Shaking habits to discover the world
As the end of the year approaches, we remind ourselves of the advice of French poet and philosopher Paul Valery: “You must live as you think. If not, sooner or later you end up by thinking as you have lived.”
I got a calendar and a diary for next year and began copying the birthdays of the members of my family and my IDs, passwords and bank account information. Have I been living as I think? Or have I been thinking as I live? As I reviewed my diary entries for this year, I realized that not many days were spent afresh, according to my thoughts.
When I read the Bible in college, I found a phrase I now live by: “As a dug returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly (Proverb 26:11).” It was a caution for myself as I set goals, only to forget them in a few days. Bad habits are so hard to fix.
A few decades later, there is no sign of improvement in my foolish habit of “returning to vomit.” The bible phrase was supposed to be for self-discipline, but it serves more as self-deprecation. Smoking is one of the habits I am struggling to kick. Every year on New Year’s Day, I make up my mind to quit smoking. Then, the pledge is broken soon, and I renew my vow on my birthday and anniversary, only to retract it again. I had stopped smoking for as long as three months, but my willpower was no stronger than the tiger in the founding myth who failed to stay in the cave for 100 days.
A habit is a product of our instinct to use the brain efficiently. When you place food at the end of the maze and have a mouse search for it, the brain becomes very active at first. But as the mouse becomes familiar with the maze, the brain activity slows down because there is no reason to waste energy. Scholars call the process of converting a series of actions into automatic routines as “chunking.” Most of our daily lives are ruled by chunks of actions called “habits” created by the three steps of a cue, a routine and a reward.
The problem is that the brain cannot distinguish a good habit from a bad one. We often forget the fact that we are dominated by habits just as we often don’t think about how we are breathing air or that fish live in the water. The habit gets in our thoughts as well. It is just convenient to think as we are used to without asking questions or feeling curious.
If you get used to your comfort zone, you become increasingly reluctant to make efforts to investigate the essence of the world. You are not willing to listen to other opinions just to save yourself the trouble. The intense confrontation between group intelligences that swept Korean society this year may be based on a lack of intelligence and contemplation and letting habits take over our thinking.
If not, we wouldn’t have repeated the same boring fights on every issue instead of trying to find a solution.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun