Forget "Mindfulness": Habits Make Us Human

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

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U.S. Navy ships

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Credit: NASA
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It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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