Recently I was reading the book Learning Theories by Dale H. Schunk. Yes, being a nerd is painful sometimes. For an academic text book, it is well written and interesting. On page 35, if you find this post riveting and feel like you must know more, I came across a piece of neuro-science that seemed both interesting and beneficial.
Spontaneous (chosen in the moment) reactions prompted by the front of the brain (frontal cortex), as actions or responses become habituated (more on auto-pilot) they become regulated by the back of the brain (cerebellum). This means changing habituated actions or responses requires bringing higher levels of intentionality – to pull the action, emotion, or belief back into the domain of “chosen in the moment” cognitive activity.
We all have things we do without thinking. You drive to work and think about a dozen different things on the way. The mechanics of coordinating your hands (steering), feet (speed), and eyes (navigation) don’t impair your ability to begin crafting that e-mail you have to write when you arrive. Driving is habituated, and writing the e-mail is “chosen in the moment” activity.
As a life skill, this is a wonderful provision from God and allows mundane activities to be much less stressful than if they required our full attention.
But what happens when something dysfunctional becomes habituated? The same thing. It goes on auto-pilot and seemingly “just happens.” We can rhetorically ask, “What were you thinking? You knew that was going to go badly, because you’ve done it dozens of times.” In reality, we were no longer thinking because we had done it dozens of times.
Pause: It is important to realize that not just physical behaviors become habituated. Emotional reactions (i.e., anxiety, anger, anticipation, etc.), social patterns (i.e., avoidance, honesty, dishonesty), and patterns of thoughts (i.e., catastrophisizing, all-or-nothing thinking, blame-shifting) also can become habituated.
It means we might say something like this,
“It doesn’t seem like your tendency to assume that task was overwhelming or to blame your spouse for the argument was the same kind of thinking as when I asked you to catch me up on your week. To think about your week required a pause and intentional thought. To assume you would be overwhelmed seemed more automatic. At this point I’m not morally evaluating the two responses, so please try not to be defensive. But could you tell a difference in how you responded to each? [Listen]
[Assuming a ‘yes’ answer] That likely indicates that your response has become more habituated; that the response pattern now emerges from the same part of your brain that you use to brush your teeth, rather than the part of the brain you use to select an entree from a menu at a restaurant.
This would mean our first objective in changing this behavior is cultivating self-awareness in the moments when you’re prone to be on auto-pilot; otherwise we’ll just keep talking about what you should have done. It will seem obvious in retrospect. You will feel shame for not changing. Eventually you’ll either feel like counseling is ‘one more thing you failed at’ or that I’m ‘another idiot counselor who’s not practical enough.’
The application would involve a pause after realizing you’re in a pivotal moment of change. Not a pause to ‘go to your happy place’ or ‘count to 10’ but to be intentional instead of instinctual. It may be good to tell people you trust in these moments to ask you, ‘Is this your intentional response?’ to help you resist the power of habit. It may help you to visualize the decision moving from the back of your skull (where emotions come from) to the front (where intentional thought emerges) as a way to slow yourself down.”
Profound New Application? No
Like most brain research this insight doesn’t give a new intervention, but a better understanding of why existing best-practices are (and were before brain research) effective. In our day brain research adds to the motivation level people give to particular practices. If “its backed by science” they trust it more and are willing to persist in the process of change longer.Like most brain research this insight doesn’t give a new intervention, but a better understanding of why existing best-practices are effective. In our day brain research adds to the motivation level people give to particular practices Click To Tweet
What Does this Mean for Biblical Counseling?
At one level this entire post has just been a fancy way of applying James 1:19-20 on being slow to speak (pause) and quick to listen (think). James 1 does apply the dynamics of habit to emotional regulation and interpersonal conflict. Understanding the neurology of habit allows us to make a broader application of this passage – to the other types of habit we discussed.
For the counselee who is more likely to trust science than Scripture, being informed on neurology allows us to appeal to the timeless truth of Scripture. Once progress is made and trust is built we can ask, “Would you have trusted James 1 enough to do what I advised without the backing of neurology?” And follow up with, “That’s not a question to make you feel guilty (although guilt may be appropriate). It is a question to get you to consider, what if your maturation goal is in an area that Scripture speaks to but science has not discovered the underlying dynamic? Are you willing to do what is right and good because Jesus is your Lord even when you don’t understand the reasons why it may be effective?”
This is a discipleship conversation that is often had more effectively once the primary struggle is resolved. Seeing the effectiveness of Scripture, even if applied because of a faith in science more than God, can create a realization that their stated faith (I’m a Christian) was not the basis for their actual choice. The reality is that we will not (and should not have to) have a neurological explanation for every healthy, God-honoring choice we make.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” post which address other facets of these subjects.