Automaticity refers to our ability to engage in a behavior while our conscious mind is directed elsewhere. The creation of neural circuitry that supports it is the biological mechanism that allows us to compound knowledge throughout our lives, and to learn new things.
Learning any complex skill requires the creation, through practice, of a host of automatic behaviors. Yet, recent research in Cognitive Neuroscience reveals that automatic behaviors aren’t just limited to skilled motor behaviors, but play a major part in all behavior.
Making lasting changes to our behavior then requires that we understand the role that habits play in our current behavior, how they are triggered, and the process of building new habits that bring us closer to what we want to become.
Thus, automaticity cuts both ways – it can either be the engine of or the obstacle to continuous growth.
The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
Atomic Habits, by James Clear
The Brainjo Collective, a community of lifelong learners
Diane was a 74-year-old, well dressed woman, accompanied by her husband of 50 years and her daughter. She had retired from a distinguished 30-year career as a professor of chemistry. Diane had been referred for a cognitive evaluation by her primary care physician, at the request of her daughter, Rachel.
“She’s been repeating herself lately,” Rachel said, “I’m not sure it’s anything, but it does worry me.” “How long have you noticed this?” I asked. Rachel paused, “Maybe for a few months,” she replied.
I then turned to Diane’s husband. “Have you noticed anything unusual? Any forgetfulness?” “No more than the regular stuff. She forgets things sometimes, but so do I. It’s just one of the joys of getting older, I guess,” he added with a smile. “What about you?” I said to Diane. “Have you noticed any problems with your thinking and memory?” “No, not at all,” she replied, “In fact, I don’t really know why I’m even here. I’m afraid I’m just wasting your time.”
Casual conversation with Diane seemed to support her claim. Her responses to questions were entirely appropriate. She could easily recount historical details from years’ past, though her descriptions of recent events were comparatively vague. The more we spoke, the more I could pick out the telltale signs that there was indeed a problem. The nature of that problem would become obvious and more precisely defined when we began with detailed cognitive testing, which demonstrated impairments in several cognitive domains, including the near inability to encode any new memories.
The overall pattern of findings was very consistent with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, and her performance placed her in at least the moderate stages of the illness. This meant that clinical signs and symptoms had likely begun to surface at least five years prior, if not more, and yet, in spite of the fact that her cognitive and intellectual function had been compromised by the illness for many years, and was now impacted quick significantly, the problem had only become apparent to close family in recent months. How could this be?
Hi, I’m Dr. Josh Turknett, founder of Brainjo and the Brainjo Center for Neurology and Cognitive Enhancement, and this is the Intelligence Unshackled podcast. Join me as we take a tour through the human brain, to explore and understand the true nature and scope of human intelligence, and to unlock the secrets of optimizing brain health and function.
So, with our opening case, we have a woman who was operating for years at a very high level of intellectual function, working as a professor of chemistry for 30 years, whose cognition was now markedly compromised by the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, likely for many years, yet this had not been apparent to those who knew her best. The answer to this question bears directly on the mental model for this episode, and it’s a question we’ll get back to later on.
So, two episodes ago, we reviewed the mental model, Subterranean, which refers to the fact that the majority of the neural networks that support cognition, and that drive most of our thoughts and behavior, are housed in parts of the brain that are largely walled off from the networks that mediate our conscious mind. And so, because of this information architecture, our knowledge of why we do the things we do is, at best, incomplete, and at worst, entirely wrong.
This is in contrast to the traditional theory of mine, which has largely arisen from our intuitions about our own behavior where we envision our conscious mind as the conductor of the cognitive orchestra. But, as discussed two episodes ago, recent research in cognitive neuroscience has revealed that our conscious mind, instead, is only a spectator, a spectator who can give feedback that the symphony might take into account, but a spectator nonetheless.
Our perception that we are conducting the orchestra, or running the show, is an illusion constructed by our brain, and probably a useful one at that, in conferring a survival advantage, but it’s an illusion that throws a major wrench in our ability to use our intuitions to understand our own behavior.
And then, in the last episode, the situation seemed to get even worse. In that episode, Confabulation, we learned that there’s a part of our brain referred to as the interpreter, whose job it is to create explanation for our moment-to-moment behavior, the very explanations we give to ourselves and to others for why we do the things we do. And yet, the interpreter doesn’t care whether those explanations are true, only that they’re believable. And so, to summarize, we can never fully know why we do the things we do, and we routinely lie to ourselves about it.
So, for those interested in self-improvement, in changing behavior, this presents a pretty bleak picture. And without a doubt, in my opinion, this explains why we’ve been so notoriously bad at changing our behaviors, which has had the unfortunate result of reinforcing the fixed mindset for so many, the belief that we can’t change our behavior. And for sure, we can’t hope to change our behavior if we don’t first understand what drives it.
But, fear not, there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel, and it’s a big bright light I think. There’s a way out, and it’s one that involves using our revised understanding of the roots of our behavior, coupled with the science of learning and neuroplasticity. It requires that we leverage a property of our brain that is the biological mechanism that allows for exponential growth, provided we understand how to use it to our advantage. And this way out also helps resolve what some may see as the paradox of neuroplasticity. We know that our brain is capable of massive restructuring throughout our lives. We have the biological machinery needed to make massive changes, yet so many people struggle to change long-established behaviors. And leveraging neuroplasticity, or the brain’s capacity to change itself in response to experience, is essential to realizing our cognitive potential. And so, it’s central to the mission of this podcast. But, we must first understand how to use it.
So, if you head out to any driving range on a Saturday morning, and virtually any golf club throughout the world, chances are you’ll see about the same thing. There will probably be one or two golfers with smooth effortless looking swings, striking the ball cleanly, launching it straight off the club face with a consistent ball flight, swing after swing. In fact, if you compare their swings to each other, you’ll find that they look pretty similar. But, as for the rest of the golfers, they’re all over the place, literally and figuratively. Each swing is filled with all manner of idiosyncratic hitches and glitches. The ball comes off the club differently almost every time, slicing to the right after one swing, hooking hard after the next, with the occasional ball down the middle.
But, here’s the strange thing. Many of those golfers with the wild swings, the ones spraying the ball in all directions, have logged a great many hours playing golf. Many will have been playing several times per week for many years, well over the often-quoted 10,000 hours of practice needed to master a skill. In fact, many times, they’ll have logged many more hours than their smooth-swinging, straight-hitting counterparts. The answer to this puzzle lies in a phenomenon known as automaticity, which is this episode’s mental model.
Learning anything new requires that we change our brain. More specifically, it requires that we build neural networks that mediate whatever behavior we wish to learn. So, every complex skill we learn requires the creation of multiple complementary networks of increasing sophistication. Let’s take the example of driving a car since it’s a skill that most people can relate to.
We all know that there are multiple sub-skills that we must master in order to drive successfully. We must know how to start the car, shift gears, steer, operate the pedals, not to mention understand traffic rules, signage, the behavior of other drivers, and so on. There’s an entire motor and perceptual apparatus that must be built. And building that apparatus is the goal of practice. If you’re like most people, the first time you got behind the wheel, you felt entirely overwhelmed by all there was to keep track of, and the experience was mentally exhausting. You had to consciously attend to every single one of those behaviors, because no dedicated neural networks for them had been built yet.
And yet, if you’ve been driving for any length of time, chances are it all seems effortless to you now. Chances are, you can drive a car while your mind is entirely somewhere else, while you’re talking to the person in the passenger seat, or reflecting back on the events of the day. And yet, try to carry a conversation with a first-time driver, and you’re risking your life.
So, what’s the neurobiological process that makes all this possible? It’s possible because when we practice a new behavior to the point where we’ve learned it, the brain networks that produce that behavior move from the conscious parts of our brain to the non-conscious parts. In the beginning, that first time behind the wheel, every bit of our driving behavior has to be constructed by the brain on the fly, co-opting and cobbling together a neural network from existing parts. It’s clumsy and inefficient, but hopefully it works well enough that we don’t get killed.
With practice, the brain begins creating networks dedicated to that particular task. Over time, those networks become increasingly efficient, involving less of our brain, and they change in location, moving to the deeper areas beneath the cortex. And, once they’re fully formed, and this process is complete, they can run automatically. And the behavior that they support is said to have the property of automaticity. This can be tested for, experimentally, by determining whether the quality of a particular behavior degrades when our conscious attention is focused elsewhere.
For example, walking is automatic for virtually all of us, meaning the quality of our walking doesn’t worsen when we pay attention to something other than our walking. And our motor program for walking executes essentially the same way each time, which is why we can recognize other people by the way they walk. That program, that set of instructions for how you walk, is embedded into the physical structure of your brain, and those instructions were first created when you were a small child.
So, back to our driving example, you can carry a conversation while driving, because those behaviors have become automatic, and the circuits that support them have moved to their deep subcortical location. On the other hand, conversing with a first-time driver is liable to cause an accident, because his or her conscious mind must focus on the job of driving. There’s no other part of the brain capable of doing so.
The same is true for every learned complex behavior. With practice, we create broadly distributed networks dedicated to that skill, ultimately building the equivalent of a smart phone app for our brain, a complete set of instructions that are now stored in the physical networks of the brain. Once fully formed, all we need to do is open the app so to speak, and that app can run with minimal intervention from the conscious mind, so we can focus on other stuff, including refining that particular skill or learning a new one.
So, the purpose of the learning process is to build that set of instructions, and ultimately how successful we are in learning that behavior depends on the quality of those instructions, because once they’re built, once the app is complete, whenever those apps are called into action, they’ll unfold pretty much the same way every time, just as you always walk the same way, and just like the golfer who can’t change his swing.
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So, on the one hand, this transition of a new behavior from the conscious to the non-conscious parts of the brain is an incredible thing. If we choose to use it, it allows for the continuous accumulation of knowledge, and that knowledge can take multiple forms, from conceptual knowledge about how the world works, which enables us to better understand and explain our world, to skill-based knowledge that allows us to perform complex motor behaviors. If we didn’t have this mechanism, and instead had to consciously attend to all of our behavior, it would create a bottleneck that would preclude the execution of any complex behavior.
But, as with every strength, it also comes with a weakness. That is that once these networks are fully formed and housed in subterranean circuits, our ability to control them is limited to nonexistent. Once we firmly establish that set of instructions, they’ll be executed about the same way every time. And so, this means that the key to learning anything well means taking great care in the learning process, during the time when those instructions are being created. The reason a golfer can’t hit the ball straight after 20,000 hours of swinging a golf club, is because he or she created a poor set of instructions to start with, and those instructions are now physically embedded into the structure of the brain, and that wonky swing neural network becomes stronger and more resilient with each repetition of it.
This is also why the failure rate in learning to play a musical instrument is so high. I saw this happen time and again when people would learn to play music. While it’s common for musical instruction to contain lots of information about what to learn, there’s often little attention paid to how to learn it, or to the specifics of the learning process, which would frequently lead to a set of bad habits that would then place a hard ceiling on future potential. These were clearly failures of process, and predictable ones at that, based on our understanding of the neurobiology of learning, yet the conventional explanation was that they were failures of aptitude, which has ultimately led to the misguided but pervasive idea that people are either musical or not musical, or artistic, or not artistic, creative or not, mathematical or not, and so on. Again, failures of process are falsely attributed to failure of aptitude.
In other words, how we create these automated networks that ultimately support the execution of learned behavior is entirely dependent on the way we learn, yet the mechanics of that process is seldom addressed. This was the problem that Brainjo was initially created to help solve, to provide guidance about not only what to learn, but how to go about learning it. The goal was to create a system for learning music that led to the creation of a high quality set of instructions for playing a musical instrument, to build networks that, when called into action, produce the behaviors that we wanted. And, while that learning framework was initially applied to learning to play music, as we’ll see, it applies to any behavior that we wish to learn or change.
Speaking of the Brainjo method and learning to play music, starting in January of 2019, we’ll be having our first brain fitness challenge for members of the Brainjo Collective. There’s a growing body of evidence that indicates that engaging in cognitively demanding activities not only improves cognitive function, but protects against brain degeneration and illness. Just as we’d go for a run, or do pull-ups for pushups to build our physical health, we can apply the same concept to our brains.
In my view, there’s no better brain-building activity than learning to play a musical instrument. So, in January, we’ll be kicking off the learn to uke challenge. Participants in the challenge will be learning how to play the ukulele. It’ll be taught through a series of instructional videos over the course of several months, and of course will be based on the Brainjo method of instruction. And, as I’ve just described, that means it’ll not only include what to learn, but how to go about learning it. And I’ll also be in the elite cognition forum for members of the collective, to provide guidance and troubleshooting along the way. It’ll also serve as a good foundation for future brain fitness challenges where we’ll tackle other instruments. So, it should be loads of fun, and should help you grow a really large brain. To learn more about it, and to join the Brainjo Collective, just head to elitecognition.com/fitness.
Now, I’m sure everyone is familiar with the concept of habits, or automatic behaviors, but up until recently, we’d gotten two things about them wrong. One of those things is that most of the time, they were seen as something negative. A habit was almost always talked about as something that’s inherently bad, simply by virtue of the fact that it was non-conscious and automatic, rather than a calculated intentional choice. Again, that view is grounded in a theory of mind that we know to be wrong. Fortunately, that’s started to change, spurred on at least in part by Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, where habits are presented as either having the potential to work for us or against us. And the second thing we’ve gotten wrong was that habits only comprised a small subset of our behaviors, and furthermore, that because they were bad, we should try to eliminate those.
So, hopefully the preceding discussion has convinced you that habits, and the subterranean networks that support them, are neither inherently good or bad. The fact that we can create those networks is certainly a good thing since it’s the biological mechanism that allows for the compounding of knowledge and the continual growth. And whether those habits do end up working for or against us, move us towards a goal or prevent us from getting there, is primarily a result of the process we take in creating them, which is why it’s important to take care and attention to the process of building a habit.
With regards to the second part that we’ve gotten wrong, which is the idea that habits only comprised a small set of our behaviors, hopefully the last two episodes and their associated mental models help you to understand why we’ve been misled in this regard. So, if our behaviors are largely driven by subterranean networks that are walled off from our conscious mind, and if we invent explanations for our behavior that aren’t grounded in truth, then we’re predisposed by the architecture of our brain by default, to miss the real drivers of our behavior.
And so, habits don’t just account for a small subset of our behavior, they play a role in everything, in all behavior, all the time. So, over the course of a lifetime, we’ve created a set of automated behaviors for virtually every possible scenario, that are called into action in those settings, with those instructions running the same way virtually every time. So, going back to our opening case, this is why someone with profound cognitive impairment can still appear normal for so long, because so much of our behavior is driven by subterranean circuitry, and those circuits are unaffected in the early to moderate stages of the illness.
It’s these habitual behaviors that serve as the barrier for behavioral change, and they explain why it is we can continually behave in ways that we’d rather not despite the best of intentions. Our interpersonal habits, the way we interact with others in various situations may have been formed decades ago, at a time when our value system was entirely different, or hardly formed at all. Those behaviors may have simply been modeled after the habits of someone else in our life. This is how the people who are in our lives as children can still impact how we behave in ways that we may be entirely blind to for the rest of our lives unless we do things to reconstruct new automatic behaviors.
And this, I think, explains why behavior change has been so notoriously difficult. I think it also explains why people in healthcare have mostly given up on this avenue for helping people to improve health and treat illness, and why pharmaceuticals have become essentially the only tool, not because they’re better or more effective, but because they’ve gotten frustrated with their inability to help people change behavior.
So, as I said, after the last two episodes, it seems like the outlook for us ever hoping to make meaningful changes to our behavior is pretty bleak. But, earlier I said there’s an opening, or a way out of this bleak picture. Actually, I think there are two big openings. The first opening is that those habits, those subterranean networks, they weren’t always there. As I’ve already described, we create those networks through the learning process, and the conscious mind did play a role in their initial creation, in deciding to build them to begin with, and in directing the process, until after enough practice and repetition, it went underground.
The golfer who still has the wonky swing, even after 20,000 hours of practice wasn’t born with that swing, he created it through practice at one point many years ago, and then has been reinforcing it ever since. Just like the budding musician who begins with a set of bad habits that constrain her future potential, we can build a set of instructions for a lousy guitar player or a lousy golfer, or we can create the instructions for a great guitarist or a great golfer.
Again, it all depends on how we practice. Once those instructions are in place, physically embedded into the structure of the brain, they are resistant to change. That resistance to change, and our blindness to the importance of the mechanics of the learning process in creating those structures, reinforces the myth that aptitude, or talent, determines our ability to learn anything well. In order to change, the golfer with the wonky swing must build a new one, and he must stop reinforcing the old one.
Tiger Woods has famously done this, rebuilding his swing three times over the course of his career. Each time, a long and painstaking process that resulted in him getting worse before he got better, but he has always understood that process, not innate ability or talent, was the very thing that made him become one of the greatest golfers of all time. And this is true of any behavior we wish to change, but it’s important to remember that we won’t change without realizing the central role of habit in our daily behavior, and without understanding how to build new and improved ones.
The second opening is that these automatic behaviors are always called into action by something, something in our environment. That something is often referred to as a cue. A cue is something in our environment that triggers a habit. A simple example of this is your phone ringing. It rings or buzzes and you grab it and answer it, or you look at who’s calling. Or a traffic light. You see the light turn red, and you automatically hit the brake. It turns green, and you automatically hit the gas. Someone smiles and says, “Good morning,” and you reflexively smile and say, “Good morning.” If the conversation continues, your brain then engage the small talk app. These cues come in all forms, in the form of a place, an event, a situation, a facial expression, a smell, a song, a sound, and so on.
And we face this recurring set of environmental cues in an elaborate set of automated circuits that they release that help us to navigate the day and free up our conscious mind to focus on other things, which means that our environment and the cues within it, profoundly shape our behavior because they are the triggers for our habits.
And so, if the first way out of this bleak picture, and the path to sustainable behavioral change is to first identify our set of habits, especially those that aren’t aligned with our goals or who we want to be, and then build new habits that are. The second, and more rapid path to behavioral change, is to change your environment. We all know that our behaviors, how we feel, how we interact, changes markedly from one situation to the next.
And we notice this in our friends and family as well. They can seem like totally different people depending on the situation. And the truth is that many times, our desired behaviors likely already exist, they just don’t always emerge when we want them to because others are being cued into action instead. While we’d like to think that we’re a cohesive, unified self, that again is an illusory construct of our brain.
The reality is that we’re a massive conglomeration of context-specific subterranean behavioral modules. Understanding that is essential to understanding how we can change. In one situation, perhaps around our children or grandchildren, we may be warm and empathetic. Just the sound of their voice can call up an entirely new set of behaviors, behaviors that may have never been seen by our coworkers, which may undermine our ability to work with or lead others, simply because the cues in our work environment trigger an entirely different set of behavioral modules. And so, we may already possess the capacity for a particular desired behavior, but we only express it in a specific environment, in the presence of specific cues.
And this is why culture is the single most powerful tool for rapid change in an organization, whereas coaching or counseling can, over time, lead to change in a single individual incidentally by building new habit loops that change the response to particular cues. By changing the environment, or changing the cues, you can change the behavior of every individual in the organization all at once. Every culture, whether it’s the culture at work or at home, has its own set of cues, each of which triggers a set of behaviors, which is why the companies that are intentional about culture, that are intentional about their environmental cues, are at such an advantage.
So, why does this matter so much? Why have I spent the past three episodes on mental models that I see as critical to being able to make lasting and meaningful changes in human behavior? From my point of view, there are two reasons why this matters so much. The first is because it serves us no purpose to understand the conditions and behaviors for human thriving and wellbeing if we have no way to get there.
About eight years ago now, I made some major changes to my diet and lifestyle. It was a change that profoundly impacted multiple aspects of my life for the better, and it was a wake up call, both personally and professionally. And through the experience of that change, and the research that prompted it to begin with, I realized that this was the solution to so many of the problems I saw day-to-day in my practice as a neurologist.
Now, the specifics of that change bear directly on the subject of this podcast, and so will be a topic we’ll explore in depth in future episodes. But for now, suffice to say that spreading this message became a central mission of my work in the realm of health and medicine, and one of the reasons for doing this very podcast. And our knowledge has continued to grow considerably in this area in recent years to the point where we now have a very good idea of the conditions required for optimum human health and protection against chronic illness, as well as how to customize that to a single individual. So, there’s tremendous potential here for solving some of our most intractable healthcare problems, which is very exciting.
However, since much of that requires making some fundamental changes in the way we eat and live, realizing that potential cannot happen unless we become much better at facilitating behavioral change. As CD Baby founder, Derek Sivers, has said, “If more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how much we know about what it takes to improve the health and function of the brain and body, improve cognitive function, and create the conditions for lasting wellbeing, if we’re unable to implement it. Figuring that stuff out is actually the easy part. Helping people to do it, to make lasting changes in their patterns of behavior is the bigger challenge.
And why has this traditionally been so hard? Why is our track record at getting people to change behavior been so poor? Well, I’d contend that it’s because we haven’t had a clear understanding of why we do the things we do, and have long based our efforts to change on a misleading model of human behavior. But, this revised understanding of ourselves, that cognitive neuroscience has provided us, both explains why we’ve been so bad at this, and it shows us the way to getting it right. Whether it’s learning to pick a banjo, swing a golf club, solve a math problem, or become a better speaker, leader, wife, or father, we must account for the central role of automatic behaviors, or habits, in all of it.
And the second reason this matters is because failure to learn, change, and grow, especially in adulthood, has been taken as evidence that our capacity to do so is limited. The adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is usually interpreted as meaning, an old dog is incapable of change. In other words, it’s the dog’s fault. But, what if the problem isn’t the dogs but the teachers? What if the dog is capable of change, but we’ve just done a poor job of using its capacity to do so? Likewise, the conventional view of human intelligence has been strongly influenced by this line of thinking, that our capacity for intellectual growth is limited because it is rarely observed.
Instead, I’d offer another competing explanation, which is that continuous growth and expansion and intelligence is rarely seen, because we haven’t been especially skilled at leveraging the neurobiological mechanisms that allow for it, mechanisms that we know to exist in every brain, throughout our lives. Research clearly demonstrates that are brain retains its capacity for change, and is in fact always changing throughout our lives. This includes the ability to continually acquire and compound knowledge, and the construction of automatic sub-routines is the mechanism that makes that possible, yet it’s also the mechanism that, if overlooked, can lead to a life of perpetual stagnation. Automaticity can either be the engine for or the obstacle to growth. Whether we use it to drive exponential change or indefinite stagnation is up to us.
All right. Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast and want to help others find it, it would be fantastic if you left a rating and review in iTunes. It really helps. And remember that you can find the show notes and transcript of these episodes by going to elitecognition.com and clicking on the podcast tab on the top menu. And if you’re in Atlanta or the surrounding area, you can also go to elitecognition.com to find information about the Brain Protection Program. Thanks so much, and I’ll see you in the next episode.