Associations, Predictions, and Cravings

Discussion Facilitator: Bruce Cantwell. October 5, 2019.

The second pretty good idea in Buddhism is that the cause of dissatisfaction is craving.

As James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits, “A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state.”

“Habits are all about associations. These associations determine whether we predict a habit to be worth repeating or not. Your brain is continually absorbing information and noticing cues in the environment. Every time you perceive a cue, your brain runs a simulation and makes a prediction about what to do in the next moment.

Cue: You notice that the stove is hot.

Prediction: If I touch it I’ll get burned, so I should avoid touching it.

Cue: You see that the traffic light turned green.

Prediction: If I step on the gas, I’ll make it safely through the intersection and get closer to my destination, so I should step on the gas.

You see a cue, categorize it based on past experience, and determine the appropriate response.

This all happens in an instant, but it plays a crucial role in your habits because every action is preceded by a prediction. Life feels reactive, but it is actually predictive. All day long, you are making your best guess of how to act given what you’ve just seen and what has worked for you in the past. You are endlessly predicting what will happen in the next moment. Our behavior is heavily dependent on these predictions. Put another way, our behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves. Two people can look at the same cigarette, and one feels the urge to smoke while the other is repulsed by the smell. The same cue can spark a good habit or a bad habit depending on your prediction. The cause of your habits is actually the prediction that precedes them.

These predictions lead to feelings, which is how we typically describe a craving—a feeling, a desire, an urge. Feelings and emotions transform the cues we perceive and the predictions we make into a signal that we can apply. They help explain what we are currently sensing. For instance, whether or not you realize it, you are noticing how warm or cold you feel right now. If the temperature drops by one degree, you probably won’t do anything. If the temperature drops ten degrees, however, you’ll feel cold and put on another layer of clothing. Feeling cold was the signal that prompted you to act. You have been sensing the cues the entire time, but it is only when you predict that you would be better off in a different state that you take action.

A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state. When the temperature falls, there is a gap between what your body is currently sensing and what it wants to be sensing. This gap between your current state and your desired state provides a reason to act.

Desire is the difference between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. Even the tiniest action is tinged with the motivation to feel differently than you do in the moment. When you binge-eat or light up or browse social media, what you really want is not a potato chip or a cigarette or a bunch of likes. What you really want is to feel different.

Our feelings and emotions tell us whether to hold steady in our current state or to make a change. They help us decide the best course of action. Neurologists have discovered that when emotions and feelings are impaired, we actually lose the ability to make decisions. We have no signal of what to pursue and what to avoid. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains, “It is emotion that allows you to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent.”[1]

[1] Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 128-30). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Bruce Cantwell