Mindless Work: The Formation of Habits

Mindless Work: The Formation of Habits

With Advent around the corner I thought we might begin to look at how the human person is fallen and redeemed. We will begin by reflecting upon how the human person interacts with the world — his senses and internal powers that allow for knowledge to be extracted from things. At the same time we shall talk about habituation and the human learning process. All of which will lead into discussion about good and evil, virtue and vice, and a practical guide to making a good confession. I hope to illustrate how the spiritual and theological reality of confession makes psychological and neuropsychological sense.

To begin with we will look at habituation. When we are first born we have some basic reflexes, but no knowledge of the world. The child therefore looks to its parents to learn the “rules” of its new existence. When a human accomplishes a desired end the brain releases a dopamine spritz that causes pleasure — the body is rewarding us for a job well done. How the “good” is defined changes over the course of our lives. Beginning with parental affirmation, the child begins to assert its autonomy until in adolescence when parental influence is reduced and the self and peer affirmation guide the individual’s determination of what is “good”. However, this is not totally relative, during the course of this time the person’s social network —parents, influential adults, peers, and the Church — teaches how our thoughts, feelings, and desires for things on this earth are ordered to a higher purpose than merely a maximized pleasure for the self.

So an interaction with a created thing might be chronicled as such: feeling about the thing before me, desire for the thing based on emotions, the thoughts of reason as to whether the thing is a good to be sought or an evil to be avoided. Evil here does not denote a sin necessarily, evil here means that the pursuit of the object or the object itself is not within the order that I have established according to reason. 

For example, a piece of chocolate cake. I feel excited at the prospect of the taste in my mouth, the mouthfeel of the moist cake and icing, the smell evokes memories of family birthdays and celebrations, and my mouth begins to water. The created good of chocolate cake is morally neutral. It is good if I seek to enjoy the confection with friends and family in celebration of the life that God has given to me or even as a moment of pleasure at the end of a long day. It would be an evil to be avoided if my desire for it is primarily because I wish to satisfy the desire for the pleasure of eating it or perhaps if I had already eaten a piece earlier in the day.

Because of the pleasure felt when obtaining the thing desired, we tend to remember how to repeat the process, or are at least driven to figure it out. There are many other complex things going on, but I wish to focus primarily on the context of habit formation. As the thoughts, feelings, and actions that are necessary to replicate the process are repeated the pleasure becomes less because the means of obtaining the goal no longer needs to be thought of intentionally. The necessary actions are so ingrained that we can make the choice to obtain the desired object and we will obtain it on autopilot. Think about getting ready in the morning. Without intentionally thinking about it, you rise, bathe, get dressed and rarely do you end up driving to work without pants on. This is because the habit of getting ready has been so deeply ritualized — 2nd nature, mindless, etc. — that without a serious interruption the process will run without any direct mental effort. However, a serious interruption — emergency, staying in a new place, coffee maker breaks — might cause you to forget things that were tied to certain parts of the process. I have only lost my keys or locked them in the car, when I have put them somewhere other than in my front pocket, this interruption of my normal car exiting process results in misplacing my keys or locking them in the car.

You see, our brain uses various neurochemical transmitters to streamline repeated processes. If the process is done frequently enough or is accompanied by heightened emotional tension then the process could become a neural canal — meaning the brain makes it incredibly easy to begin this process and requires significant input to stop or alter the process. A good example of a neural canal would be your favorite “unhealthy” coping mechanisms. Though we have both healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms usually there is at least one “guilty pleasure” that we use for coping that we don’t want to get rid of: particular food, sentimental daydream, sexual fantasy. We will find ourselves in the midst of this coping mechanism and have trouble remembering why or how we got there, that is because it is so habituated that it is the first natural suggestion to cope with stress and most other suggestions lead to it. What if this coping mechanism was also a vice that we are trying to overcome in our spiritual growth and psychological development. If we have habituated a vice over years, then we need to find a way to interrupt the ritual or habituated behavior process that begins with the suggestion to sin and ends with our consent to the sinful action.

As we enter into the penitential liturgical season of Advent it would be prudent for us to take time to reflect upon those favorite unhealthy coping mechanisms and to spend each week of Advent working on disrupting the habit or ritual. Next time we will look at how our virtues and vices affect the way that we see ourselves and our ability to change.


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