A lump of lard. That’s what the pandemic turned me into. Doing all my lessons from home (i.e., none of the exercise I usually get by walking to the bus stop) + the ready availability of cookies and other tempting snacks in said home environment = more Stephen. Much more Stephen.
What to do? Knowing my propensity to resist just about anything except temptation, I did what any college graduate would do: I read a book. I sat at home, in my comfortable chair, cookies, chocolate, and other treats close at hand, and read all about the role of neurotransmitters in making and breaking habits. What was the result? Even more Stephen.
But a Stephen with a few more brain-related concepts. Time for action: I was going to re-train my brain to expect regular exercise and fewer of those ever-so-tasty empty calories. I was going to keep the new regime going for 45 days so that the new, healthier habits could establish themselves in my brain.
Notice that I say “brain” and not body. My frequent readings of neuroscience, in support of this publication, had convinced me that the problem was a mental one. Long a believer that the best way for a friend to stop smoking was to cease the physical act of putting cigarettes into her mouth and lighting them, I now thought differently. It’s a mental challenge, rather than a physical one.
 My sister, who gives this kind of advice for a living, says 30.
As an advocate of the predictive processing model of human cognition, I now understand that my brain constantly predicts how each situation I am in will develop. More importantly, though, I think I understand why the prediction is necessary: so that the brain can adjust the distribution and balance of internal body resources (glucose, neurotransmitters, blood gases, blood pressure, etc.) to be ready for what comes next. On top of that, I know that when the predictions seem about to be proved false, one of the strategies my unconscious mind could use to close the gap between prediction and eventuality was to have my body take action to make the prediction come true. It’s 10 minutes since the last cookie. I was expecting another sugar rush around now. Nope, don’t see cookies or candies approaching the mouth. OK. Unconscious brain to left hand: Reach out and take a cookie. Place it in the mouth, etc. etc. Prediction fulfilled.
I set about re-training my brain to expect something different: regular walks, once round the neighbourhood in the morning and once at night; smaller portions at mealtimes; almost nothing in between meals. All I need is a little will-power to keep it up until the new expectations are established and become my “new normal,” the new basis for my brain’s predictions. I can do this.
Of course, my brain had other ideas. Feels nice in bed this morning and you’ve been working hard. You don’t have to walk every morning. . . That chocolate cake sure looks good. Would be a pity if it went bad. . . You feel that in your stomach? That’s hunger—your body’s way of telling you that you need food. Could be dangerous to ignore it. And these weren’t even conscious thoughts, just mental drives for bodily action.
I gave in, of course. My brain knows me too well. In celebration of two weeks on a reduced diet (at least that’s how I rationalized what my brain wanted me to do), I had a cookie. You deserve it. Then another. And another. Within minutes it was all over.
The walking, though, is still going strong. After 73 days, I feel no resistance any more to tying up my shoelaces and heading out into the cold morning air. It is my new habit.
The book I read made a lot of sense: overcome your mental urges for 45 days and you will establish a new normal, it said. My brain no longer predicts that I will spend all day sitting around and has adjusted the balance of internal resources to accommodate my morning and evening walks. Break the new habit even once in the 45 days and you need to start again from Day Zero, said the book. With the over-snacking, I did start on my reduced intake again. I’m on Day 12 of my renewed diet and candy bars still look mightily attractive, but I now know that any backsliding can undo my 12 days of self-denial.
The moral, gentle reader? Study habits (or, in the case of some of my students, the habit of not studying) are not easily changed. (Re)forming study habits, changing the brain’s expectations, is not easy. It takes an effort of will at first. So, just saying “Study harder” is not very helpful. Students need both help and encouragement in forming good study habits: help to understand what we mean by good habits; encouragement when older habits start to re-assert themselves. It might be a good idea to give them some idea of the mental processes involved in forming new habits, too. It certainly helped me in my battle against the lockdown lard.
- Graziano Bruening, L. (2016). Habits of a happy brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphin levels. New York, NY: Adams.
Stephen M. Ryan teaches at Sanyo Gakuen University, and can be seen waddling around the streets of Okayama any morning or evening.