. The point is to hit home that there are as many paths to recovery as there are to the development of addiction; to present with not just one person saying it, but representatives from different age groups, different places, different stages in their recovery, and who used different programs and strategies to support their recovery. The response is usually positive, but peppered with resistance with arguments, like “My sponsor will dump me”, or “I can’t go back to my regular meeting”, “ that program doesn’t believe in spirituality”, “that program says you have to believe in God”, or “that program teaches people how to drink and use in safety” or “if you stop going to groups, you will relapse”, or “how will I explain this to so-and-so?” etc. All distractions. The fact is, no reputable therapeutic approach or philosophy would promote such hogwash. Humans do it. Humans who are guilty and ashamed of their behavior. Humans who want to hide this reality behind closed doors and church basements to avoid stigmatization, but in doing so actually reinforce it. This is a problem of human motivation and learning gone off the rails; of the brain doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, but without balance, so it topples over the edge. If we don’t recognize addiction as a natural consequence of human motivation, adaptation and coping, it will remain stigmatized, poorly understood and unchanged.

    • Marc September 10, 2016 at 5:06 am #

      Thank you so much, Adriana. Yes, I try to look at addiction objectively, but I feel all sorts of things when I hear people’s stories. You’re right: we need to balance the intrinsically heart-wrenching character of addiction with a cool head.

  17. Ryan smith September 5, 2016 at 10:22 am #

    Kent Dunnington’s Addiction and Vidtue follows a similar line of reasoning viewing addiction as better described by the philosophical category of habit (as classically defined by Aristotle and Aquinas).

  18. Jeffrey W Skinner September 5, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    I like these ideas very much. The problem for me with the disease model, in its radical form, is that it defines the addict as an object that needs to be fixed. When you look at addiction as a habit, or more generally, a behavior, then the choices of the addict become central. Your choices are constrained by your individual social and genetic identity,, but making choices is the key to the limited freedom human beings have.

    • Marc September 10, 2016 at 5:17 am #

      That’s right. William James was brilliant in his portrayal of habit.

      “The acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.”

      –William James (1890)

      Says it all, doesn’t it? I got this quote from Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brain Pickings (https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/09/25/william-james-on-habit/)

      Here’s another gem from James, same source:

      “Plasticity … in the wide sense of the word, means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.”

      And see William James’ book, oddly enough called “Habit” (https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B002ZVPDUO/braipick-20)

  19. Helen September 5, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

    The trajectory of the unfamiliar is left to the warriors, or those who no longer can tolerate to inevitable chaos that comes with addiction, or a learned behavior of coping. The choices made thereafter, abstaining, or some form of recovery, take time. The time to restructure those well worn pathways, and develop new hiways of thought, and tolerance for the discomfort
    Most appear motivated by the faster arbitrary method of twenty-eight days, or one day at a time… choices, trial and human.

  20. Gary September 6, 2016 at 8:41 am #

    Disease or habit, in my opinion, doesn’t necessarily mean that much, however, what causes a problem is a problem. Long before I ever developed a “drinking-problem” I had a “thinking-problem” about drinking and/or drugging. For me, this is where “belief” becomes a “thief”. “Change”, without question, is an inside job once a person is able to grasp that he or she sees the world the way they are and not necessarily the way the world truly is and is changeable. Pivotal points in a person’s life that can trigger “Clarity” can both be success and/or “failure”. This is why struggle or hitting “a bottom” can awaken a person to a now moment. There is no methodology, with respect to this higher force or innate intelligence without measurement that can appear spontaneous in a persons’ life. It happens all the time, a person quits smoking “cold-turkey” never to smoke again, or using other drugs etc.

    Where humanity is concerned, as Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it; “The Observer is the Observed”, which, indicates, for me, that there is a seeing beyond thought that automatically translates into right immediate action. “Thought” can actually keep a person hanging unto the “Idea” of changing even for years without any change at all.

    Jiddu Krishnamurti has also been known to say; “Be A Light Unto Yourself” and depend on nobody, no method, etc.!~

    • Marc September 10, 2016 at 5:31 am #

      I once read a lot of Krishnamurti — liked him a lot. And it does seem that there is this groundless “insight” that can trigger massive change, without much thought or trial and error. But see William James’ advice, which I quoted above, as a more methodical approach to changing one’s habits.

  21. Dr. Ron September 6, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

    I loved the final paragraph, a perfect encapsulation, easily understandable by all and identifiable by those fortunates among us who have survived and have the blessing of hindsight.

  22. Tom B September 6, 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    Thanks, Marc, for putting me on a new tack in my attempt to put down alcohol. Three days sober, like, for the nth time, and after reading your latest book, now convinced that I need to solve some of the underlying tensions in my life that cry for alcohol as a relief–stressful job, living places that frustrate deep longings for place, getting my art out into the world, etc. And to do that I believe I need to address my procrastination. Procrastination is a habit, right? Habitual delay? So I’ve sought and found procrastination literature that addresses deep issues while still giving tons of practical tactics. Duhigg too, it sounds like, from what people have suggeted above. Here’s to the energizing effects of hope.

    • nik September 6, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

      Here’s a tidbit of interest. You know that the AA ‘big book’ does not use the term ‘disease’. (In part because Bill et al. did not see physiological processes as primary, core, and overriding, as those with a medical/disease model tend to say.)

      I just checked for ‘habit’ in that book. Its authors have no problem with calling the alcoholic’s behavior ‘habit’ [plus other things] in several passages. It does say at one point that if you have an ‘allergy’, then the habit will be very hard to break. (In other words there’s an *element* of physiological or brain dysfunction.[xxvi])

      Thus I’m quite happy to say “addiction to x” is a habit that’s hard to break and harmful to oneself and (often) those around one. And I find this fully concurrent with the Big Book and the AA view before those folks too began embracing a ‘disease model’ roughly since the 1960s.

      • Marc September 10, 2016 at 5:40 am #

        Indeed. An allergy to a plant or animal can set off an explosion of scratching….and habit is born.

    • Marc September 10, 2016 at 5:38 am #

      Good luck to you, Tom! I KNOW how hard it can be. Yes procrastination is a habit, but so is self-criticism. Try telling yourself that you’re just a human being, struggling to make yourself better, not such a bad guy. In fact, smile at yourself.

      Hope is great stuff, but it get a huge boost from self-compassion — which acts as a kind of catalyst.

    • matt September 11, 2016 at 2:51 am #

      Here’s something else to consider: Procrastination as a natural outgrowth of perfectionism. Most people would agree perfection is impossible; it’s relative. When the belief that it is possible and desirable constrains our motivation to act in order to avoid making mistakes, we can become as hamstrung as by any other addictive behavior. In fact, on more than one occasion people have actually come to meetings declaring, ” I’m addicted to procrastination.”

      Procrastination is volitional inaction. What’s the cure? Deliberate action. In addiction, our brain has lulled our mind into the loop of pursuing that perfect state, the perspective that artificially changing our consciousness is changing our lives for the better. That “perfect” state doesn’t exist anymore, but we continue to chase the illusion, like a dog chasing its tail.

      Nothing is perfect, change is inevitable, life is about change, and change is action. When we accept life, we accept change, and what we make of that, our attitude, brings us happiness.

      Procrastination, like addiction, keeps us stuck. We gotta keep moving.

  23. Erin September 12, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

    Hi Marc.
    This reminds me of the idea of policy resistance in system dynamics, though I also apply it in agent-based modeling, which is firmly connected to complexity theory. The idea being that our policies – and we could include in that the ‘policies’ of an individual or a family – often meet resistance in complex systems. Policy resistance shows up as short-term improvement, no change despite multiple efforts, or even negative, unintended consequences. I think the most interesting examples are when subsystems are working at cross-purposes within the larger system, so the effects cancel each other out. This happens all the time, across all levels, with anything related to illicit drugs. Drug users and law enforcement often have directly conflicting goals, for instance.

    It is my view that we do not understand enough about the complex and dynamic social interactions within the social systems in which drug users are embedded. Policies meet resistance because we have not accounted for how these social systems will adapt and respond to attempts to change them from the outside, or even how they respond when individuals change them from within.

    Anyway, the challenge I face as a researcher – and I recall you mentioning this before as well – is how to make this more than a useful conceptual metaphor. I will be using qualitative data and existing lit to inform an agent-based model for my dissertation, hoping this might be one way to make it more than metaphorical, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen…

  24. Robert Hafer September 29, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

    Your article was very informative and it brought to mind a theory I had read about. If the brain is preprogramed for certain emotions one of those could be it is programed for sadness as its default settings. This would explain a lot about why people use and seek alcohol and drugs and why habit would ensue if they needed to rewire their brains to not default to sadness. When the emotion of happiness is not the default and the things that make people happy must be found and sought after then the use of drugs to produce happiness would soon follow. Both culture and advertisement reinforce this theory by producing the affect that the substance they are ingesting is always associated with people having fun and being happy. Until the real truth about the long term affects of using these substances comes into the forefront than both children and adults will be programmed to think in this matter. Again just a concept to think about .

  25. Kevin Omondi April 8, 2019 at 9:23 am #

    The human brain is just a reactor. It is only responding to stimuli… a series of sensations are hitting the human body everynow and then, thru thought it differentiate whether a particular sensation is pleasurable or painful, the problem is not the sensation, but the demand to experience the same thing over and over(we love pleasure most) but the body treats pleasure and pain in the same way, its thought which has created the two, but to the body they occur on the same frame thats why every sensation is shortlive, they are temporary. The human organism is a machine, a computer, but an extraordinary machine with a living quality!

  26. Kevin Omondi April 8, 2019 at 9:44 am #

    What I have posted above are my ideas from Ug Krishnamurti. I think it tells more about our behaviours and habits relating to ua ideas, Ug did again said that every movement towards any direction is perpetuating the self. Man being a bundle of memories or (habits)…

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