In our early years as homo sapiens sapiens life was simply a reaction. Run from the lion. Hunt the deer to feed your family. Have sex and produce many babies. It was as close to animal instincts as we could get. We lived the way animals do; in an immediate return environment. Animals operate with the present and very near future in mind. A space where the consequences of their actions deliver clear and immediate results.
Interestingly enough, our brains still have the same makeup as it did thousands of years ago. The neocortex (part of the cerebral cortex) is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. It accounts for 76% of the volume of the human brain.
It’s only in the last 500 years that our brains have made the shift to a delayed-return environment. This came about with the focus on agriculture. Growing crops take a significant amount of patience and planning for a successful harvest months later. If we flash forward to today’s world it has been filled with delayed-return choices like retirement planning, vacation planning, career planning, etc.
The setback here is that our modern world is evolving at a pace that our brains can’t keep up with. We have access to so much information and knowledge but we are still in the training phases of our brains. This is why our tendencies in overwhelming situations lead us to making choices that are in an immediate-return environment. When our brains are on overload it’s easier and more satisfying to do what comes natural. Natural being thousands of years ago. Natural being in a reactive state.
This is why reinforcements are crucial to us when breaking bad habits or creating a good one. It triggers the part of the brain for instant gratification. It’s important to understand how our brain works if we want to use it to our advantage to live fuller, healthier lives.
If you want to stop smoking then you must reward yourself for going a day without a cigarette. The health effects of smoke cessation can fill an entire page but you won’t get to see or feel those effects for a long time so the reinforcements are in place as motivators to get you to the ultimate goal. Obviously, you want to make sure that the reinforcement is aligned with your future goal and isn’t counter productive. Ex: exercising and then rewarding yourself with a twinkie!
The sweetest part of this whole process is that in time external rewards will evolve into intrinsic feelings with a new sense of identity. “I am no longer a smoker.” This new sense of identity will successfully reset your lifestyle and just like that you’ve been rewired using what you know about your brain to your advantage.