The nuts-and-bolts of addiction, and how it relates to non-lucidity.

In this interview with Judson Brewer MD PhD, Andrew and Dr. Brewer take a close look at the nuts-and-bolts of addiction, and how it relates to non-lucidity. Judson shares the recent work of his lab, and the neuroscience that helps us understand how we get hooked into virtually anything, including our dreams. We’re addicted to thinking, to distraction, to ourselves, to technology, even to love. The conversation moves to a look at the swept up continuum, a scientific description of how we get sucked into things (including non-lucid dreams), and how to pull ourselves out.

In addition to the famous default mode network, this interview with Judson Brewer discusses other parts of the brain that play an active part in our craving, and how meditation plays a leading role in transforming craving and addiction. Awareness practices hit the “pause button” in the machinery of addiction, and can radically transform previously intractable cravings. Using tenets talked about by the Buddha, the discussion turns to how ancient teachings (like the 12 links of dependent origination) have modern applications. Learn how ignorance in the past expresses itself as craving in the present – how craving is “applied ignorance.” Judson says that “Willpower is more myth than muscle,” and that one of the best ways to work with any form of addiction is to first relate to it, and to discover that the best way out of craving is to go into it. Dr. Brewer is a rare scientist who joins the best of the West with the best of the East, augmenting the discoveries of the wisdom traditions with contemporary science.

Jud Brewer MD PhD is a thought leader in the field of habit change and the “science of self-mastery”, having combined over 20 years of experience with mindfulness training with his scientific research therein. He is the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University. He also is a research affiliate at MIT. Dr. Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, trained US Olympic coaches, and his work has been featured on 60 Minutes, TED (4th most viewed talk of 2016, with 10+ Million views), and others. Dr. Brewer founded MindSciences to move his discoveries of clinical evidence behind mindfulness for anxiety, eating, smoking and other behavior change into the hands of consumers (see for more information). He is the author of The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits. Follow him on twitter @judbrewer.


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Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hello, everybody, Andrew Holecek here. I am really delighted to be able to spend some time with an incredible researcher, scholar, friend, Dr. Judson Brewer, who I had the wonderful opportunity of hanging out with a couple of years ago or so. I will introduce, as usual, with a somewhat formal bio, and then we’re going to launch into what I am sure will be a very compelling discussion on the roots of addiction, because Judson is one of the world’s leading authorities on this topic. Here we go.

Judson Brewer, MD-PhD, is a thought leader in the field of habit change and the science of self-mastery, having combined over 20 years of experience with mindfulness training with a scientific research therein. An associate professor of psychiatry and director of research and innovation at Brown University Center for Mindfulness, he has developed clinically proven, app-based training to help people with smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. He is the author of “The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.”

So, Judson, thanks so much for taking the time out of your extraordinarily busy schedule to check in with us. I still reflect very fondly of the time I met you when you were out here in Boulder after you presented in Naropa University. Judson gave a lecture in the Varela Lecture Series at Naropa, and then we had a really wonderful opportunity to play in Judson’s Virtual Reality Lab, where in addition to some of the stuff that Judson and I had worked on, we basically just had a whopping good time playing with some VR games.

Judson: It was fun.

Andrew: It was. It was a total hoot. Gosh, there’s so much I want to unpack with you. But I wanna start with something that hit me just this morning that we can probably dovetail back into. I started watching a little bit about the Mueller report, the testimony of this happening on the Hill. One thing that I do, that we could talk very briefly about that ties into, I think, a very skillful way of working with addiction, is what I do when I’m listening to something charged like that, whether it was the Kavanaugh hearings, or this morning, the Mueller hearings.

Or sometimes I’ll do it — and, again, I don’t mean to offend anybody, but I’m politically inclined as a Democrat. Sometimes, what I’ll do is I’ll watch something like Fox News and Sean Hannity as a way to work with this as well. I’ll start the event, it gets me all sucked in. I get, in a really deep sense, kind of non-lucid. This is what I want to unpack with you, Judson. I get swept up. And then, what I’ll do is I’ll hit the mute button, and I’ll watch the display without sound.

I have found it to be a really interesting exercise, and also a bit of a metaphor for things like meditation, where sometimes I’ll talk to my meditation students like, “Well, watch your mind without sound. Let the display arise. Notice your tendency to get caught up, swept up in it, and in the context of our ‘Night Club,’ watch how we get non-lucid to it.” You talk about it so beautifully, Judson, with this idea of functional decoupling. So whether we launch with that, or whether we just launch with the extraordinary practicality of your work and how it’s based not only in rigorous science, but also conjoined — and this is what attracts me to it so deeply — with Eastern principles of thought and meditation, Buddhism and the like.

Judson: Yeah, I would say let’s launch with that, and then we can get pragmatic afterwards.

Andrew: Perfect. Talk to us a little bit about the importance of functional decoupling. It sounds like such an intimidating term, but I think when people understand it, they realize that, “Whoa, this is something that’s really user-friendly that can save me a heap of trouble.”

Judson: Yeah, it can be an intimidating concept. Basically, the way that we look at this is that we can get caught up in our experience. You can think of that as unconscious coupling, so to speak, where we inadvertently get sucked into something like, you know, “Oh, I can’t believe that person has that view,” or, “Oh, that person shares the same view that I do,” and then we start ranting about somebody else that doesn’t share the same view.

There are many, many ways that we can get caught up, basically, in ourselves. A very simple way to think of this is we take things personally. We say, you know, “Oh, I can relate to that,” or, “I can’t relate to that.” We hold onto the things that we can relate to, and we push away the things that we can’t relate to. Both of those have an energetic quality of movement as in, “Hold on, pull toward, and push away”. There’s this push and pull that comes with that, and that is really the root of addiction, that push and pull.

Andrew: I couldn’t agree more. In fact, one of the things I wanted to play with you with a little bit here, Judson — and I will just give readers a brief sense of your remarkable book, “The Craving Mind,” where in part one — I just want to give them a sense of what you talk about, and then zip it down into the foundations, which is about addiction to technology, addiction to ourselves, addiction to distraction, addiction to thinking, and addiction to love. To me, when I cascaded through these chapters, which I found extraordinarily provocative and practical, I started to look, just like you were talking about here —and this is what I really want to unpack with you, is okay, what’s the common denominator? What is the fundamental ingredient that underlies all these addictions? Honestly, I think you just nailed it, is this addiction to movement.

In so many ways, I know my teacher, Ponlop Rinpoche, once said that we have a very foundational habit issue around movement. He doesn’t use the word addiction, but you can certainly conjoin it with that, that our fundamental addiction is not so much to stillness, but it is to movements. The way I play with this, Judson, is that this is kind of a way to explore non-lucidity, because when we met last year, and what I’m riffing on now, is how we can use the principles, the phenomenology of non-lucidity in the dream state as a way to understand how it is that we go non-lucid to experience altogether.

The notion that you write about it in your scientific papers — maybe you can talk a little bit about this — the swept-up continuum, how it is that we just get seduced, we get hooked into movement. It’s almost as if consciousness itself is a kind of motion detector. This is one of the things that really comprises non-lucidity in the dream state, or even in the meditative state, and thought, as you know, in the Vajrayana language, it’s actually referred to as movement of mind. We get swept up into this movement of mind, we get hooked into it. Talk a little bit more about this kind of foundational addiction that we have to movement, or motion altogether.

Judson: Yeah. Let’s talk experientially, and also, we can talk a little bit about some of the consistent neuroscience findings that are in the field, and maybe start with the latter. You know, when I was looking through the literature to find commonalities around addictions, people have studied everything from cocaine, to heroin, to gambling, to chocolate, and the only consistent brain region or network that seems to be activated when people are shown pictures, or cues, or even fed chocolate is the default mode network, which is a self-referential brain network. This comes up perhaps as a coincidence or perhaps not, because this network gets activated whenever we are relating to something.

Specifically, my lab was really interested in determining what that relationship means. We did some neuro-phenomenological studies to line up people’s subjective experience with their brain activity, in particular, in a hub of the default mode network called the posterior cingulate cortex. We use experienced meditators, because they tend to be able to report on their own subjective experience better than folks that haven’t been paying attention to their subjective experience. We found something really interesting, which was that the more caught up people were in their experience, the more their default mode network was active, and, in particular, the posterior cingulate.

Things like being swept away or identified with activate the posterior cingulate when we’re regretting the past, when we’re worrying about the future. Getting caught up in rumination with depression or perseveration with anxiety, those activate the posterior cingulate cortex. When we’re feeling guilty, all of these things activate the posterior cingulate cortex. What we found was, not only was that brain region activated when people were getting caught up, but even when they were trying to do things. For example, there was somebody in one of our studies, he was looking at — we were showing people feedback from their brain activity in real-time, and he said, “Oh, you know, I tried to look at it harder.”

Awareness is awareness. Awareness isn’t moving, it’s just awareness. This person in that movement of trying, actually, was activating his posterior cingulate cortex, which at the end of the day, what it turns out is, it’s this contracted or closed down quality that comes with force, or comes with getting caught up in a craving, or comes with becoming identified with something, or that comes with being caught up in worry. That contraction, from a phenomenological standpoint, is a marker of, “Oh, I am here because this contraction says this is me,” as compared to just awareness, which is, you know, just awareness. That contracted quality kind of gives people an identification around, “Okay, this is me, and then, outside of this current contraction, is the rest of the world.”

When people let go, when they were deep in concentration, when they were practicing loving-kindness, when they were moving outside into a more open quality of experience, just resting in awareness, their posterior cingulate cortex was getting really, really quiet. So it seems that this movement, in particular, that’s correlated with a subjective sense of self is this movement of this contracted quality where we’re holding on or, something is threatening us, so we contract around — it’s like,” Oh, I don’t like that,” and so we’re going to protect ourselves, and there’s this contraction that comes with that, as compared to when we’re not identified, or when we’re not taking something personally. There’s more of an open quality when we’re just resting in awareness, and I would guess this lines up pretty well with the lucid state.

Andrew: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this goes so deep, you have no idea. So many things to say here, Judson. One is that my favorite running definition of meditation these days — and I’m sure this will resonate with your experience as a practitioner — is meditation is habituation to openness.

Judson: Wow, I love that.

Andrew: Yeah. It really goes a long way, especially when you realize that openness is a synonym for emptiness, then it really takes on a lot of chops. To me, the reason I find this so compelling is that when we’re engaged in the practices of meditation — and again, this is one of the truly unique contributions of your work, is this joining of science with meditative tradition — is that by being invited to stay open, which is what meditation obviously does, in a certain sense, it creates a heightened contrast medium. It allows us to, therefore, see qualities of contraction that we haven’t seen before.

It’s simultaneously diagnostic and prescriptive. It will show us how it is that we continually refer experience onto self, therefore, actually generating the sense of self from that very reference and contraction. Therefore, it’s prescriptive, and it also shows us, then, what we could possibly explore to reduce the pinch. It’s like I sometimes say, we’re constantly pinching ourselves and looking elsewhere for the prick, in both senses of the word, but, fundamentally, we’re the ones that are doing this.

Judson: I was going to just add one piece. I would suggest that it’s diagnostic, prescriptive, and it’s also the treatment.

Andrew: Oh, beautiful. Exactly, yeah.

Judson: We can get into this now or later, but, basically, our brains learn based on rewards. You know, cause and effect. We do something, and we either get rewarded or punished. If we’re rewarded, we do it again, and if we’re punished, we stop doing it, right? This is positive and negative reinforcement, the oldest, most well-characterized learning process in science. Actually, the Buddhists figured this out 2,500 years ago in what they called dependent origination. But that reward piece, if we just simply look at what it feels like to be closed versus what it feels like to be open, it’s a no-brainer for our brain. Our brains, they invariably pick open because it feels better. Not only diagnostic and prescriptive, but perhaps even curative. It might not go that far, but moving in the direction of helping us treat the affliction of self.

Andrew: Yeah, no kidding. Rreally, to me, it’s like in the Yogachara tradition, they talk about the teaching on the eight consciousnesses, and I have found that, Judson, to be one of the most compelling kind of phenomenological descriptions of what’s taking place here. It’s one of the doctrinal templates for things like lucid dreaming, because it’s basically a very subtle, nuanced description of the dualistic mind. That description, it fits in just perfectly here. The bad boy consciousness is the seventh. These consciousnesses, of course, are not eight different minds or eight different consciousnesses. They’re just eight different functions of consciousness.

The seventh consciousness, so to speak, is the bad boy. The reason that ties in so beautifully here, is that, in fact, that’s the aspect of awareness mind, confused mind, but it’s constantly flickering and appropriating experience back to self, back to some illusory home base. By, again, exploring the meditative path, we can start to see this. It’s just like you’re saying, this kind of painful flickering, this painful referencing, this pinching that takes place every time we refer experience back to self. Maybe talk to us a little bit more about how this strange process becomes so addicting. Why is it that it feeds, I would say, the egoic agenda so successfully? What’s going on there?

Judson: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it goes back to what this process was set up for, and it was actually set up for survival. In particular, it helps us survive by helping us remember where food is. It helps us lay down what’s described as context-dependent memories. For example, you need a trigger, behavior, and a reward for the necessary and sufficient components of reward-based learning. If you see food, you eat the food, then your stomach sends a dopamine signal to your brain that says, “Remember what you ate and where you found it.” We use the same process to avoid danger, see danger, live to tell the tale, or whatever. That reward-based learning process, there’s nothing in there about pleasure. It’s about survival.

Now, the way that works with this dopamine spritz is it fires when we see something or learn something unexpected, so something that we didn’t already know. We see a food source, and we hadn’t known that food source before, so our brain fires off this dopamine that says, “Remember that.” Then, when we’re hungry, it fires off a dopamine spritz in anticipation of receiving that reward, not when we get it, but in anticipation of. That anticipation gets us off the couch, or out of the cave, or whatever to say, “Go get the food.” Again, this goes back to movement. That driven quality. There’s nothing pleasurable about that. It’s restless, it’s contracted, it says, “You’re not satisfied. Do something.” Yet, in modern-day, marketers are like, “Hey, we can actually use this to sell products.”

Andrew: Yeah, no kidding.

Judson: Somewhere in history, that excited, driven, contracted quality of experience became acquainted with happiness. It moved from eudaimonia, which is the peaceful quality of existence, to this driven, movement quality, and somebody slapped a label on that and said, “That’s happiness. Anticipating a kiss, that’s happiness. Getting on a roller coaster, that’s happiness.” Really, it’s just a survival mechanism, and we see this in modern-day. We learned to eat food when we’re stressed or anxious, not when we’re hungry. We learned to look at cute pictures of puppies on Instagram when we’re bored, as compared to getting curious and exploring what boredom feels like itself.

Andrew: Yeah, exactly. What I flashed on here, Judson, is several things. One is this kind of foundational evolutionary mechanism that really is essential for our development, to the point where we can actually evolve to question things like this. To me, what I flashed on — and I’m wondering how this lands with you — is that we have this kind of biological imperative to, obviously, attain food, to protect form. I want to return to that in just a second, but what I flashed on here is that then what happens, is this notion of food itself becomes a kind of archetype, where now, what we’re doing is — it’s not just biological satisfaction, urges of satiation, satisfying through, literally, ingestion of food to keep our bodies alive, but food occurs in so many different forms, and that, basically, entertainment is a type of food, distraction is a type of food. In this case…

Judson: Yeah, getting a bunch of likes on Instagram is a type of food.

Andrew: Yeah, exactly. What happens is, in a certain way — I think this is super important to understand, because what I do is I riff on the same thing from an integral perspective when I talk about things like fear. That fear is a very, very sound, biological, evolutionary kind of imperative that keeps us alive, protects form, but at a certain point, when you want to go from form to formless, the very fear that got us through this evolutionary point now starts to retard. Evolution transforms into devolution.

To me, doesn’t it make sense to say that this idea of food, therefore, can be applied to anything that, at this point, feeds the ego? I would say that this would be the basis of the obesity epidemic, that we’re actually eating the menu instead of the meal. We’re running after substitute gratifications instead of the real thing, and therefore, we get this wildly consumeristic culture that, basically, is devouring world’s natural resources and fundamentally destroying it. Do you think it’s fair to make that type of extrapolation to…?

Judson: Yes. I would add that never before in history have we been able to engineer and refine substances and experiences in the way that we know. Because we know how this process works, so this can be exploited. You know, coca leaves, not addictive. Cocaine, very addictive. Social media is engineered, and Facebook didn’t really take off until they introduced the like button. It was growing, but it started growing exponentially when everybody got addicted because of the likes. Those are just a couple of examples. I think the obesity epidemic is a great one, because we see how food has been consistently engineered to have that perfect balance of fat and sugar and salts to get people craving more, as compared to providing the calories that they need.

Andrew: Maybe this is where we can return to functional decoupling. Talk to us, then, a little bit more about with the armamentarium of meditation and what you discovered in your lab. How can we now most effectively work with these cravings, with these urges?

Judson: Yeah. Let’s start with the neurobiology, and then get practical. Neurobiologically, what we find consistently across all meditation traditions that we’ve studied is that the default mode network gets quiet, gets deactivated with meditation. In essence, we’re letting go, we’re getting out of our own way, and experientially, that is described commonly…I would say the most common language that I’ve found is just opening. I love your definition of meditation, habituation to openness, if I got that right.

Andrew: Yep.

Judson: Because opening — you know, if we open and open and open, we start to lose that sense of where we end and the rest of the universe begins, then we move into non-duality. Or if you want to talk psychological terms, this is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as flow, you know, selfless, it’s effortless, basically resting in awareness. With meditation, we see a nice correlation with brain mechanisms in terms of quieting the default mode network, which correlates the self-referential processing. Experientially, if we take a habit perspective or addiction perspective, awareness itself can help us dial into our direct experience and use it as feedback.

We, as humans, learn best from feedback if we notice what it feels like to be contracted or closed down. Importantly, we need to compare that to something else, because our brains don’t just change behavior. We don’t change behavior without a comparison. There’s actually a whole network of brain regions. One of the hubs of that is the orbital frontal cortex that kind of determines and stores reward value. I think of it as the BBO part of the brain. It’s always looking out for that bigger, better offer.

If all we know is the contraction of excitement, and we think of that as our highest level of happiness, we’re never going to change, but if we bring awareness and we use meditation, or just awareness, to notice, “Oh, what are the subtle aspects of closed-downness or contraction?” and then we can compare that to openness, whether we’re practicing loving-kindness, or compassion, or simply resting in awareness where we’re fully concentrated, even on an object, that gives us that bigger, better offer, because it feels better when we’re more open, when we’re out of our own way.

In that sense, it helps us. That awareness helps us move from closed to open, and repeat that process every time we can directly dial in and see the cause and effect relationship. We’ve even tested this clinically. We started developing mindfulness training for habit change, like with smoking. Our first study with smoking cessation, we got five times the quit rates of gold standard treatment.

Andrew: Oh, wow.

Judson: Then, we had this realization that people don’t learn to be addicted in my office — you know, in their physician’s or their therapist’s office. We said, “Well, can we actually use this in a way that’s more helpful for them? People learn things in context. Can we bring this to context?” About five years ago, we started developing app-based mindfulness training programs, and specifically developed one for eating to help people recognize what it feels like when they overeat, what it feels like when they eat a bunch of junk food, and what that freedom feels like when they naturally stop when they’re full. And we’ve got a 40% reduction in craving-related eating. We published a paper on that a couple of years ago with our app called Eat Right Now.

Here, we see this stepwise process where people start to be able to map out these habit loops, and then start to really see clearly what the non-reward is from being closed down so that they become disenchanted. In Theravada Buddhism, they talk a lot about exploring gratification to its end. Once that’s explored, we become disenchanted because we see there’s no juice in that thing anymore. Then we can start to compare that to awareness practices. That bigger, better offer naturally leads us toward those. We’ve ended a focus group with one of our eating groups and had them define for us what this process was. This last part of the process, they described as basically the — it’s amazing — freedom of choice that emerges out of embodied awareness.

Andrew: Beautiful.

Judson: There’s this effortless quality of experience where they naturally start to move away from old behaviors. I’ll give you a concrete example. Somebody in our Eat Right Now program had said that she was on the phone with somebody and was angry, and she borrowed money from her son, got in the car, drove to McDonald’s. She got into the parking lot, and she stopped and said, “What am I going to get from this?” dialing into her previous experience. And she’s like, “I’m going to eat because I’m angry.” In that moment, the bubble popped, you know? She woke up, she became lucid, so to speak, and she realized, “I’m not going get anything from this,” and she turned around and went home, and she said it was completely effortless.

Andrew: Yep, exactly. That’s fantastic. That is exactly the way this ties into what we’re exploring with dreams. Again, we’re just using dreams as a way to study the nature of mind altogether. Several things came to mind here, Judson, that I think I’d love to bounce off of you. One is I reflected on this maxim that I came up with a little while back. Very often, we confuse the satisfaction of craving, we confuse the satisfaction of desire with its temporary transcendence. In other words, we think we’re happy when we get what we want but, fundamentally, what’s happening is we’re happy when we stop wanting.

This is what I mentioned earlier. Now, we’re no longer eating the menu. We’re really looking at what it is. It’s no longer a substitute gratification. Now we’re looking at the actual mechanics behind the process, just like this person who went to McDonald’s and was realizing, “Okay, what am I fundamentally, really after?”

This is also a type of Bardo yoga, a gap practice where understanding this, and this kind of really elegant scientific phenomenological map, empowers us to hit the pause button where we are going along, swept up in the continuum, we’re completely non-lucid to experience, caught up in our habits. Of course, habit is just a Western word for karma. Then, all of a sudden, something will ping into our awareness where we actually hit the pause button, we stop, and we realize, “Okay, wait a second here. What am I fundamentally, really after?”

To me, Judson — I’d love to hear your thoughts on this — the fundamental gift of these open awareness practices, in my experience, is that, fundamentally, if you take them to their completion, it’s profoundly liberating. Really, in the deepest sense, detoxifying from our addictions to form, to materialism, to movement, all the things we’re talking about, is that these practices eventually allow you to discover that awareness will come to prefer itself over any external object, over any substitute. Therefore, wow, does this bankrupt the entire Western materialistic agenda? I mean, what does this do to the samsaric way of life? Does this speak to you? Is this what you’ve experienced as well?