When We Need to Change, We’re Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish

My autistic son shows me how building new habits is worth the effort.

Have you ever found yourself repeating the same mistake over and over? You launch into a stupid argument with a loved one over an imagined slight. You react to stress by overeating. You pull away when folks get too close so you don’t have to risk rejection. In hindsight, bad choices are easy to spot, yet in the moment we seem to have no control over them.

For millennia we have turned to prayer, meditation, and more recently psychotherapy in our attempts to rebuild our psyches along more productive lines. No surprise, given that each can effectively address the underlying neurological realities that drive our behavior. Ingrained neural pathways function like ruts carved into our brains, which can trap our wheels and lead us repeatedly down the same dark roads. These pathways originated in strategies that were successful for us in the past and enabled us to deal with life in our formative years. Repeated reinforcement burns them in to our neural circuitry so they can run reflexively. But such programs were developed for a different time, and if they no longer suit the present situation, they become like mental Y2K bugs that require fixing if we are not to crash hard.

So what is a would-be brain-reprogrammer to do? The key lies in taking control of neurological reinforcement. What you feed your brain is crucial. When faced with an old stimulus, it is possible to lay a new track for your mind to follow. What you have learned is not set in stone.

Case in point, my son, Sean:

"'Right'? 'Write'? That's a homophone!"

"Yes, Sean."

"Like 'way'—how you do something. And 'weigh'—when you get on a scale?"

"Yes."

"And 'blue' the color and 'blew' when you blew on something?"

"Yes."

"And . . ."

"Yes!"

Sean is a fan of lists. He can drive his parents a little crazy when he recites them. He's not trying to be annoying or even funny. He just lives on the autism spectrum, and lists are his way of defining a concept by way of exhaustive examples.

Philosophers starting in the seventeenth century bandied about the idea of a chiliagon, a polygon with a thousand sides. It's a simple enough idea, but if you try to visualize it, will you really form a true picture of a chiliagon on the screen inside your head, or rather just a generic polygon with a lot of sides? For most of us, our brains work out the fact that imagining a completely detailed chiliagon would take tremendous mental resources while offering us precious little additional understanding. So our brains prefer to take a mental shortcut.

Sean's brain, however, has trouble setting up these shortcuts. For him the only route to understanding involves taking the long way and going through all the relevant examples. Temple Grandin describes how her own autistic brain operates by saying that when she hears the word "dog," she doesn't think of an abstract picture of a dog but instead begins flashing through her enormous file of actual dog memories and trying to select and combine examples that match the given context. A brain that operates this way is capable of coalescing uncountable data points into a generalization; but to do so requires proper support.

We are surrounded by Big Data algorithms that use statistical approaches to make remarkably accurate guesses—whether it’s Nate Silver predicting elections or Google transcribing voicemail. Learning programs formulate shortcuts that enable processing floods of information and making useful decisions in limited time.

But that shortcut-making capacity is peanuts compared to what a typical human brain can do.

Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit that habits are pre-recorded sequences that, once triggered, can run without conscious involvement. Many times we're lucky to even notice a bad habit in progress. These habits are formed out of our need to expend as few mental resources as possible on common, easily-solved problems and to save our brain power for the trickier stuff. From keeping your heart beating and lungs breathing to auto-piloting your morning commute, your brain is working hard at trying not to work too hard. This frees the brain machine up for incredible feats of calculation, intuition, and creativity.

Things don't always work out so well, however. Sometimes, as in my son's case, the machinery for forming shortcuts doesn't function well. As a result he must actively spend his mental energy to reach a level of understanding that most of us achieve with no effort at all.

Sometimes the machinery may be working as advertised, but the shortcuts themselves betray us. From optical illusions to cognitive biases, we have endless examples of how our strategies for survival can lead us astray. Psychology as a whole could be viewed as the study of how we develop survival strategies and how they continue to operate outside the environment in which they were formed. The brain builds these pathways based on rewards, which are essentially neurotransmitters indicating that something good has happened. The “defense mechanisms” that many of us try to unlearn as we mature were once perfectly serviceable shortcuts that were reinforced by these rewards.

When I am threatened, I hit back and the danger goes away. That feels good, so my brain tallies a point for hitting back as a successful strategy for dealing with threats. Given enough reinforcement, the brain doesn’t even bother evaluating other options before jumping into action. The end result may be a violent child abuser, but the original seed could be self-defense. This is not an excuse, just an explanation.

But in that explanation, I find hope. Understanding the mechanics of how we get stuck in undesirable patterns can supply us with tools to escape them. Seeing these dynamics at play in our face-to-face interactions can give us the insight needed to effect change in our relationships.

Hope on a larger scale lies in recognizing the part that the same tired collective shortcuts play in the economic, political, and religious conflicts that stifle our potential as a race. No small feat, to be sure. But we are an incredibly gifted group of animals, and every day we surpass limits that were once taken for granted.

As we see the programs in our brains for what they are, we can start to take control of them. We can develop new neural pathways that enable us to look at the world in different ways and respond as new people. We can guide the reinforcement mechanisms so that there are rewards for choosing the new way over the old. We can revisit old situations and visualize better responses.

Of course not all approaches are equally effective, and retraining ourselves by ourselves is understandably slower than doing so with support, in community. The perspective other people can offer gets us out of ourselves and helps us to more rightly appraise the good parts of our own programming and to recognize and winnow out the chaff. As social animals, we naturally take in feedback from others at a neurological level to inform the creation and destruction of neural pathways. Humans with a support network are much more likely to expend the mental energy required to rewire themselves. Being a spiritual person myself, I find God to be a well of wisdom and encouragement in this process, though often I perceive him most keenly through human vessels around me.

Today I introduced my son to the concept of “et cetera.” I explained to him that it literally means “and the rest.” So when he starts excitedly enumerating a list out loud, we are going to practice saying “et cetera” with him. Together, we will help him build a habit. He may still live on lists within his head, but as part of this family and this community, he can and will learn helpful strategies to communicate usefully with those around him.

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