Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Train your brain, change your habits

For me, the beginning of 2019 did not inspire resolutions of the academic, social or personal kind. My already-failed goal was to stop swearing this year. Personally, I see resorting to foul language as a sign of weakness rather than strength but I utterly failed at changing the habit.

I did not always swear. In fact, there was a time in my life when I would jump if anyone around me swore but by hearing others around me repeatedly swearing, I just happened to pick up the words. I swear spontaneously but hindsight is a brutal thing. When I later think of my use of swear words, it makes me feel like a failure. How can I not have control over what comes out of my mouth?

In this way, perhaps more than the good habits, we may be finding ourselves more exasperated over the bad habits that we cannot get rid of. However, thanks to the psychology department at Warwick, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Recent research at Warwick in collaboration with other institutions involving computer simulations of digital rodents has suggested that we can train our brain to form habits through repetition. Not only does this mean we can pick up good habits, but it also has the reverse impact of perpetuating our bad habits.

I didn’t even realise that these chores had transformed into habits

To be frank, it hardly sounded like a breakthrough discovery to me. I did the Warwick Skills Portfolio Award (WSPA) last year and, as a part of the programme, I set myself personal goals and reported to an online coach by submitting reflective entries on Moodle. Through the programme I picked up many habits that I otherwise had no intention of working on. I forced myself to practice Bhangra in my room, to read a particular book, and work on my time management better. At the time it was tedious and my only motivation was the mention of WSPA on my HEAR statement. I don’t distinctly remember a day or time when I began to enjoy these activities – I almost found myself in the middle of it. As much as it may sound like a romantic novel, I didn’t even realise that these chores had transformed into habits.

I developed a love-hate relationship with Bhangra because I gave it my all from day one but could never do it well. Thanks to the WSPA, I did so much Bhangra that after a point I stopped caring about how good it actually was. Even now, I sometimes randomly get up in the middle of revising in my room and start dancing. Given that I often end up developing back pain as a result of sitting at my desk for long hours, I am grateful for this habit.

Preventing myself from swearing is a seemingly impossible puzzle I need to solve

In my case of swearing, the light at the end of the tunnel is flickering though. If repetition leads to a development of a habit, this means that the more I give in to swear words, the further away I drift from my original aim of entirely renouncing the offensive terms. There is no opposite to swear words. Different emotions trigger different tendencies and preventing myself from swearing is a seemingly impossible puzzle I need to solve if I am to let go of the habit completely.

However, despite having done the WSPA and learnt my lesson, I don’t think this discovery is completely irrelevant to my life. I always knew that habits could be changed – my experience proved this – but now there is scientific evidence to back this up.

There is substance to the advice, ‘never give up’. It isn’t something to you offhandedly say to a friend to make them feel better – it actually works. It feels both bold and beautiful to be able to tell myself to keep going, knowing that it is proven and informed advice.

And, who knows? One day I may just go back to saying ‘Oh my days’ in response to all difficult situations.

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