Habits are conditioned. But here are some research-backed techniques to make or break any habit.
I used to love burgers from McDonald's.
I was skinny six-year-old, with flat cheeks and wide eyes. You wouldn't have expected me to fit two bites down my throat. But somehow, I had the capacity to devour two whole burgers of fast food junk. My mother was always aghast watching me down a meal for two adults — I was barely out of kindergarten, after all.
Then, one day, when I was in the 3rd grade, my family was travelling back home from a hill station we’d been vacationing at. I’d been sitting quietly in the back of the car for over five hours, as we braved the torrential rains flooding the mountain range west of our city.
Stuck in the deluge with endless Indian traffic and nowhere to go, we stopped at my favourite place— McDonald’s. As always, I ordered my usual two burgers. We received our order while still in the car, and continued the drive towards home.
I began gobbling down my meal. But as the aroma of the burger that usually made my mouth water hit me, I realized I hated it. It made me sick. Nauseous.
And that was it: I never ate a burger again.
Or so I thought. For many years, in fact. But then, I realized a pattern — a pattern of associations with cars and foods.
I have motion sickness, and I hate the smell inside a car.
As it turned out, I created an association of my favourite food with my least favourite memory of car travel, rife with nausea and motion sickness. The act of eating in a moving car on a long journey is a memory that my brain remembers even today. Would you ever eat something that reminds you of the feeling of vomiting?
This, as I learned the hard way, is the power of associative memory. Your brain can be trained to love certain things. To hate other things. To create everlasting habits.
All just by programming your brain correctly.
Yes. You can hack your brain.
No matter how complex our brain seems, it is still a primal organ. It works on a simple system of reward and punishment: reward when we get things we enjoy, punishment when we are forced to do things we don't like.
By creating associations of rewards, we can train our brain to get up early, go for that morning jog, clean our house on time, lose weight and enjoy the process. By using punishment, we can train our brain to get rid of alcohol addictions, late sleep cycles, anger issues, binge eating…you name it.
It’s simply about making the right associations.
And it isn’t only our brains: over time, scientists have explored the power of associative memory on several animals too.
Everyone has heard of Pavlov’s famous experiment from the 1900s: Pavlov would place food in front of his dog and then ring a bell. The dog would salivate. Later the simple act of ringing the bell, even in the absence of food, made the dog salivate. It associated the sound of the bell with the action of salivating. It was subconsciously imprinted and the dog could not change this involuntary response.
Today, flies are trained with odours in labs. Fruity smells like oranges or pineapples are stored in the memory of flies. With the kind of association, the fly makes with the smell, we can train flies to behave in certain ways. We have trained habits of sleeping, mating, eating, fighting, moving into certain spaces just with the right odours.
The same with mice, fish, almost every animal you can think of.
You will be surprised how effective this form of Conditioning is even in humans. Associative memory does not rely on conscious approval from your prefrontal cortex. It relies on the subtle connections that are made involuntarily in your brain. We all make them. It's inevitable.
It's a simple energy-saving technique. Every time we make an association, our brain has one less thing to think about. Imagine going to the shopping mall and getting every outfit perfectly pieced together — the top, bottom, shoes and accessories placed exactly the way you want them. All you have to do is pick up the outfit and wear it. That is associative memory. It is the lazy act of our brain where it picks up every single stimulus in our brain network that we’ve linked together.
And that is exactly what we are going to use to reprogram our habits. Good or bad that's your choice.
Imagine you get up for breakfast and are about to load your plate with a barrage of delicious food — cream-laden pancakes, chocolate muffins, cookies so much sugar. But you're tempted. Now in the background play the worst piano music possible. The mismatched chords and terrible music will forever become an association with too much food.
Or follow up every cheat meal with an overripe banana. Your binge eating experience will leave a horrible after taste. Instead of the food reward, your brain will remember the punishment which is the terrible banana flavour or the overwhelming music. It will automatically avoid eating too much because it is no longer rewarding for your system.
Our brain’s odour associations are very strong. Humans have exceptional memories when it comes to smells. Our noses and brains are equipped to differentiate millions of smells. Using the right odours or food(which is mostly aromas and less taste) can be used to train your brain in very simple ways.
To break any habit one must either remove the reward or replace it with a more rewarding habit or break the emotional connection associated with the habit.
With this simple technique, any habit can be transformed.
Perhaps if you want to develop the habit of morning exercises or even cleaning your personal space follow it up with a relaxing bath or soothing music.
Positive reinforcements are a very way effective to remind the brain of reward. Our brain looks forward to the post-activity reward of pampering oneself. This will help you remember to complete the task each time, and with less inertia, too. Its the same association we make with spas and vacations. Imagine being able to recreate that connection in our brains each day. We are easily addicted to rewarding situations because of the dopamine surge. Once the body releases the right cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones we are but helpless. The chemical concoction is capable of creating the strongest associative memory of the reward attached to that necessary habit.
Before we know it, we are performing the very tasks we hated on autopilot. Our brain will suddenly love the post-workout or post-cleanup feeling. It will urge us to get up on time and complete the projects we once considered tedious.
Sometimes to the point that it will wake you up at the exact minute every single day, right on cue to perform these daily chores which you once considered mundane. But now are being able to complete, without a moment’s hesitation.
That is the power of creating associative memories.