Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Power of Do: Willing Ourselves to Change

From Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Habit is a more powerful path to learning than we realize. When we act by habit, we act without thinking, using subcortical (usually basal ganglia) pathways that don't require complete awareness.

Good habits are such efficient and reliable ways of behaving because it doesn't matter if we're actively remembering, distracted, or even conflicted about what to do. The good thing about having already developed good habits, is that we may be more likely to perform well, even if we're nervous, sleepy, or inattentive.

What does this mean for child-rearing? It is wise to appeal to reason (when possible), but the insistence on good habits will still bear fruit even if the spirit isn't completely willing.

From William James:

"Don't preach too much to your pupils or abound in good talk in the abstract. Lie in wait rather for the practical opportunities, be prompt to seize those as they pass, and thus at one operation get your pupils both to think, to feel, and to do. The strokes of behavior are what give the new set to the character, and work the good habits into its organic tissue. Preaching and talking too soon become an ineffectual bore."

And how about for us who are endeavoring to make and keep New Year's resolutions? Avoid transgressions at all costs.

From James again, "For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and as carefully guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous."

From Ann Graybiel, who makes it her business to study the neurobiological basis of bad habits as well as good, "It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back...This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions."

Below: a Graybiel rat falling back into old habits with chocolate as a stimulus.



William James on Habit
Links between tacit knowledge and habit
Brain Researchers Explain Why Habits Die Hard
Habits of Mind - Learning Activities

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