Forget "Mindfulness": Habits Make Us Human

A person is, in large part, the sum of their habits. We go through an evolutionary process each day, in which certain behaviors in our repertoire are selected for and certain behaviors in our repertoire are selected against. Over time, our minds are filled with complex associations between these behavior patterns and the specific environmental cues that accompanied them. These cue-behavior associations are called habits.


In an unchanging environment, our habits are always going to be the proper/correct response - since they’re the behaviors that have given us favorable results in the past. Of course, the real world that we inhabit is staggeringly complex and consistently changing in ways both gross and subtle. But this doesn’t mean that we haven’t come up with ways of hacking our environments to our advantage. In order to get around the obstructive dynamism of the world, we’ve gotten extremely good at manipulating our environments to make them more familiar and stable. We work tirelessly to arrange our spaces at home, and the office, so that they match, and reinforce, our habits. We put the towel back in the towel rack in just the right manner, so that our left hand is met with a neatly folded piece of cloth when we get out of the shower. We make sure that our books are neatly placed in the bookshelves, and our plates are back in the kitchen cabinet – so that we can grab the right dictionary or dish when immersed in our current thoughts and worries. When everything is in its proper place, our subconscious movements are met with the right feedback and can move forward unimpeded. ­

It’s in such finely tuned environments of our own construction that we reach our full potential. Our coffee is done, and our breakfast is ready, before we even notice what’s going on. It’s not just that we move and work more efficiently in a stable environment that we’ve tuned to our habits, but we’re also able to bring more extended focus to our problems and interests in such a place. This is because habits don’t operate within the realm of conscious, deliberate thought. We can thus ruminate on the solution to a tricky social situation at work, or ponder the implications of quantum dynamics, while we brush our teeth or drive to the store. If we had to pay close attention to these activities, all of that time would be, in a sense, wasted – devoted to monitoring behaviors that we’ve performed dozens, or hundreds, of times before. When, on the other hand, we’re able to physically operate our lives with an elegant and efficient string of habits, we unlock the most powerful birthright of all humans: extended deliberate conscious thought.

With our physical concerns on autopilot, we can think about how to land rovers on comets, invent new gene therapies, make our parents happier, or millions of other interesting and worthwhile concerns. Habits, by unleashing our uniquely human capacity to reason, are the greatest tool we have in the pursuit of greatness. By making most of our lives “mindless”, we are able to become more mindful of the things that really matter. However, this goes against the recent “Mindfulness” fad that has lifted up the Zen/New Age idea of Mindfulness, or “being present”, as the highest form of human functioning and thought. Proponents of this school of thought talk about making “washing the dishes” or “eating a sandwich” a deliberate conscious experience, in which all of one’s attention is directed towards these mundane, usually habitual, matters. However, in the process of examining every crease in the bread of one’s Subway Sandwich, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole world out there to discover, explore, and build. By living in the moment, and letting our daily concerns take up all our attention, we tether ourselves to the world as it is, instead of imaging how it could be. There is nothing more tragic than miring ourselves in the mud in the name of Mindfulness when we could be floating amongst the stars, and building a better world, in the name of humanity.  

Image: Photos Public Domain

Big Think
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