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The insidious harm of human habit

We’re all creatures of habit, not just in the way we act. Our thoughts are shaped heavily by habit as well, and there are studies that show that more than 50% of our thoughts (which means our problem-solving) are shaped by deeply ingrained patterns. So when we encounter a new problem we’re almost always trying to find the solution based on a pattern we already know.

Thinking in new ways is hard for us, or so say the psychologists and cognitive scientists who study the human brain.

My sense is that this ingrained “pattern thinking” was fine when we were hunter-gatherers and the world was less chaotic than it is now that we’ve got technology spewing out all over the place. Technology is making everything different at a much faster pace. Using old thought patterns for problems created by technology isn’t a trivial issue. Especially, since our social groups are much larger and the nation-states that these groups identify with.

I’ve been reading a lot about how habits constrain human thought, and it explains a lot of our struggles. What’s weird is how oblivious the majority of us are to this insidious problem. It could make for a really interesting (and enlightening) TV news feature. But mass media is the beneficiary of some of the most useless mind-habits, so I’m not sure they’ll really probe very far when they do stories on this.

Changing any kind of habit is challenging. You have to make a dedicated and continuous effort for at least 21 days, which sounds easy, but apparently isn’t. Changing your mental habits probably doesn’t take any longer, but it involves using the mechanism that makes decisions to do it.

Is it possible to change one’s self-image for example? If you think of yourself as weak and unattractive, can you alter that self-image in 21 days? Most people would say no, or be very skeptical. And most people would not even try. The problem with self-defeating mental habits is that you have to ignore all the thoughts that plant seeds of doubt; and the hardest ones to ignore are the ones you create internally.

Meditation is one way to create some “space” where you can begin to take control of your thoughts, but there are other ways too. I’ve read first hand accounts of famous people who say they’ve done it, and that it changed their lives. I’ve known non-famous people who’ve said they were able to do it.

Is it possible for you? You can either trust the doubters or you can strive to create a belief that something that “seems” unlikely is actually quite possible. Which word do you like better? Yes or no.

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