The Reptile Brain Fights Back: Extinction Bursts
Let’s suppose that you’ve got a habit you want to break. You’ve followed the following five habit-breaking rules:
1. Tell a friend you’re going to break a habit to help put pressure on yourself to actually follow through
2. Be persistent; whether making or breaking a habit, it’s generally believed you need about 60 days of reinforced behavior to cement a change
3. Enlist a friend for moral support when you find your will weakening
4. Plan out a meaningful reward to give yourself once the habit is eradicated
5. Keep track of your daily progress towards breaking the habit to reinforce positive habit-breaking behavior
Everything’s going smoothly, and then just when you think you've rewired your brain, you’re blindsided by a sneak attack from within.
Once you understand that your rational brain is up against an internal conspirator, you might not be surprised to discover the nemesis is your emotional brain, sometimes known as your reptilian brain, which has some habit maintenance shenanigans up its proverbial sleeve.
The shenanigan in question is known as extinction burst. And your reptilian brain cleverly waits to spring the trap only after you’ve essentially overcome your bad habit, and you are literally in the very final stage of habit change, with a given habit all but eradicated.
An extinction burst is much like a Hail Mary play in football, where desperation drives an all-or-nothing strategy for success. Your reptilian brain makes a final push to reestablish your old habit.
Take healthy eating, for example. Suppose you’ve managed to avoid dessert for weeks and you’ve seen your hard-earned reduction in sugar intake showing in a positive way on the bathroom scale. It’s that big piece of chocolate cake that up until now you’ve been able to walk past that seems to reach out and grab at you, taunting you like the sirens in the Odyssey.
You can thank your reptilian brain for ramping up the chocolate cake craving to almost unbearable level. This might explain why dieters succumb to binging behavior after they’ve been so diligent in their efforts to kick their sugar addiction.
One theory for why your emotional brain might initiate a final extinction burst is that the wiring for a longtime habit is so deeply ingrained that the habit could be misidentified by part of your brain as something vital to survival. In much the same way that your body’s immune system can misidentify a food source as allergen.
Extinction bursts are extremely dangerous, largely because they are part of a process that originates from inside your brain. Unfortunately, there is no well established playbook for fending off an extinction burst.
Odysseus solved his problem and fear of succumbing to the siren song of temptation by having his shipmates lash him to the mast of his ship. That might have worked for the famous Greek, but ship masts aren’t always easy to find, especially when it comes to the dessert isle of your grocery store.