“It Turns Out Willpower Doesn’t Exist” with Jud Brewer, MD PhD: PYP 337

Jud Brewer is Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University, and a second-time guest on Plant Yourself.

When we first talked, two years ago, Jud had just published his groundbreaking book, The Craving Mind, and was in the process of releasing mindfulness apps, Eat Right Now (for dealing with food cravings),  Craving to Quit (for smoking cessation), and Unwinding Anxiety (for, you guessed it, anxiety).

I wanted to catch up with Jud to find out how his academic research and public writing had migrated into the world. What is the state of mindfulness-based health improvement? Does he have data on how his approach compares to current best practices, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for smoking and other addictions.

We ended up chatting about some amazing findings. His patients quit smoking at five times the rate of the next most successful program. A mindfulness-based approach to anxiety reduced burnout in medical doctors by 50%, and improved their and their patients lives in the bargain.

We also got into something that Jud may have been trying to tell me two years ago, but I wasn't able to hear or grasp it: Willpower doesn't seem to exist in the brain or the mind.

That is, there are no structures or mechanism in the brain that we know of that operate based on “doing something hard and unpleasant that you really don't want to do.”

Instead, our brains appear to work on the simple heuristic of reward valuation. If we think we'll get a good enough reward, all costs considered, we'll do it. Whatever “it” may be.

And this has huge implications for how we help ourselves and others change habits and behaviors.

Because it turns out that mindfulness can tap into the power of reward valuation by making us realize – really see and feel and experience in the moment – that our addictive or compulsive behavior of choice (smoking, eating junk food, getting drunk) doesn't actually feel that good after the first couple of puffs/bites/swigs.

So rather than fight against our nature (which is essentially what the Willpower model asks of us), we can “neurohack” ourselves to align our moment by moment actions with our long term values, goals, and priorities.

Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box or audio recording box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.



The Craving Mind – on amazon

Jud's company, MindSciences

The Eat Right Now App

Jud's TED talk

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The Plant Yourself Podcast theme music, “Dance of Peace (Sabali Don),” is generously provided by Will Ridenour, a kora player from North Carolina who has trained with top Senegalese musicians.

It can be found on his first CD, titled Will Ridenour.

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2 Responses to ““It Turns Out Willpower Doesn’t Exist” with Jud Brewer, MD PhD: PYP 337”

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  1. Lynette Neal says:

    This was a great interview….you and Josh should feel great that the WellStart program is so up to date. I kept thinking about the tools for dealing with cravings and changing my behaviors. Mindfulness is helpful but having the tools of FAST assessment, when the plans, postmortem is a game changer. Its one thing to be aware of triggers, but so helpful to have tools to use when I am aware of less than healthy behavior. Great connection and correlation to all you teach us through the book Sick to Fit and the WellStart on line program. Keep up the good work.

    • Howard says:

      Thanks, Lynette! I did feel largely “vindicated” by the conversation, and also convinced that we can do a better, clearer job of connecting our clients to the JOY and POWER of healthy habits.

      All suggestions welcome 🙂

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