Habit Loops Part 1

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Although there’s no magic pill to change habits, you can change your habit loops.

Different strategies to change your habit loops are usually related to the work of psychologist B.F. Skinner who described our behaviours as a series of responses to different stimuli.

You can think of this as the simplest form of a habit loop:

STIMULUS -> RESPONSE

A stimulus happens (also know as a cue or trigger), which is followed by a response.

For example, by ringing a bell just before he fed his dogs, B.F Skinner created a connection (or habit loop) between the stimulus (ring a bell) and the response (dog salivates to get ready to eat). After a while this habit loop became established so that when he rung the bell (stimulus), the dogs would automatically salivate (response)…even without the food being there.

This model helps us to understand our automatic behaviours (habit loops), but to understand how this model connects to our movement let’s look at something called reflex theory.

Reflex Theory: Stimulus - Response and Movement

Way back in the late 1800s and early 1900s before B.F Skinner (when F.M Alexander was first developing his work) a neuroscientist named Charles Sherrington laid the foundation for a theory of motor control (of how we move) that later became know as Reflex Theory. Later, this theory became the popular way that Alexander Technique teachers explained their work. Reflex theory gives us a way to connect the stimulus - response model to our movement; and it goes something like this:

Our complex behaviours are built up of combinations (or chains) of reflexes that happen automatically in response to a stimuli. Once a stimulus happens to you, then a bunch of reflexes happen in a sequence. Together these reflexes act as the building blocks to create your movements and behaviours.

From the simplest reflex (i.e your leg kicks up when your doctor taps your knee with a hammer *this is still correct), the theory was extrapolated out to explain all complex behaviours we do. Today we know this the full picture of how we function. The problem with reflex theory is that it doesn’t fully explain many of things we can do (such as making very fast or voluntary movements). Still, keeping it in mind can be a helpful way to start your Alexander practice. Here’s how.

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Pattern Interrupt: Creating a New Loop

One way to develop your Alexander Technique practice is to think of it as a game: Interrupt your old habit loops - and create a new loop.

For example:

Old Habit Loop:

  1. Stimulus - Sit in the chair: Have little or no conscious awareness of the stimulus (action is on autopilot).

  2. Response: Compress and tighten yourself as your lower into the chair (or whatever your specific habits are); end up sitting in a collapsed way.

  3. Result: Old habit loop is completed and you get what you always got.

New Loop:

  1. Stimulus - Sit in the chair: Step one is you have to become aware of the stimulus - enough to catch it in the act.

  2. Pattern Interrupt: Stop off your old response before it gets you in a knot; and instead use inhibition/ direction to influence yourself to go UP (to uncompress or expand from head to toe).

  3. Response: Continue to give the new intentions to open UP as you lower into the chair.

  4. Result: Find yourself moving and sitting in a new (often more poised) way.

The practice is to run this pattern interrupt game over and over until your conscious awareness and intention for the new loop to occur is strong enough to move beyond the tremendous force of habit (your old loop) - to shape your coordination and self in a new direction.


Summary

  • Although there’s no magic pill for habits, you can change your habit loops.

  • Most habit change models are based on the stimulus - response loop

  • Reflex Theory says our behaviours are made up of a whole stack of reflexes that happen in response to a stimulus. This model is limited because it doesn’t explain voluntary movement, but it’s still useful to help us connect our habits of movement and posture to other stimulus-response habit change strategies.

  • One way to develop your Alexander Technique practice is to play a game in which you interrupt your old habit loops - and create a new loop.

  • Every new movement, every new stimulus you encounter, every action you do is another opportunity to break your old habit loop and to develop the skill of your new loop - and to shape a new you in the process.