“Habitual behavior implicates parts of the brain that have relatively sparse connections to other brain areas involved in conscious decision-making (willpower) and goal setting. In effect, our bad habits represent neural islands, pretty much cut off from our thoughtful planning. We really can be of two minds — knowing and wanting to do the right thing but also unconsciously driven by habits triggered by the everyday contexts in which we live. In other words, willpower has limited command over our habitual mind. On top of that, exerting it is arduous, unpleasant and hence typically short-lived.”
Behavior is multi-determined. We can know what to do and then not do it. This applies to eating, relationship choice, and career decisions. Today’s LA Times Op-Ed article about changing eating patterns by Wendy Wood and David Neal outlines this issue. Understanding the depth of the human brain allows us to appreciate the complexity of behavior change. Merely understanding that eating too much sugar is “bad for your health” does not address the other brain structures which trump this understanding. These other brain areas can be habit areas, where our brains work on auto-pilot, or they can be in deep emotional areas where we want immediate satisfaction at the expense of long-term problems. Our brain is in constant conflict with itself, thereby giving us conflict in decision-making. We must balance out routines that are familiar, with the anxiety of a new activity. For some, this anxiety is coded as excitement and so fresh experiences are constantly wanted. For others, the comfort of sameness is more important than a new adventure. For most of us, we seek a balance, but finding this balance is the art of living. How do we enjoy food, without eating to excess? How do we not use food, as an outlet for sensual gratification? Understanding the basics of nutrition does not address the deeper meanings we attribute to the act of eating. These “neural islands” as stated above, describe how a person can be at war with himself. Psychotherapy attempts to bring these islands together to form a continent of understanding and awareness. Behavior can change, but not quickly, and not without harnessing all of the factors that go into that behavior. Cognition is only one piece.