Good and Bad Habits

As I have been doing, I will start by adding the table I have been using to show the principal forms of human behaviors.

Basic Behavioral Mode

Master Hemisphere

External World

Mode of Being

Behavioral Type

Left

Institutional

Undifferentiated

Routine

Left

Familiar

Inauthentic

Habit

Right

Familiar

Authentic

Caring

Neither

Anywhere

Occurent

Curiosity–Learning

Neither

Laboratory

Occurent

Scientific Study

Right

Anywhere

Pure Occurent

Wonder

I have discussed the first line, focused on routine behaviors within institutions, in the previous two blogs. Today’s discussion centers on a similar behavioral pattern, habits, that is, repetitious actions in familiar situations, but found outside of institutions. Habits resemble institutional routines except that whatever structure guides them is idiosyncratic and unique to the actor. Heidegger’s word for them in “inauthentic.” They are driven primarily by the left-hemisphere. Given the resemblance to routines, I expect the cognitive patterns to be similar. At any instance, the right brain recognizes the contextual, meaningful world outside the body and, like the institutional case, asks the left hemisphere if they have something that fits.

If you think about it, your day is mostly a never-ending series of habitual actions. They start when the alarm rings and end only when you hit the sack. The affect what you wear, eat, how you treat your body and others, interact with the environment, pray, what you read, and so on and on. Unlike the institutional case where the options are strongly constrained by what is normal, these less structured cases can fit a variety of possibilities. For example, at about 3 tomorrow, I might “decide” to take a walk. As I am walking along the road, I might stop and take a photo with the camera I usually carry, or I might turn left, instead of right at the corner, or I might stop at the bench over there, or I might . . .

I put “decide” in quotes because I do not think we have control over our choices in this habit mode of being/acting. At any of these moments, there are almost always other possibilities, such that it appears that we have made a “choice,” or have exercised our “free will.” I do not think so. I believe the choice is made for us by the processes that occur in the brain without any conscious or unconscious, rational calculus being applied. I am confident that many of you are going to stop here and argue that this is not correct, that we do have control over all these actions. Here is a simple argument that might convince you, otherwise. Almost all of us have what we would call “bad” habits, behaviors that we (and, maybe, other) deem inappropriate. I choose this word, rather than wrong, because such habits are always context-specific. We admit that we cannot control these habits; that is why they are bad. But cognitively they are no different from those actions we wouldn’t even call habits, like brushing our teeth.

In the process of acting habitually, the right side starts the process by sending information about the outside world to the left, just as in the case of institutional routines I discussed in part 3. The left finds a response from its already formed “knowledge” base of abstracted past experience and passes it back to the right to be enacted. Its “normal” options for responses to the present are completely, as in routines, limited to whatever it has gathered. The left brain is not connected to the outside world, hard as that notion may seem, given the illusion of choice. The cognitive mode of habits is very similar to that of institutional routines, in that the left brain is the master.

It might look like we have choice because our habits appear random and serendipitous. After all, no one else is telling me to take a walk. Some mornings I pop right up, others I hit snooze once or twice, and on still others, ignore the alarm and sleep in. Still, every habit results from the same left-brain, decontextualizing process as that in the previous mode, and ultimately depends on the life history of the actor. The contents of the left-brain could be seen as an accessible catalogue of what happened over one’s life, broken down by what works and what to avoid. The signals sent from the right hemisphere point to the particular file drawer or drawers to open.

I wonder whether the unconscious choices made by the left brain in selecting the responses to the world presented to it by the right are random. I suspect our moods and emotions have something to say about this. I am not ready to address this in any depth, lacking any real understanding of the subject. It certainly seems that they do have a role. Heidegger’s term for mood, attunement, hints at some aspect. When we are in a bad mood, the general character of our habits seems quite different from this in a better mood. Perhaps, I will be able to write something about this in the future, but, right now, what is important is that, because our habits can show up in seemingly arbitrary patterns, it appears that we are choosing the specific actions.

If all our habits were just fine, we wouldn’t have to even think about their origin in the brain, but the fact that we know we have bad ones and may want to do something about them pushes us to find out why. More importantly, we may have bad habits that affect others in ways that some would agree are not appropriate. My overeating is, more or less, my problem, even though it may have social implications and outcomes. Decisions about what to do about it are my own. Some of my bad habits, racist, ageist or any other forms of what we call prejudice may be deemed to be socially unacceptable. In fact, what are generally called prejudices are simply habits that carry a social stigma, but are cognitively no different from my having a fried egg almost every morning. Our habits are inherently pre-judged or pre-supposed, relying on already formed responses to the way the left brain interprets the picture it gets from the right.

If this is true (I do think so), we need to be very careful how we deal with bad habits that have unintended consequences that affect others, that is have social impacts. We know how hard it is to change our own bad habits. Arguments about the harm to ourselves do not work, so we accept that these habits are not the result of some rational choice. One treatment for addressing habits with what are considered pathological outcomes like depression, anxiety, addiction to smoking or gambling, or eating disorders that has become accepted is CBT, or cognitive behavior therapy. While many variants exist, all use some sort of practice that embeds new beliefs in the left brain. The process by which the “bad” habits are mitigated is the same as that by which the left brain “learns” normally by abstracting from experience. The “good” habits develop from the same sort of learning processes. The way talk therapies work fit the same model. From a cognitive perspective, talk is, simply another action, like walking or eating, with clear ties to the rootedness of language in the left hemisphere.

This suggests that socially rooted bad habits need to handled in a similar manner. The habits that create socially negative outcomes have been formed over time, according to the idiosyncratic histories of the actors, and are equally as difficult to change as any that affect the actor, per se. The cognitive processes that lead to such bad habits as overeating and treating people of color differently from those with white skins are essentially the same. The challenge in eliminating socially undesirable habits, such as personal racism or other prejudices, is not in the brain but in the kind of rights that protect personal freedoms, such as being forced to act in certain ways. We can design our institutions to minimize, but not prevent, the development of such prejudicial behaviors, but dealing with them, once established, is always going to be problematic in a free society.

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