This is a followup to my two previous posts on what I’ve been calling mindfulness field training. Essentially, the underlying idea is to practice noticing your thoughts and not getting caught up in them. This post is also, in some ways, a followup to my post from last summer on a technique from CFAR called Propagating Urges.
When talking about behaviour change, we find ourselves asking: what kinds of feedback loops are most effective? One strong possibility is operant conditioning, which researcher B. F. Skinner developed to the extent that he could teach pigeons how to perform very complex tasks (like playing a tune on the piano) in a matter of minutes. Where Pavlovian “classical conditioning” would just associate one preexisting behaviour to a new trigger by creating an association with a natural trigger (eg dogs trained to salivate when bells ring because they’re taught the bells signify food) operant condition allows the trainer to create totally new behaviours. The way it works is that when any behaviour that at all resembles the target behaviour is exhibited, a reward is given, and that reward causes the subject to seek more reward by taking the behaviour further.
CFAR’s Propagating Urges class, last time I saw it, was based around this principle, with the additional aspect of it being a human influencing their own behaviour, which allows for the reward to be a lot more nuanced. The general approach of P.U. was to think of your long term goal and why you want to achieve it, and to connect that feeling to a kind of gesture that you can do (eg pumping your fist and saying “yesss!”) at the moment you notice a thought that’s related to your goal. Depending on how aversive the goal is, that could even include thoughts about how much you don’t want to work on it. So if your goal is filing your taxes on time, then even the thought “Gah, I still haven’t printed out the tax forms!” is still a really helpful thought because you’re at least thinking about your taxes, and you definitely aren’t going to be able to do them without thinking about them.
In my YES! I noticed! post from last summer, I tried exploring using this on myself to get rid of a number of personal habits like going to get a snack when I’m already full, or in general fleeing from aversive thoughts. It had limited effect, for a few reasons, the main two being:
1. I was trying to do a lot all at once and this lack of focus made it hard to stay motivated (I addressed that with this habit-a-week project)
2. I didn’t have very good feedback loops connecting my noticing with any reward
In theory, the focus and reward can be created, but it’s hard.
It’s especially hard because a lot of the highest leverage change comes from shifting mental patterns around fear, shame, judgment, and so on, where it’s hard to get yourself excited about them and where the long-term reward for overcoming them isn’t very tangible, making it hard to try to connect a “yes! I noticed!” with your sense of long-term goal.
So typically it’s pretty hard to get excited about noticing frustrating mental loops. What has changed that for me is continued interaction with someone who wants to hear about them (my friend/mentor/project-partner, Jean). » read the rest of this entry »