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Neuroplasticity and the Science of Habit Formation, Case Study


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Can we change our brain? Can we re-wire our habits and human patterns? Learn about the Theory & Practice of Habit Change. Why do habits stick? Why not? We will dive into neuroscience and see what this field can teach us.

Is there a scientifically quantifiable effect of meditation? Does the brain change physically after someone meditates for thousands of hours?

What kind of technology can help us shape better habits? What can we learn from the case study?

Published in: Health & Medicine, Lifestyle
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Neuroplasticity and the Science of Habit Formation, Case Study

  1. Tapping into Neuroplasticity Remo Uherek, Co-Founder
  2. Remo Uherek • 31 years • BA in Business (University of Basel) • Serial Entrepreneur, Startup Advisor • Co-Founded Small-n-Tall GmbH in 2003  Idea incubator • Co-Founded Trigami AG in 2007, sold in 2011  Social Media Marketing network • Meditation practitioner since 2008 • Co-Founded in 2014  App that motivates you to meditate daily
  3. • Download slides from:
  4. Purpose of this session • Overview over the Theory & Practice of Habit Change • Why do habits stick? Why not? • What is neuroplasticity? • What are results from meditation research? • How can technology help us? • What can we learn from
  5. What is neuroplasticity? • Before: notion that the connections in the brain develop until maturity, and then get stuck • After: Neuroscience has proven that this is WRONG. The brain remains flexible and able to change
  6. Habits • That means that it‘s possible to change habits. Even the deepest ones.
  7. Habits • So how do we change habits effectively?
  8. „Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.“ - Mahatma Gandhi
  9. Why are habits important? • More than 40% of the actions people perform each day are habits (Duke University, 2006) • If you want to live a richer, more meaningful life, focusing on habits makes a lot of sense (Main source for this part:
  10. Definition • Habits = anything that we do without conscious thought
  11. Psychology behind habit formation • We are not born with habits • Habits free up time and energy • This is why you have great ideas while you are taking a shower, or walking – your actions are automatic so your mind is free to thing about something else
  12. Psychology behind habit formation • Habits by themselves are not the problem
  13. Psychology behind habit formation • BAD habits are the problem • The unproductive and unhealthy ones are
  14. Psychology behind habit formation • Complex habits are just a combination of several smaller habits that are being performed in succession. • The completion of one smaller habit triggers another.
  15. Three-step process
  16. Three-step process • Cue = the trigger, the motivator to do something • Routine = Action that we perform • Reward = (Positive) result
  17. Three-step process • Example: Chocolate bar at supermarket checkout • The first time you did it, it was a conscious decision. • After the first time, the brain doesn‘t even think about what is happening. The habit is triggered automatically. • Eventually, the cue will trigger a craving for the reward, leading to action
  18. Three-step process • As long as there is a consistent cue and a pleasurable reward, you‘ll form a habit. • This leads to habits that we don‘t really want
  19. Three-step process • We can use this process to our benefit • We can identify habits that are desirable and use the cue-routine-reward process to ingrain them into our everyday life • We can also use this process to change our habits.
  20. Changing habits • It is very hard to destroy habits. Instead, they should be replaced. • The best way to replace habits is to keep the same cue and reward, and replace the routine. • Example: Instead of eating ice cream you have a bowl of frozen berries, fulfilling the desire for a cold treat.
  21. Changing habits • Willpower alone is not sufficient. • Habits cannot be formed from brute force alone. You‘ll fail if your method relies on willpower alone. • You need to have a reason. You need to know the WHY, the big-picture goal.
  22. „Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.“ - Jim Rohn
  23. Microhabits and Small wins • One large obstacle is lacking the ability to complete the target action (Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg) • Solution: – Focusing on Microhabits and Small Wins – Instead of wanting to meditate for 20 minutes, you just do a 10 sec meditation every day, doing two mindful breaths
  24. Success Spiral • Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win (Prof. Alan Krueger)  Success spiral
  25. How to motivate employees? • Help them perform a small win every day
  26. Peer Support • People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they‘re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief (Lee Ann Kaskutas) • Example: 12 Step Groups e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous
  27. Reward and Punishment • One way to establish new habits is to have an accountability partner • You check in with your accountability partner every day • If you don‘t do your habit, you have to take a punishment (e.g. blame or paying money) • If you succeed, you get rewarded by being praised
  28. Example: Excercising • Instead of 30 min workouts, just start with a microhabit • 7 Min Workout every day, no matter what • Do this for 20-30 days in a row, don‘t miss one day
  29. Example: Pavlok • There are many wearable devices. • Most focus on tracking, but the biggest problem is not tracking • The biggest problem is motivation • Pavlok is one of the first devices that aspires to change that • Science: Pavlovian Conditioning – Dogs get meat powder after bell – Ringing bell enough to get saliva running
  30. Example: Pavlok
  31. Example: Pavlok • Overview: zmI • Science: 8sU
  32. Example: Pavlok • Pavlok combines (social) penalties, accountability and rewards • Stimulation is not only through positive things (rewards), it‘s also through the fear of loss, or the fear of a negative stimuli
  33. Example: Pavlok • Pavlok combines (social) penalties, accountability and rewards • Stimulation is not only through positive things (rewards), it‘s also through the fear of loss, or the fear of a negative stimuli
  34. Example: Pavlok • Example: Wake up without hitting the „snooze“ button • Every time who hit the „snooze“ button, you get an electric shock
  35. What is Meditation? • To meditate = to cultivate • Cultivate what? Cultivate the mind, cultivate certain human qualities
  36. Brain Activity
  37. Brain Activity • Anterior cingulate cortex • Plays a role in: – Regulating blood pressure and heart rate – Rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy, impulse control, and emotion
  38. Meditation Research • Meditation and its effect on brain activity and the central nervous system became a focus of collaborative research in neuroscience, psychology and neurobiology during the latter 20th century • Since 1987: Mind and Life Conferences Co- Founded by Dalai Lama, dedicated to exploring the relationship of science and Meditation/Buddhism
  39. Mind & Life Institute „The Mind & Life Institute is a non-profit organization committed to building a scientific understanding of the mind as a way to help reduce suffering and promote human flourishing. To accomplish this, we foster interdisciplinary dialogue between Western science, philosophy, humanities, and contemplative traditions, supporting the integration of first-person inquiry through meditation and other contemplative practices into traditional scientific methodology. “ -
  40. EEG Studies
  41. EEG Studies • Studies found that meditation lowers theta waves (4–8 Hz) and alpha waves (8–12 Hz) (Cahn and Polich, 2006) • Findings suggest that in a meditative state a person is more relaxed but maintains a sharp awareness.
  42. EEG Studies • Increase in the specific frequencies expressed in the alpha range, increased alpha band power, and an overall slowing (reduction in frequency) in EEG activity in experienced meditators versus less experienced meditators while meditating (Kasamatsu and Hirai, 1966)
  43. fMRI Studies
  44. fMRI Studies • Increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex (Holzel et al, 2007) • Indicates greater sensitivity to emotional expression and positive emotion due to the neural circuitry activated (Davidson et al, 2008)
  45. fMRI Studies • Evidence to suggest meditation plays a protective role against the natural reduction in grey matter volume associated with aging • Which plays a role in learning, cognitive flexibility and attentional processing. This could suggest a better attentiveness in aging meditators versus non-meditators (Pagnoni et al, 2007)
  46. fMRI Studies • Long-term meditation practitioners have also shown to have a higher tolerance for pain (Grant et al, 2009) • Meditation increases self-regulation and attentiveness (Fox et al, 2014)
  47. Meditation Research • Kaul et al. found that sleep duration in long-term experienced meditators was lower than in non-meditators and general population norms • Meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body collectively referred to as the "relaxation response“, including changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry (Benson, 1997)
  48. Western therapeutic use • Meditation has entered the mainstream of health care as a method of stress and pain reduction. • Example: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  49. Decreased processing • Brain stops processing information as actively as it normally would, shown by decreased beta waves
  50. Decreased processing
  51. Survey of Beginners • People who meditated for at least one month reported: – 75% said meditation improved their focus at work – 90% learned skills that they could apply to other areas – 73% experienced spiritual or emotional changes (via
  52. Cognitive control • Meditation requires a strong cognitive control • This is why it cannot be practices by children and teenagers, because they haven‘t fully developed their cognitive abilities • For children and teenagers, the most important factor is role-modeling, by parents, teachers and other people.
  53. Biofeedback • Can you increase the efficiency of meditation by applying biofeedback? • Experiment: – Electrodes were implanted in the brain of rats – Pleasurable sensations could be stimulated by pressing a button – The pleasure was so intense, that rats stopped doing other activities, including sex and eating – Rats died from exhaustion – Conclusion: Applying biofeedback can be dangerous
  54. Change your Mind •
  55. Meditation as a Trend • Studies suggest that one million more Americans take up meditation every year - mostly in healthcare contexts (...) because they're suffering from chronic pain or post-traumatic stress. b_4016374.html
  56. Meditation as a Trend • Google, Twitter, Apple, or dozens of other technology companies using mindfulness to improve the performance and well-being of employees b_4016374.html
  57. Meditation as a Trend • Economic benefit: decrease healthcare costs, improve productivity, and speed processes of healing b_4016374.html
  58. What is Meditation? • Meditation is the process of focusing and watching the mind. That's it. It doesn't matter how you sit, if you sit, or even how long you do it, as long as you give the mind time to slow down. You can meditate while eating, running, even going to the bathroom. Why? Because it's in the intention, not the action -- it's the how, not the what. Source: run_b_578104.html
  59. What is Meditation? • The point of meditation is not to sit in the shape of a pretzel or chant in Sanskrit. These are the means, not the end. The point is: focus and watch the mind. Mostly, this is accomplished by not-doing: not thinking, not getting things done, not rushing, not trying to accomplish a goal. Just sit for a moment, right now, without seeking or desiring anything at all. b_578104.html
  60. What is Meditation? • As neuroscientists have verified, these practices are just like lifting weights: they cause part of the mind to strengthen, and grow. More time spent with meditation, more synaptic connections in the pre-frontal cortex. b_578104.html
  61. 2500 years ago • 2,500 years ago, a renegade Indian prince proposed that it is possible to unlearn the basic human tendencies toward wanting the pleasant, hating the unpleasant, and ignoring the neutral, and in so doing to suffer less, grow wiser, and act more compassionately.
  62. 2500 years ago • He became known as the Buddha • Quickly, this teaching, became what its founder claimed it wasn't: an ideology, even a religion. Subsequent teachers said the path is too difficult, so we must pray to semi-divine beings and hope that they will help us. Or it's only for some people and not for the rest of us. And so on.
  63. 2500 years ago • The Buddha did not understand the brain scientifically, but he did understand the mind experientially. It is possible, he found, to upgrade your mind through the practice of meditation, just as today you might upgrade your biceps by doing curls at the gym. Source: meditation_b_3741544.html
  64. Negativity Bias • Dr. Laura Kiken and Dr. Natalie Shook investigated whether meditation could reduce negativity bias. They learned that just one 15- minute meditation session was all it took to reduce someone’s susceptibility to negativity bias and help them think more positively. kiken-dr-nat/ 6585.abstract
  65. The Wandering Mind • Did you know that your mind wanders about 50% of the time? (Source: Harvard University)
  66. Focus • Meditation retrains your brain to focus on one task at a time. One study at Stanford University found that people with just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation practice stuck to tasks longer and switched tasks less frequently than people with no meditation experience. (...) In Lift’s own research, 75% of people who meditated reported an increase in focus at work within 1 month of their practice.
  67. The Muse • Heart rate monitor for the mind • Realtime biofeedback • Video:
  68. Applied Meditation
  69. Applied meditation • What do we do with this awareness? • How do we spend our limited time as a human?
  70. Applied meditation • I believe that these things can help us focus on what is really important, to make the world a better place
  71. Focusing on the real problems • Focusing on the 99% • Global warming is real • Depression, addictions, suicides are real • Feeding 10 billion people is real
  72. Focusing on the real problems • We are a family of 7 billion people (soon 10b) • We need awareness about ecology, ending violence, mental wellbeing • We need to focus more on basic human values and what the Dalai Lama calls „moral ethics“ • A lot of progress has been made in 20th century (civil rights, human rights). This trend needs to continue!
  73. How will the world look like in the year 2099?
  74. Focusing on the real problems • We are a family of 7 billion people (soon 10b) • Why not focusing on things that will improve humanity in 100 years? • We need more people who think long-term and globally
  75. People like Leila Janah are already doing it!
  76. Focusing on the REAL problems • We are a family of 7 billion people (soon 10b) • Why not focusing on things that will improve humanity in 100 years? • We need more people who think long-term and globally
  77. ZenFriend Case Study
  78. Why did I start • Meditation very important part of my life – Helps me get aware of the truly important things – Helps me to live a more meaningful life – Helps me find a healthy balance in life
  79. How I Simplified my Life:
  80. My Street Living Experiences Bielefeld 2011:
  81. My Street Living Experiences Basel 2014:
  82. My Street Living Experiences Basel 2014:
  83. Why did I start • Used Runkeeper successfully for my running
  84. Idea: Runkeeper for my meditation practice
  85. Vision/Mission: Motivate millions of people to meditate daily
  86. • Why? – My experience is that you cannot sustain meditation on your own – I visit 2-3 group meditations every week and it‘s fundamentally important for my own practice – Combine the best of online/mobile/offline
  87. • Downloaded 10.000 times • Daily used by 400-500 people
  88. • Future developments: – Add audio/video instructions – Connect with Biofeedback devices through APIs – Groups where people can exchange experiences and connect even more deeply – Synchronized meditations (meditate at the same time with other users) – Offline/Online combination, meeting people in real life
  89. Your Help is Appreciated • We don‘t have a marketing budget. Please tell one friend or relative about it or share this presentation via! :) • Basic Version is FREE :) • 7 Day Trial of Premium version is FREE • iPhone only (Android coming soon)
  90. Thank you! Blog: Twitter: @remouherek Email: Slides: