One of my favorite stories comes from Jeff Benjamin.
A friend of his had just gotten a new job at a lube place somewhere in New York. One morning a guy brings his car in, the friend drains the old oil and, for whatever reason, neglects to put new oil in. (Mind you, that’s essentially his sole responsibility – to put new oil in cars). Car owner happily pays, drives off, and a few minutes later returns with his car, gears grinding and engine frozen up. The car has been ruined.
The Korean owner of the lube joint comes out, a look of anguish on his face. He walks in circles around the car, tears welling up, gesticulating at his new employee.
Why you do dat? he implores. Why you do dat?
A very good question indeed. Why do we do dat?
We’re all guilty of doing stupid things. Some of them we write off as mental lapses (I left the stove on when I left for work. Or, I snapped at my kid). But often times those things we write off as temporary lapses also form patterns (I can never find my keys when I need to leave for work and I also leave the lights on. Or ‘mom – why do you always yell at me?’).
And then there are the chronic things that we do that we consider part of our identity. I’m a smoker. Or, I’ve always been fat. Or hey, that’s too early – I’m not a morning person. And how often do we berate ourselves for not being smart enough, or punctual, or a good parent, or good at math or science?
Are these attributes really foundational parts of who we are? And regardless, are they changeable?
In November I picked up a couple of books that cast some cool light on the questions. The first, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg has been hovering at the top of the pop charts for a while now. Duhigg explores the idea that our being, this thing that we consider “self” or “personality” is largely a collection of “habits”, patterns of behavior that have become hardwired in our neural pathways. These habits are actually malleable and subject to change, and that the change isn’t so much about willpower, as about choosing the correct channels by which to exercise that change.
He also goes on to look at the patterns of behavior that are encoded in institutions (to work for Google feels different than working for AT&T, for example) and even culture (racism or patriarchy, lets say). These things, too, are open to change.
The second book, Rewire Your Brain by John Arden, works from some of the same premises, but from the perspective of a clinical psychologist. He’s director of Training in Mental Health for Kaiser Northern California. Over dinner last year, I was asking him about personality disorders and different sociopathologies and his answers were striking. A lot of it was about how experiences and trauma can influence our neurochemistry and contribute to the development (or underdevelopment) of different parts of the brain. We essentially learn, or fail to learn, the control mechanisms, decision making abilities, resilience, and coping skills that allow us to function in perhaps a more healthy and productive manner. These skills and abilities are, again, encoded in the pathways and transmitters within our brains. If you approach the challenge in the right way, to an extent the pathways are changeable.
This is big. It gets to the heart of addictions. And also our fundamental behaviors.
It helps to explain why we do dat.
Why does my cousin have such a hard time getting off meth? Why do you stay in an abusive relationship? Why do my dad and I never get along? Why do some veterans or victims of child abuse have behavioral issues? Why can’t I seem to get my act together?
The answers to why and also to how we can change lead to a lot of diverse fields: Insight meditation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, neurochemistry, EMDR among others. It’s all interesting stuff.
And what would happen if a person, lets say in they year 2013, were to conduct an uncontrolled subjective experiment and consciously apply behavior changing strategies to one’s self?
What would that look like? And how long would it last?
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