Do you have a bad habit you’d like to break? Perhaps a pack of cigarettes that never seems to go empty. Maybe you have a teenager that is constantly on their smartphone. Or you just can't resist that last bite of that muffin on the counter or dunking your hand on a bag of chips?

On HearSay with Cathy Lewis, we talk to Dr. Judson Brewer, associate professor at UMass and research affiliate at MIT, on the nature of bad habits from how they are formed, to recognizing and breaking them.

Author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes, to Smartphones, to Love--Why We Get Hooked And How We Can Break Bad Habits, Dr. Judson explains that from an evolutionary perspective “addiction is part of a primal, predisposed learning system that has helped humans survive.” When we see a fruit when we’re hungry, we eat it. That memory gets stored in our brain, and we remember the place we found that fruit, what it looked like, how it tasted, and that it filled our hunger. The same logic applies for avoiding danger. When we discovered fire, we know not to touch it because it burns.

The problem which Dr. Brewer states is when that same mechanism is used outside of survival like an overabundance of food beyond the point of satisfying one’s hunger or the misplacement of fear from something that is deadly like a tornado to something more simple like stagefright.

Being Curious Helps You Break Habits

Dr. Brewer calls it the mindfulness training. Being curious is a step into “figuring the hardwiring of our brain. We could see where we might get trip up. If we understand that reward based learning works based on results of behaviour, we can start to do two things. We can pay attention to the unhealthy behaviours we have and simply bring awareness to them.”

For example, let’s say you’re trying to get rid of bad eating habits. That last bite of that cheeseburger might have been a little too greasy than usual, or that piece of chocolate has caramel that got stuck in your teeth. It is those detail that we often miss once we have become accustomed to our usual actions. Using our awareness, we can use the same reward system to hack and reverse our habits into slowly detaching ourselves from them the same way they have developed.

Bringing The Mindfulness Training To A Larger Scale

What started out as a small experiment among his workers and colleagues in his offices, Dr. Brewer wanted to see what results a larger scale could produce. So he thought of using app-based training for the experiment. “What if we package my office and practices, and deliver these to people into context in which be more effective for them.”

They started developing apps and 3 of which are in clinical trial now. Craving to Quit! is for smoking, Eat Right Now for eating, and Unwinding Anxiety for anxiety. All were developed from Dr. Brewer’s company, Claritas MindSciences.

With the recent emergence of digital therapeutics, a subset of digital health which utilizes digital technologies and rely on lifestyle and behavioural changes to treat medical and psychological conditions, Dr. Brewer hopes to bring his strategies to the new age of medicine.

“Now you can have a medically indicated treatment that doesn’t come from a pill, but rather through your phone. We can reach people in remote locations. It costs less than seeing a doctor and getting a bunch of medication. We’re hoping to extend this beyond smoking and eating. Perhaps opioids, internet addiction. Paradoxically, since we’re addicted to our phones, why not use those same substance to overcome that addiction?”

Listen to the full episode.