To Your Mental Health: Decoding Remote Messages

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Learn the hard truths about your old habits

By Jason Florin | Bugle Columnist

One hundred years ago, almost no Americans brushed their teeth. We had radios, cars and telephones, but refused to own toothbrushes. They were readily available, as were various forms of toothpastes and powders for cleaning teeth. But, it wasn’t until a cue and a reward was discovered that brushing became a habit.

We like to think that we brush our teeth because it’s a healthy thing to do. If asked, most people will say they brush because it’s an easy way to prevent cavities and maintain good oral health. But wearing sunscreen is also a simple behavior to do, and applying it daily before going out would prevent a huge number of people from being diagnosed with skin cancer. Yet, only a tiny portion of the population puts on sunscreen every day.

The 3 ‘RE’s

Our habits – the actions we do without thinking – occur in a regular loop with three parts, all starting with the letters “r-e.” The first part is a reminder, which is some kind of cue or trigger that starts the process. Next is our reaction – the automatic way that we respond to the reminder. The final part is a reward, which serves to reinforce the whole process and create a craving to experience the loop all over again.

What the toothpaste company Pepsodent did in the 1920s was to find a reminder and a reward that would trigger people to crave brushing and make it part of their routine. By adding a foaming agent and mint oil to their toothpaste, they created a pleasing effect associated with brushing.

And, just as importantly, they developed an advertising campaign centered around reminding people to check for a film on their teeth, which was sneakily linked to having a dirty mouth.

It turns out that foaming, minty toothpaste does absolutely nothing to clean our teeth. And the film that forms is quite natural and harmless. Brushing is good for other reasons, but those were not well known at the time. Nevertheless, the reminder and the reward worked so well that within a generation, almost everyone in America was brushing regularly. Today, the behavior is so encoded in our own routines that we hardly give it any thought at all.

How did I get here?

Have you ever found yourself driving home when you realized you couldn’t remember how you got there? It turns out this is an amazingly useful adaptation our brains have made.

Picture your brain by making a fist with your thumb sticking straight down, as if giving a thumbs-down sign.

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The thumb is your brain stem; the meaty part at the base of your thumb is a primitive area that ensures we swallow and breathe; everything inside your fist that you can’t see is your limbic system, which contains our reward circuitry and basic drives; and your knuckles and back of your hand represent your cortex, the higher order human-making parts.

The reason your best ideas come to you when showering, driving or walking is that you aren’t thinking. Your brain’s cortex – the area responsible for rational thought, planning and decision making – can take a break. More primitive parts of your brain take over, freeing up the gray matter for other tasks. If basic functions required our full attention, most of our great ideas would never happen.

But, the same area that guides you home safely with minimal concentration also directs you to less beneficial destinations, such as eating fast food when you see a sign with a giant yellow “M.” Without thinking, and arguably without choosing, you pull your car into the drive thru, all the while anticipating the delicious salt and fat that will hit your tongue in just a few minutes. Your brain is completing the loop, reacting to a reminder so it can get a reward.

Handle with care

Habits are embedded, but they are also fragile. It only takes a slight change to a routine for them to be reshaped, as journalist Charles Duhigg described in his 2009 book “The Power of Habit.” Imagine that all of the fast food places you pass were tucked far off the road, out of sight. The environmental reminders would be gone, thus making the reaction less likely.

Take the example of television. With television, much of the reward comes courtesy of our remote controls, which provide ultimate control and instant gratification. If you gave your remote to a friend to hold onto, you would still watch some TV.

But chances are, the habit loop would start to break down as the rewards associated with watching were minimized by not having a remote.

Your brain will naturally become frustrated when it doesn’t get the instant reward, and we can even become depressed by not having our cravings satisfied.

However, if we can insert a new reaction in place of TV watching, one that produces its own rewards, a new habit loop will spring up.

The new reaction might be reaching for a book or doing some light exercise in your living room.

Of course, altering certain habit loops takes a significant amount of time, effort and support. Changing deeply rewarding reactions such as smoking, using drugs or binge eating require focus and belief.

None of this is to say that creating new habits is easy. In fact, your old brain will fight tooth-and-nail to return to the old loop, knowing it will produce the desired reward.

But, a lot of things in life that are worthwhile aren’t easy. And if that means giving away your remote, then the price seems worth the payoff.

Jason Florin has 15 years of experience working in mental health and substance abuse treatment. He is currently an assistant professor and coordinator of Human Services at College of DuPage. He holds a master’s degree in Health Science from Governors State University, in addition to national and state certifications in addictions counseling. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent any other institution or organization.

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