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Hacking Your Brain’s Reward System to Change Habits

Dr. Jud Brewer | 7:38


Why does your brain prefer cake to broccoli? This seems like a simple solution. cake tastes better, but it's not as simple as you might think. And the real answer gives us insights into why we act certain ways and how to break bad habits. Ready to dive in?

Let's start with why and how our brains form habits. Why is simple habits free up our brain to learn new things? Think about it. If every day you woke up in the morning and had to relearn how to walk, put your clothes on, tie your shoes, make coffee, cook food and eat, you'd be exhausted before you even finish breakfast. habits help us learn something once. 

And then we can automatically act that behavior out without thinking. Simple, right? So how are habits form? Notice how every single action you take doesn't become a habit. Your brain has to choose what to lay down as a habit and what not to do again. How do we do this, we learn a habit based on how rewarding the behavior is. 

This is called reward based learning. And it has three components, a trigger, a behavior and a reward. Let's say you see your shoelaces untied, that's the trigger, tie your shoes, that's the behavior and then don't trip when you walk. That's the reward. The more rewarding a behavior is, the stronger the house.

In fact, our brains set up a hierarchy of behaviors based on their reward value to behavior with the bigger reward is the one we act out. This goes all the way back to our caveman brains that are set up to help us get the most calories we can so we can survive. 

For example, sugar and fat have lots of calories. So when we eat cake, part of our brain thinks calories survival, so we start to prefer cake over broccoli, our brains remember which foods are more rewarding. Which is why our parents never served to dessert at the same time as dinner. Given a choice, we'd fill up on cake before we ate our vegetables. But it's not just calories that count. Our brains also learned the reward value of people of places and things. For example, think back to all of the birthday parties you went to as a kid.

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