Why it's a scientific secret, and not motivational talks, that will change your behaviour
Hi from Sophie Scott.
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore is not an act but a habit," Aristotle
Eat this to lose weight, do this to burn fat, be more productive, happier, sexier and live longer.
If only it was that easy to follow all the advice and information we are bombarded with!
As a journalist (and a medical one at that), I love facts, information and evidence.
My goal is to interpret the latest scientific studies for my readers and viewers, whether it's finding the healthiest diet, the best exercises or pathways to emotional wellbeing.
In other words, like you, I suspect, I know the good choices I 'should' be making.
Yet so often, that knowledge itself isn't enough on its own to change our behaviour and our habits.
My step son Jesse read my blog (thank you!) about living according to your values.
"What is the science behind why we make bad choices and why is it so hard to make good ones and stick with them?," he asked.
What I found, after sifting through the research, is that habits are unbelievably powerful.
Research from Prof Ann Graybiel from the McGovern InstItute for Brain Research at MIT found that habits and patterns of behaviour are deeply ingrained in the brain.
She found that rats trained to seek out pleasurable drinks.. will keep doing it, even after a substance is added to the drink which causes nausea.
When we humans do make an effort to change our habits, like giving up drinking or eating too much chocolate, why is it that we so often fall back into those habits?
The reason according to US psychiatrist Prof Jeffrey M Schwartz is that even if we change our behaviour, the bad habit is still there the whole time, hidden in the brain.
With habits, the brain is literally running on automatic.
But I found there are ways we can use neuroscience to unlearn those bad habits.. and foster new ones.
To change our habits, we need to activate a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefontal cortex.
It sounds complicated but in simple terms, it's the part of the brain that processes risk and fear. It also plays a role in decision making and habits.
A really interesting study by Emily Falk at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication found a simple intervention - reflecting on your core values- activates that part of the brain.
It also makes you more likely to accept advice and change your behaviour.
People in her study were sent health related text messages encouraging them to sit less and move more.
For some participants, the messages had an added self-affirmation message like "think of a time when you will help a friend or family member reach an accomplishment."
When the health messages were paired with self-affirmation, using brain scanning machines called fMRI, volunteers showed more activity in that specific region of the brain I mentioned.
And importantly, those people were much more likely to change their behaviour and habits.
"Reflecting on those values that bring us meaning can help people see otherwise threatening messages as valuable and self-relevant," she said.
"Our work shows that when people are affirmed, their brains process subsequent messages differently."
She's now working on an app that brings together health messages and your core values.
When we want to change our behaviour, thinking about your values or what you really care about, such as family and friends, really is the key.
So how can we use these scientific findings to our advantage?
Again, for me, it's thinking about each day ... Do my actions reflect my core values, or those things I care deeply about, like my family, friends, being a good parent and living a meaningful life?
(Minding the gap between values and actions as I've written about before).
Click here if you want to read more about healthy habits and happiness.
What I learned from investigating this research is that if you think about what you really value in life, you are more likely to change behaviours.
And that's very empowering.
By keeping these thoughts front of mind while you make any changes means you have neuroscience on your side. :)
Thanks Jesse for the inspiration.
Get in touch and let me know what or who has inspired you to change your habits and practices.
Until next time,
Sophie Scott is the ABC's medical reporter. Subscribe to her blog.
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