Review: ‘Habits’ Packed Lunch Talk At The Wellcome Collection

Art & Culture

The 9-5 routine can sometimes be a misery-inducing affair.  In my experience, midweek lunchtimes provide an especially high-risk window for senseless rumination and pondering on all that's rubbish in the world, particularly after an excessive weekend. Sitting in a local park near the office with a cling-filmed cheese and pickle sandwich for the eight hundred and forty-fifth time is undoubtedly enough to provoke a mild existential crisis in even the most annoyingly optimistic among us.


If you’re anything like me, mental stimulation/forcing myself to learn about cool new stuff is key when I can’t seem to control an over-active mind. I might be a bit late to the party on this one, but discovering the Euston-based Wellcome Collection “Packed Lunch” talks has been something of a revelation to this purpose. As the name would suggest, it’s an hour-long talk where you turn up and eat your sarnies while listening to a scientist in conversation about their subject of expertise, followed by an audience Q&A. They cover a lot of things; bats, space flight, synaesthesia, gambling, pyschopathy: you name it, they’ve invited someone to come and talk at you about it.


Today’s pick falls onto the psychological spectrum, with King’s College senior lecturer Benjamin Gardner chatting about habitual human behaviour. Turning up twenty minutes early and clutching an M&S beetroot and goats cheese salad, I’m ready to feed my tired little brain. Of course I find the idea of habits intriguing anyway, often inwardly deciphering: ‘why do I keep doing that (insert stupid thing) that ultimately makes life much harder for me when all I want is to have a nice time?” Judging by how full the room is already; I suspect I might not be alone in this.


As each talk is recorded for future listening pleasure on the podcast page of the Wellcome Collection site, the interviewer lady tells us that she’s going to introduce the talk for the recording and that we all need to clap on cue- after she finishes the introduction. Everyone has a little chuckle about this, apart from the interviewer lady. I'm sure she's just a bit preoccupied with all the setting up and this is not truly reflective of a lack of sense of humour.


She kicks off proceedings by asking, “how long does it take to form a habit?” Unbeknownst to me, there is a common assumption that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Gardner is quick to dismiss this as a myth and the real answer is…. Nobody really knows. This statement manifests as a central theme as he answers many of the audience's Q&A queries with the same three words. Then it occures to me that his hands up 'we don't really know' approach is a good thing, and only to be expected. We all know a scientist who claims to know all and knows not of his research's limitations is absolutely not worth listening to. He is charmingly nerdy and enthusiastic, which warms my cockles. I decide I really like Dr Gardner. 


Throughout the conversation, we learn more about him. He repeatedly expresses his disappointment in being limited methodologically. He says he often has to rely on participant self-reporting (which he deems unreliable) and that there is a lack of opportunity to do proper lab experiments on habitual human behaviour. This triggers a disturbing mental image of a man chainsmoking fags in a cage, wired up as 5 or 6 Dr Gardner clones flock around him to take notes. Snapping out of it, I listen as he describes how he got into his field. While studying peoples’ car choices in the 1990’s, he went off on a tangent with his research after becoming preoccupied with the habitual nature of driving to work. I have to be honest; my heart sinks a little at this point. I wanted to know why people repeatedly spend £500 a week on cocaine, or can’t seem to help but repeatedly form unhealthy attachments to deplorable shitbags, that kind of thing. Not the consistency of the time frame in which people habitually scrape ice off their Renault Megane windscreens. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I feel like everyone else in the room shares this sentiment. (this is later confirmed by the audience Q&A session).


Although nail biting is about as maladaptive as things get, there is definitely room to independently relate his ideas to grittier subject matter and I don’t spiral into complete despondency. In discussing bad habits, Dr Gardner has several options on how to break them. One argument is that they all originally serve as a specific means to obtaining an intrinsic reward in some form. As the original purpose is lost, the reward you receive from it fade and the habit is all that remains. To overcome it, you have to find a way of reaping the same intrinsic reward in some other way. He draws on his own experience of buying himself a chocolate croissant at the same time every day, which he reflects on as being in relation to anticipated stress in the workplace. Hmm.


He then shares the best tried and tested method to breaking a habit. He advises us to ‘take a note of what you do but also the environment in which it happens… Much of what we do is shaped by the environment we do it in. Once you have observed what you do in relation to things you’d like to change, you’ll be in a far better position to set yourself a plan to rectify it.’ He suggests simultaneously recording daily each instance of unwanted behaviour and the circumstances in which the behaviour was enacted. ‘For example, what time of day was it? What were you doing beforehand? What was your mood immediately beforehand? How did you feel after? Who were you with? ‘ This apparently gives you an insight into the situations in which you are tempted to enact the unwanted behaviour, so making you better able to anticipate and prepare for these situations once you’ve initiated a behaviour change attempt,’ he says.


In the end, I leave feeling satisfied with my newly absorbed knowledge on habitual behaviour. As I indicated, listening to someone who has dedicated their entire adult life to advancing the human race certainly feels like a productive use of time. It’s also nice to learn things in the flesh rather than adding another hour of screen-staring to your day. And for my fellow cinycists, it could provide a useful antidote to not getting those irrational lunchtime blues. 

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