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Posts Tagged ‘science and life’

I was reading an article a while back about some of the science behind the formation and maintenance of habits: “A dopamine-rich part of the brain named the striatum memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward, explains NIDA’s Volkow*. Eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviors almost automatic.”

That makes sense from a functional point of view. If routine behavior becomes automatic, that leaves more of the brain to deal with the non-automatic, the dangerous and threatening, the creative and new. When the habits and routines function in the service of productive living, they let you get more done with less effort.

But what about bad habits? They keep us from getting things done. Shouldn’t the reward system guarantee that behavior like that doesn’t become entrenched? If I’d write when I sit down to write, if I’d work when I need to work, if I’d exercise when I said I’d exercise, I’d get things done, and I’d still have time to rest, relax my brain, enjoy spousal time, and watch the Red Sox.

But I don’t have those good habits. Instead I surf the web, play video games, and whine about how I’m not getting any writing done. The bad habits seem to be stronger than any benefit I’m getting.

Except — those habits must be giving me some benefit. What positive benefit am I getting from NOT writing, NOT exercising, NOT getting things done around the house? What does it think it’s protecting me from? If I start to be an efficient, competent, productive writer, and think of myself as an efficient, competent, productive writer, isn’t that better?

Well, maybe not. If I’m efficient, competent, and productive, I’ll make my friends who are struggling feel bad because they’re stuck and I’m not. If I’m efficient, competent, and productive this week, people will expect me to be like that all the time, and then they’ll push all the work on me, and I’ll be the responsible one in the kitchen working while everybody else plays, and I’ll never have any fun ever again. (There are family reasons why I think this; it’s not just random fear.) And since writing is part of the fun — it’s a cycle. If I write, I jeopardize my ability to write in the future.

The kicker is that the situation that causes me to feel this way has long since ceased to exist. Looking back on it with the eyes of an adult, I’m not sure it ever existed the way I perceived it. The differences I attributed to power and control were probably personality and preference. So I’m stuck in a defense that doesn’t work against an enemy that never existed, and still acting like everything in my life depends on maintaining that defense.

I think it’s going to take a long time to unwind that negative cycle. I’m going to have to start with small steps. If I get a little more done, I’ll feel a little better about myself, and if I feel a little better about myself and my situation, that will mean a positive reinforcement that contributes to the new habits. And so on.

It’s not the only issue going on, but at least now that I’ve recognized it, I can start to work on it.

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* = Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain’s pleasure pathway. Full article has aged out, but if you Google Volkow’s name you can find more of her research.

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I was reading an article this morning about some of the science behind the formation and maintenance of habits: “A dopamine-rich part of the brain named the striatum memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward, explains NIDA’s Volkow*. Eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviors almost automatic.”

That makes sense from a functional point of view. If routine behavior becomes automatic, that leaves more of the brain to deal with the non-automatic, the dangerous and threatening, the creative and new. When the habits and routines function in the service of productive living, life is good. If the habits need to change — clearly, they’re hard to change. Doing something outside the web of reinforcing behaviors isn’t perceived by the brain to be a good thing (I’m at the philosophical level here, not the biochemical), it’s perceived to be a threat to the structure of life, or at least to smooth living.

It looks to me like that means the reward system has to change along with or even before the habit can change — in the short term as well as the long term. If it’s something like a good eating habit that’s going to pay off down the road, hanging out for long term rewards might work if you can keep reminding yourself, but getting the short term rewards in line will make it a lot easier to do and make the new habit a lot stronger. I was accidentally lucky a few years ago when we discovered that “eating healthy” opened up a whole new world of food we happened to find exciting and delicious. But recently we’ve been sliding back to “a starch and a veggie beside a slab of protien” eating.

It’s been even worse with my writing. I don’t have any particularly bad habits to overcome, but I’ve never been able to get into good habits, either. Not to write routinely on the task at hand. I go skittering off after the new thing or whatever looks exciting, but there’s no reward to plodding onward.

Partly this is due to the inherent delayed-gratification nature of writing anything longer than a bit of flash fiction. It’s at best days before something is finished, and often years. My issues with “impaired executive function” play into it, certainly. But I’m thinking that another aspect that might be lacking is not just routine but the structure around a routine that allow my brain to recognize that I’m entering the territory where automatic reactions ought to come into play.

In other words, I think this means I need to build up some healthy and more productive rituals around my writing — things that are immediate rewards, but also things that are signals that it’s time to settle down and get to work.

And when I thought about what I could do with that, I realized that since I got the laptop, I haven’t even had a fixed place to work. I love the flexibility of being able to write out on the porch, or at Panera, or in the room with the fireplace, but I’ve let my life fall into that and now all that’s left in what used to be my work area is castoffs and clutter. No wonder I can’t get into a writing habit!
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* = Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain’s pleasure pathway. Full article here.

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In connection with the ghost story, I’ve been doing research into missing persons and the identification of unidentified human remains. A lot of the modern technology deals with DNA identification, obviously. Today I ran across this very interesting discussion of what can be done:

http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2007/10/dnaprint?currentPage=all

Pretty amazing.

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New research shows that Macaque monkeys also display “uncanny valley” reactions.

The “uncanny valley,” for those of you who don’t know, is a robotics term that refers to a revulsion reaction many people experience when they study faces that are realistic, but not quite realistic enough. The evidence from this study strongly supports a biological interpretation for this phenomenon.

Besides the obvious implications for the development of human-like robots, and the interesting research paths for understanding human biology and behavior, the study makes me wonder what it means for people like me who *don’t* experience this phenomenon. I can look at animations with no more reaction than, “Wow, that’s really well done.”

I am wondering whether there are certain very subtle indicators of emotion that are missing in the unreal faces. Most people detect those markers and are disturbed by the lack. I’m very poor at reading emotion in real faces. I wonder whether I just don’t see those markers in real faces, and the lack of emotion in the artificial faces doesn’t bother me because I’m simply not perceiving the problem area?

The research is very much up in the air, so that’s pure speculation at this point. But I’m going to be following the research with considerable personal interest.

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