Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D. is the director of research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor in medicine and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, an adjunct professor at Yale University, a longtime meditator and has written a book called The Craving Mind. His research has shown him what leads to people getting addicted- whether to cigarettes, smartphones or love- and he has advice to help everyone avoid the traps our brains can get us into.
One powerful way we learn is through reward-based learning. When we are exposed to a trigger, we move toward that trigger and get rewarded by experiencing something that feels good (positive reinforcement) or move away from that trigger and terminate a negative feeling (negative reinforcement). Habit loops get formed when this pattern occurs over and over- Trigger. Behavior. Reward. The more we repeat a behavior, the more we learn to see the world in a certain way- through a lens that is biased. Over time we get used to wearing a certain lens and forget that we are even wearing it.
Brewer defines addiction as continuing to use (or do) something despite adverse consequences. Engaging in abusive behavior hijacks the dopamine reward system in the brain. That pattern of Trigger. Behavior. Reward., which works well for all animal species in terms of finding food, mating and avoiding aspects of the environment that are dangerous, unfortunately lends itself all too readily to behaviors that are rewarding in the short term but not helpful to us in the long run. When you’re feeling nervous, you smoke a cigarette and then you feel less nervous, you’ve just strengthened that habit loop for yourself. When your smartphone signals you that you’ve gotten a message, you check it and then you feel good to see that someone has liked something that you posted, you’ve just strengthened that habit loop for yourself. The same goes for romantic love, which Brewer explains involves a focus on how you are feeling, which increases cellular activity in the posterior cingulated cortex (PCC), which is the brain region linked most consistently to self-reference. The book offers more interesting information about all of this, so if you’re interested, you’ll want to read the book.
What about the connection to Brewer’s meditating that I mentioned above? Well, when he launched the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic with a smoking cessation study, he found that the results revealed a better outcome by those who used his program than those who used the American Lung Association’s gold standard Freedom From Smoking treatment. What did his treatment involve? Generally speaking, Mindfulness, that is, “seeing clearly what happens when we get caught up in our behaviors and then becoming viscerally disenchanted.” (You’ll have to read the book to see what Brewer says the Buddha had to say about all of this.) More specifically, mindfulness involves a series of behaviors that can be remembered with the mnemonic RAIN. Recognize/Relax into what is arising (for example, a craving). Accept/allow it to be there. Investigate bodily sensations, emotions and thoughts happening right now. Note what is happening from moment to moment. Sounds too simple to work? As Brewer says that the Buddha is reported to have said, “Don’t believe what I say, try it for yourself.”