The Blinds of Habit

March 14, 2019

"Alex Framed" by Eric Rennie

We are what we repeatedly do,” Will Durant wrote, attributing the thought to Aristotle.  A 19th-century physiologist named William Benjamin Carpenter noted that any sequence of mental action that has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself.  He wrote, “…we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results.”  While advertisers might not see much potential in this, the pioneering psychologist William James recognized other advantages to habitual modes of behavior:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. 

Neuroscientists have since determined that habits are formed in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is located behind the prefrontal cortex where our conscious decision-making occurs.  Unlike cognitive learning, which takes place quickly, habits are acquired slowly and are difficult to break, as any reformed smoker will gladly tell you.  The two regions may work together when we are learning a new skill, but once it becomes routine, the basal ganglia takes over and the cerebral cortex can turn its attention elsewhere.  This enables us to tie our shoes, brush our teeth, drive a car and do a thousand and one other things without having to laboriously think our way through each step of the process. And so, while we may be nothing more than a walking bundle of habits as time goes on, there is no need to be weighed down by dull routine.    

Presumably there is some evolutionary advantage to being able to walk and chew gum at the same time – or as William James put it, to set free our higher powers of mind for their own proper work.  For example, I composed the first sentence of this paragraph this morning while shaving, and the rest followed as I was taking a shower. I was even able to do a bit of rewriting while opening the curtains downstairs and unloading the dishwasher before breakfast.  The poet Wallace Stevens used to write verses in his head while walking three miles to work at his day job at an insurance company in Hartford.  In theory, at least, his ability to walk and write poems at the same time aided his chances of surviving to pass his poetry-writing genes on to future generations.

Our talent for multi-tasking, as we now call it, is obviously helped if one or more of those tasks do not require us to pay attention to what we are doing. The question is whether we pay proper attention to any of them.  William James no doubt exercised higher powers of mind while performing rote tasks.  But the rest of us, I suspect, are otherwise engaged much of time in daydreaming or wondering what we are going to have for lunch.  The Russian mystic George Gurdjieff complained that we are “animated automatons” who waste our lives in a hypnotic state of “waking sleep.”  Much spiritual practice in both Eastern and Western traditions consists of techniques designed to help people wake up.  Granted that we all have mental equipment that allows us to sleepwalk through our lives.  But then we also come equipped with those higher powers of mind that enable us to pay attention to things besides tying our shoelaces or brushing our teeth.

Not long after I retired at 55, I took up photography in a serious way. The equipment I use is expensive, and it took a long time to become reasonably proficient with it.  All of the things that the human eye does naturally must be adjusted manually on a high-end camera so I can capture something that approximates what I am seeing.  That requires much trial and error still.  The hardest part is the seeing, without which no amount of technical proficiency will produce a decent picture.  You develop technical proficiency by working the camera until you don’t have to think about what you are doing while shooting. But if you are capable only of habitual seeing, you might as well leave the lens cap on when you are taking the picture.

Photography is all about putting a frame around your experience of the world to get people to see, which makes it a kind of spiritual discipline for me. There are plenty of fine photographers who take pictures of spectacular scenery for National Geographicor Sierra Club calendars.  But what is there other than their technical proficiency and the scenery itself?  I am more impressed by photographers who can take everyday reality and make you see it as if for the first time.  If they can wake me up, then I know they are awake.   

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