Mindfulness and getting unstuck from the webs of habit

Any insect will tell you that getting caught in a spider web is no fun. In addition to being eaten, the situation represents something of an impediment to pursuing the goals of life. The habits of our minds can feel as sticky as spider webs. These habits are found in the temptations of tasty food, alcohol, or drugs. Or they may be found in the pull of negative ruminations about the self or about others. Or in the difficulty of producing creative responses to novel problems. In each case, we may find ourselves stuck in the habits of our minds instead of progressing toward our goals and values.

When being dumb is smart

What is it that makes temptations, ruminative thoughts, and established ways of thinking and behaving so difficult to overcome? An answer provided by cognitive scientists is that the mental processes involved in such situations are automatic – involuntary responses that are elicited quickly and effortlessly. These automatic processes facilitate numerous behaviors such as the ability to read words fluently (rather than stringing letters together) or to go to the fridge when hungry (rather than foraging in the bathtub). As these examples show, automaticity is as common as air. And it may be just as important to our survival, as our limited information processing capacities – cf. Miller’s seven pieces of information in working memory[1] – stand in stark contrast with the immeasurable amount of information inherent to any action (it has been estimated that there are 10120 possibilities in a game of chess[2]). As a consequence, we must rely on the automaticity of mental shortcuts to prevent analytic paralysis. As Nietzsche said with his customary flair, we need a “will to ignorance” that simplifies (and thus falsifies) the world into something habitable.

Of doctors and drug addicts

Unfortunately, everything costs something. Although automatic responses are adaptive, they are conservative and thus poorly suited to address novel situations. Novelty may show itself in a variety of ways, such as the presentation of a diagnostic case that is different from (while resembling) a physician’s previous experience. Or the familiar context of drug use may change when an addict develops a newfound desire to quit. In these cases, automatic processes will direct attention to what experience has shown to be salient – the familiar aspects of the case presentation or the appetitive qualities of the drug. In this way, both doctor and addict are likely to get entangled in the web of habit, increasing the likelihood of diagnostic error[3] or relapse[4].

Staying in the present to rise above the past

Mindfulness, which is often defined as nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, has begun to be studied as a way to counteract detrimental habits of the mind. Although mindfulness is present in Western philosophical and religious traditions, it has been most developed in Buddhist meditative practices. Typical mindfulness instructions involve attending to the sensations of breathing, returning attention to the breath whenever one has become distracted. At some point, intense experiences will arise, such as discomfort in the knee and the associated impulse to shift position. Further instructions include bringing awareness to these uncomfortable sensations without trying to change them. This accepting awareness is supported by an attitude of curiosity – a “bare attention” to sensations (or impulses, thoughts, etc.) as if they were being experienced for the first time.

In this way, mindfulness might help to overcome mental habits by changing the way we process our experience. We are usually immersed in the productions of our minds much in the way we become immersed in a compelling horror movie. In both cases, getting carried away by powerful emotions is more likely when we treat the experience as “real”. But the axe-murderer on the movie screen is not real. It is just the image of an actor projected on a two-dimensional surface (which may feel more real because of the actor’s skill). Realizing this is likely to reduce some of the terror we may otherwise experience. Mindfulness similarly provides perspective by showing that the command of a drug urge (“I absolutely have to get a drink/drug hit”) does not reflect reality but is instead a production of the mind (which may feel more real because of previous reinforcement experiences). Realizing this is likely to reduce some of the need to act on such impulses.

Separating impulse from action

We tested this idea with a sample of regular drinkers[5]. In the baseline session, all participants completed an Implicit Association Test (IAT), a reaction time measure we used to assess automatic associations between alcohol and approach behavior. Half of the participants received three sessions of mindfulness training and half received placebo attention training instructions. At a follow-up session, participants reported their recent drinking behavior. The results showed that the strength of automatic alcohol-approach associations at baseline predicted follow-up drinking for the control group, which is consistent with previous studies. However, the relation between the IAT and drinking was significantly weaker in the mindfulness group.

This suggests that mindfulness may help to create a gap between impulse and action, which would greatly benefit the addict who is trying to loosen the hold of intense and intensely destructive urges. Mindfulness has similarly been shown to overcome automatic processes involved in eating disorders[6] and the inability to solve novel problems[7]. In sum, mindfulness may help to disentangle the webs of habit that impede our lives.


[1] Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
[2] Shannon, C. E. (1950). Programming a computer for playing chess. Philosophical Magazine, 41, 256-75.
[3] Graber, M. L., Franklin, N., & Gordon, R. (2005). Diagnostic error in internal medicine. Archives of Internal Medicine, 165, 1493-1499.
[4] Marhe, R., Waters, A. J, van de Wetering, B. J. M., & Franken, I. H. A. (2013). Implicit and explicit drug-related cognitions during detoxification treatment are associated with drug relapse: An ecological momentary assessment study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81, 1-12.
[5] Ostafin, B.D., Bauer, C., & Myxter, P. (2012). Mindfulness decouples the relation between automatic alcohol motivation and drinking behavior. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31, 729-745.
[6] Papies, E. K., Barsalou, L. W., & Custers, R. (2012). Mindful attention prevents mindless impulses. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 291-299.
[7] Ostafin, B.D., & Kassman, K.T. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 1031-1036.

NOTE: Image by Til Bergmann, permission to use obtained by BO.

Brian Ostafin works in the Clinical Psychology and Experimental Psychopathology program at the University of Groningen. His main research interests include the role of automatic mental processes in addiction, mindfulness, and meaning. For more information, you can visit his website: http://www.rug.nl/staff/b.d.ostafin/

Key references:

Ostafin, B.D., (in press). Taming the wild elephant: Mindfulness and its role in overcoming automatic mental processes. In B.D. Ostafin, M.D. Robinson, & B.P. Meier (Eds.), Handbook of mindfulness and self-regulation. New York: Springer.

Ostafin, B.D., Wessel, I., & Kassman, K.T. (2013). Breaking the cycle of desire: Mindfulness and executive attention weaken the relation between an implicit measure of alcohol valence and preoccupation with alcohol-related thoughts. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27, 1153-1158.

Ostafin, B.D., Bauer, C., & Myxter, P. (2012). Mindfulness decouples the relation between automatic alcohol motivation and drinking behavior. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31, 729-745.

Ostafin, B.D., & Kassman, K.T. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem solving. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 1031-1036.

Ostafin, B.D., Marlatt, G.A., & Greenwald, A.G. (2008). Drinking without thinking: An implicit measure of alcohol motivation predicts failure to control alcohol use. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 1210-1219.


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