Can't figure out why you do what you do? It may come down to human instinct. But it's possible to change your brain and replace negative behaviours with healthy habits.
Human beings are creatures of habit. This is a positive thing when our daily routine includes exercise and a healthy diet. But our habits may be negative, such as procrastination or eating when stressed. Despite knowing that these habits are potentially harmful, we often find ourselves doing them anyway.
Why is it that even when we are capable of thought and reason, making the right choice can be so difficult for many of us?
It may all come down to instinct. While we’re more evolved than most animals, there are some needs that we still share, such as the need for food and energy. All living beings require energy and adapt in response to the availability and scarcity of their food supply. For some animals, one instinctive response is hibernation during the winter. Humans don’t hibernate, but in the cold winter months, our metabolisms still tend to slow down.
In prehistoric times this would have been vital to our survival during the lean winter months. Today we have solved this problem with the development of agriculture and industrialized food production, but with progress there are unintended consequences.
As we head indoors for a less active winter break and our metabolism slows down, our instinct to eat is faced with abundant food choices, not all of which are healthy, nutritious, or natural.
Fight or flight
Our physiological response to stress, the fight or flight response, also works against us. That adrenaline surge would have been vital to surviving encounters with predators during prehistoric times. In some cases, it could help you survive today if you were faced with certain dangers such as running out of the way of a speeding car.
The resulting cortisol release, intended to restore balance in the body, is also tied to food cravings, necessary after blood sugar is converted to energy. But even though our world is less dangerous, it is no less stressful.
“When you’re looking at stressors within our society, many of them are man-made. When you’re fighting with your spouse or you’re short of money, those are stressors that the primitive part of the brain might interpret as, ‘We better store our fat cells because we’re going to need them to survive,’” says clinical psychologist and life coach Lawrence Sheppard.
“That’s an erroneous message. Under stress, people do eat more and put on weight, and that fat does not get used up. That ends up being a very negative physical thing, and emotional as well,” he says.
A double-edged sword
As energy deficits compel us to consume high-fat food, nature’s tendency to conserve energy similarly compels us to avoid action. Dario Maestripieri, a professor of comparative human development and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, studies the biological basis of behaviour, researching both monkeys and people. (“I’ve had issues with both,” he quips.)
His latest book is Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships (Basic Books, 2012).
“If you’re in a situation where the environment is not favourable, you [could decide to] stay still,” Maestripieri explains. “You’re saving energy and you’re protecting yourself from potential harm. It’s a strategy that makes sense in the short term, but as a long-term strategy, it doesn’t work.”
Yet the brain may still react in this instinctive way. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Science and Health Policy suggested that depression could be an evolutionary response to chronic danger, stress, or consistent failure. Depression can range in severity from a low mood to chronic severe depression.
In some ways our civilization has advanced faster than our brains. Our inherent survival mechanisms aren’t always beneficial in today’s complex world. Thankfully, when it comes to overcoming these challenges, we do have a choice.
“Biological predisposition is not destiny,” Maestripieri says. “You can still do whatever you want, but when there is a bias, it’s good to know that you’re not bound to that.”
Sheppard encourages taking action to motivate change. “The idea that you just have to power through it, to some extent is true,” he says. “But the brain responds more to doing things. When you do things differently, you are more likely to feel better than solely undergoing talk therapy sessions.”
We may be creatures of habit, but we are also endlessly adaptable. By stopping, thinking, and acting (see sidebar), we can exchange our bad, or less desirable, habits for better and healthier ones. You don’t have to be a slave to your prehistoric brain! Recognize what you’d like to change, tell yourself that you can do it, and then move forward to become the new, improved, and evolved you.
3 steps to create change
When faced with behaviours you’d like to change, follow these three steps:
Stop and think
Stop and reflect critically on your cravings and behaviours. Take weight loss, for example.
“People who have problems with their weight often end up being slaves to their cravings for [the wrong] types of food, and don’t stop to ask themselves if they’re truly hungry,” says Susan Biali, MD, life coach, speaker, and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You (Beaufort, 2010).
“Are you stressed or lonely or sad or bored? It’s really amazing what conscious awareness of the reasons for your food cravings and choices can do to change what can feel like helpless, uncontrollable behaviour,” Biali says.
Love yourself first
You’re likely your own worst critic, so change what you’re telling yourself. Sheppard recommends a forward approach.
“I suggest that you actively dispute negative self-talk and substitute positive, empowering, and action-oriented thinking,” he says. “This technique works in the prefrontal cortex [of the brain, which is responsible for decision making].”
Take action now
Use all the tools at your disposal. Sheppard says our brains are more prone to change with action.
“I recommend the use of meditation, exercise, and other techniques that generate positive neurochemistry and help to settle the more impulsive parts of the brain,” he says.