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Training Your Brain to Work For You with Dr. Jud Brewer

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  • (1:00) - Opening the Hood on Your Brain w Dr. Jud
  • (7:45) - Applying Mindfulness During The Quarantine
  • (13:05) - The Anticipation Of Habits and Their Triggers
  • (18:15) - Everyday Addiction: From Your "Dumbphone" to Social Media
  • (26:30) - Awareness Tools: From Meditation to Experience Apps
  • (35:20) - The Big Debate: Role of Will Power in Behavior Change
  • Mind Over Money archive


Welcome back to Mind Over Money. I'm Kevin Cook, your field guide and story teller for the fascinating arena of behavioral economics.

Question: What are some real-life, hands-on strategies and tactics we can use to change our behavior and get better outcomes -- not just in a year but even in a single day?

Answer: Listen to the neuroscience research on habits, goals, and success -- explained by experts who are also great teachers.

This episode of Mind Over Money brings you one such expert, Dr. Jud Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University.

He is the author of the 2017 book The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love - Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. Dr. Jud, as I will heretofore call him, is also a research affiliate at MIT.

Your Brain's Reward and Habit Loops

Before we learn more about Dr. Jud's work, let me explain why I was so excited to get him on the program as I've been diving into research on the limits of will power and the power of mindfulness training.

In recent episodes, I've addressed behavior change from a few different angles. Earlier this week, I interviewed Nir Eyal about his 2019 book and research for Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I have to admit I was nervous beforehand about getting that interview right, with so much good stuff to talk about and only 40 minutes to get it done.

It turned out great, with so much good content and interaction, and I have to give 95% of the credit to Nir for being such a great communicator about the science and behavioral lessons for habit changers. Once you listen to Nir talk about how Facebook , Instagram and Twitter are "designed" to steal our attention, you realize how much power you have to allow the distractions or to cordon them off.

And a few weeks ago, in my series titled Fast Times at Innovation High, I looked at the success and the stumbles of lululemon athletica (LULU - Free Report) and Under Armour (UAA - Free Report) with the help of Zacks analyst Ben Rains.

When we discussed Kevin Plank's foray into wearable fitness-tracking technology, I told skeptical Ben that I always thought this area could be a category win for UA because of the engagement aspect when athletes, even just weekend warriors, are getting motivation and inspiration from powerful, personal, and easily-accessible data.

So, talking so much about data and behavior change, I was thrilled to finally get a real, live neuroscientist on Mind Over Money who deals deeply with both. Dr. Jud Brewer, MD and PhD, combines over 20 years of experience with mindfulness training and a career in scientific research.

As wonderful serendipity would have it, I had already scheduled Dr. Jud for our interview before I came across his 2011 research work cited in Nir Eyal's chapters on smoking cessation!

Dr. Jud is clearly a scientific authority who knows his wetware subject. More importantly, he is passionate about understanding how our brains work so that he can use that knowledge to help people make deep, permanent change in their lives -- with the goal of reducing suffering in the world at large.

One current area of suffering he is very concerned about is how people are dealing with anxiety and loss during this global healthcare crisis caused by the coronavirus. Whether we've lost loved ones or our jobs or businesses, the stress is being compounded by stay-at-home orders and the propensity for people to fall into unhealthy habits is profound.

His message on the podcast was loud and clear: it's hard to make sense of our behavior and attempts to change it if we don't know how our brains operate in what is known as the "default mode network" of thoughts, feelings and seemingly automatic habits.

An Operating Manual for Your Brain

How many times have you tried (unsuccessfully) to reduce the frequency with which you reach for your smartphone during the day, especially during times when it could only distract you from your key goals and tasks? See my January 2018 episode Apple (AAPL - Free Report) iPhones Give Me the Feelies for my "philosopher's background" on this addiction.

As we learned from Nir Eyal, it's not the device as much as the discomfort we are trying to feed. And Dr. Jud's work takes us straight into the brain mechanics of habits and the trigger-behavior-reward loops that make us drool like Pavlov's dog.

But to successfully operate our brains and create the changes we want, do we have to read thousands of pages of neuroscience research?

The answer is a solid nope. By learning even just a few basic principles and practices, Dr. Jud believes that people can start managing their behavior more effectively right away. For instance, he has short videos on that explain what's going on "under the hood" with many different behaviors.

In Unwinding Your Anxiety Habit Loop, Dr. Jud opens with this question "Did you know that feeling stressed or anxious can actually be a habit?"

And in Hacking Your Brain’s “Reward System” to Change Habits he uses the magnetic attraction of ice cream vs. broccoli to explain how habit loops form and become seemingly permanent for decades.

As an addiction psychiatrist and internationally known expert in mindfulness training for treating addictions, Dr. Jud has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety.

Based on the success of these programs in the lab, he co-founded MindSciences, Inc. to create app-based digital therapeutic versions of these programs for a wider audience, working with individuals, corporations, and hospital systems to put effective, evidence-based behavior change guidance in the hands of people struggling with unwanted behaviors and “everyday addictions.”

Some of the programs and apps that he's launched through MindSciences include Eat Right Now, Unwinding Anxiety and Craving to Quit.

Beyond Will Power and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

I wish I would have had instruction and apps like these when I used to struggle with over-eating and emotional eating.

One thing that many doctors and patients are learning after decades of research and life experience with habit change -- including many years of failure and frustration -- is that good ole' will power doesn't work for everybody. In fact, it may be more of an idealistic theory than an actual way that our brains work.

And what about years of talk therapy? Well, Dr. Jud has some surprising research about CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) vs mindfulness training too.

Finally, I would give you the link to Dr. Jud's 2016 TED Talk, "A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit" -- which has over 18 million views -- but I want you to listen to our conversation first. Even a brain science fan like me (who thinks he knows a few things) learned a bunch that I'm still digesting.

Now if you'll excuse me while I go to my next mindfulness lesson on the trigger-behavior-reward habit loop.

Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist for Zacks Investment Research where he runs the TAZR Trader and Healthcare Innovators portfolios. Click "Follow Author" above to receive his latest stock research and macro analysis.

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