Goodbye to old (bad) habits

27 12 2011

photocredit jepoirrier

A lot of New Year’s Resolutions are about breaking the bad habits of the past year/s and replacing them with new good habits. It used to be said that you had to do something five times for it to become a habit. Anyone who has been on a diet or tried exercising will know that if there is a magic number, it is not five. It is probably a much higher number, like 200 perhaps. Five days exercise do not make a new habit.

So why is breaking an old habit so hard?

For starters, the reason you are doing what you are doing now, is that it is in some way rewarded, and usually quite quickly. Why do I eat cheese and chocolate? Because it is yummy and rewards my taste-buds and my entire physiology through BSL (blood sugar levels) and other hormones associated with stocking up on calories and fats against a hard winter. The fact that I never seem to get to the hard winter has failed to register with my genes or my metabolism – they are programmed based on centuries, thousands of years of survival mechanisms. Why do you smoke? Because somewhere in your head it is linked with an immediate reward. Why don’t I exercise? Because lying around reading, or sitting on the computer blogging is more immediately gratifying. It’s all in the conditioning. We are all glorified lab rats responding to our genes and our training.

The principle of conditioning is that behaviour that is rewarded will increase and behaviour that is negatively reinforced (punished or fails to be rewarded) will decrease. If you think about how you train a dog – or your children – it is through the positive reinforcement of behaviours you want (“say please”) and through various forms of punishment or withdrawal of treats and attention in response to negative behaviours.

You are probably familiar with the concept of conditioning through such famous experiments such as Pavlov’s dogs, where he trained the dogs to link the sound of a bell with the idea they were about to be fed. This is Classical Conditioning, where cues in the environment (the bell) trigger the response (salivating). Following on from that was Operant Conditioning, where using the same conditioning principles actual behaviours such as pressing a lever to get a pellett of food could be developed and reinforced in animals. And in you and me, this all works beautifully together. When you see a certain fast-food advertisement (substitute your temptation of choice here), the biochemical response (Classical Conditioning) is triggered and your perform learned behaviours (Operant Conditioning) to get what you desire – you drive to the local fast food shop and purchase your reward.

So getting back to your New Year’s Resolutions. A considerable amount of conditioning has gone into supporting your existing habits, and now you have decided to break those habits, overcome the conditioning. Good for you! Here are a few things you should keep in mind as you make your plans to start your new life.

1. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. Yes, that is a nice way of saying it is not going to be easy, particularly in the beginning. Get the help you need – use nicotine replacement products (but don’t get addicted to them either!), organise to walk with a friend, sign up for a weight-loss program, get a financial planner on-board. Don’t think you need to do it the hard way.

2. Set up some alternate reward systems. Battle conditioning by developing new conditioning. Use the magician’s trick of distraction and misdirection – if you are giving up smoking set up a reward system for yourself that will distract you from what you are missing out on. (Try not to make it food though!) Perhaps you can focus on how much money you are saving and buy yourself something you have wanted for a while. Find something yummy and low-cal to nibble on if you are trying to lose weight, so when you are hungry, bored, stressed or whatever else triggers your eating, you have a ready answer to your craving.

3. Be prepared for the old habit to fight back. In Operant Conditioning what you are trying to do is called Extinction – eliminate a behaviour through removing the reinforcing rewards. But then, the kicker. At first, you might find it is really tough. Your brain wants the reward and it wants to perform the behaviour to get the reward – it wants to return to its comfort zone, stasis, it doesn’t want to go through withdrawal or discomfort. It’s called an Extinction Burst – just as the old behaviour is about to go extinct it has a little explosion in your brain to try to keep the old rewards flowing. Hang in there, hang tough and know it will go away. And if you fall off the wagon, hop back on again as quickly as possible.

This is Part Two in my New Year’s Resolution’s Series. Others are below:
Goal Setting – Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
It’s about the JOURNEY (as well as the goal)
The Harvard Business School Study…or urban internet myths
Being accountable


Things I have learned from Big Bang Theory

5 11 2011

Big Bang Theory is a huge hit in our house. It is such a new idea, so different from other programs and involves intelligent people getting on with their lives, not people being stupid for the sake of it (which seems to be a recurring theme in so many sitcoms). They value higher education (great for my children to see) and the university setting actually includes some reference to work, research and learning, not just a place to pick up. Not everyone looks like a teenage anorexic Barbie or Ken doll. And maybe, just maybe, I am learning something. Admittedly, not life-changing lessons for life, but interesting things none-the-less.

I should add a disclaimer here. I am not a scientist and this is not a science blog. There are plenty of science blogs out there that are blogging on Big Bang Theory, so if you are looking for one of those, please glance over my posting and then move on!

So here goes:

1. String theory. Now I am going to start by making excuses: I finished both high-school and university before the mid-90s when this theory was first developed. So this was certainly not part of high-school physics classes. And since then my field has been mostly biological science – as Sheldon would have it, applied science, not pure theoretical science. So when I first heard of string theory on Big Bang, a small part of me thought maybe it was something the program writers had made up, Just briefly. There – a true confession. Turns out it is real.

2. The Theremin. This is the instrument that Sheldon practices in order to distract the others from developing an app that will recognise equations. While the sound is vaguely familiar from various sci-fi movie theme music, I have to confess it sounded a lot like someone playing the Saw.

3. The Square-cube law. This states “When an object undergoes a proportional increase in size, its new volume is proportional to the cube of the multiplier and its new surface area is proportional to the square of the multiplier.” (Source – Wikipedia). In practical application, Sheldon uses this to explain to Raj and Howard why giant ants could not exist – as they became larger their increase in volume would render their physical structure unviable. Quite why Howard, an engineer, would require Sheldon to explain this to him is unclear.

4. Toast. Apparently the term “toast” referring to the clinking of glasses together and usually a few words such as “cheers” or “chin-chin” came from the Ancient Romans who used to dip toast into their spiced wine.

5. The importance of a decent business model. When Penny decides to make her fortune making Penny Blossoms and selling them online, she bases her pricing on having made one. When Howard makes her a fabulous website that also offers a rush-order option for ordering 1000 Penny Blossoms, they work night and day to get them ready and then work out that the profit margin is miniscule.

6. The spherical cow joke. The spherical cow joke is this: Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer “I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.” (again, thanks to Wikipedia). The importance of the spherical cow joke is its commentary on the application of idealised scientific principles to real life.

7. Some excellent use of Progam Logic methodology. OK, not a learning, but I love the way they use program logic to map out relationships – particularly Sheldon’s attempt to map a friendship in order to get access to lab resources in “The Friendship Algorithm”. The logic loop and Sheldon’s strict adherence to it is particularly amusing.

8. Skinner’s principles of positive reinforcement can be employed in real life. Yes, yes, we all know that positive reinforcement can work – that’s why we tell the dog he is a “good boy” for coming when he is called. But Sheldon’s use of chocolates as reinforcement to get Penny to adhere to his rules was marvellous and devious at the same time and was a fabulous example of the principle.

9. Bose-Einstein condensate. Refers to the slowing of atoms in a dilute gas by the use of cooling apparatus to cool it to near absolute zero. This produces a a singular quantum state which is the Bose-Einstein condensate. I am sure I will use this knowledge eventually in my life.

10. Schrodinger’s Cat can be used to postulate the outcome of a date. I already knew about Schrodinger’s Cat, but have to admit this novel application had not occurred to me.

This is just a few things I can think of from recent episodes – no doubt there are more I have missed or haven’t yet seen. What else have you learned from Big Bang Theory?