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Judson Brewer: Uncover the Habits of Change and Self-Mastery: A Wisdom Profile

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In this StreetSmart Wisdom Podcast Episode, Judson Brewer will reveal the habits of change and self-mastery. These habits will help you break through any barrier and achieve your goals! Judson Brewer is a NY Times Best selling Author, and in this episode he’ll share with you the secrets to unlocking the power of habits.


By understanding your habitual patterns, you can learn to break through any obstacle and achieve your goals! Watch this video and learn how to become a master of your own life!

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Here is a transcription of the show:


Welcome everyone. My name is Steve Stein and I’m the host of the Street Smart Wisdom Podcast and founder of Wisdom Feed Plus. And BetterListen! and excited to have everyone here today. gment will be part of our Street Smart Wisdom podcast. We’ll record an excerpt from that.

So let’s get started. So very excited to have our guest today. Judd Brewer, MD PhD. Dr. Judd is a New York Times bestselling author, thought leader in the Habit of Change in Science of Self-mastery. He blends 20 over 20 years of experience with mindfulness training and a career in scientific research. He’s passionate about understanding how our brains work. Dr.

Judd is Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, where he also serves as an associate professor in behavioral and social sciences in the School of Public Health. Additionally, he’s the executive director of behavioral health at Sharecare, the digital health company, helping people manage all their health in one place. Welcome, Dr. Judd. Pleasure to have you.

And so nice to meet you. Thanks for having me. Absolutely. So this segment, we do a thing on our podcast called A Wisdom Profile. There’s a lot of ways to research Dr. Judd, and you’ve probably seen his TED Talks. I know one of my, I think I saw you speak at a Wisdom 2.0, but I remember when you had Anderson Cooper on,

and so people know what he does, but the, to a certain extent. But the idea of this is just to try to get a wi, what we call a wisdom profile, kind of, you know, how did you end up being, doing what you’re doing? So, so how, so Dr. Judd, who, who are you in a micro and a macro level,

Who am I reminds me of the Allison Wonderland, who I am I, that is the great question, you know, but philosophy aside, the, you know, it really, I can trace it back best to the end of college when I was really stressed out and anxious. I was actually such a, a frantic student, I guess, that I,

I had developed irritable bowel syndrome. I didn’t even know it. I didn’t know what it meant. But let’s just say that my body and mind were trying to let me know that I was pretty stressed out and pretty anxious. And my logical mind, you know, my rational mind was saying, no, you know, I, I eat vegetarian food,

I exercise, I play the violin, I can’t be stressed. And so I something in the transition from undergraduate to, to medical school, you know, somehow this John Kazin book landed at my lap and I started reading it, you know, full catastrophe living. And I decided that on my first day of medical school, you know, it was gonna be a big new chapter in my life.

And so I started meditating. I started listening to, back then they were cassette tapes, if anybody remembers what those are. And, you know, spent about six months kind of falling asleep as I was trying to learn and meditate at, at the beginning of medical school. And fast forward, I found that meditation was really helpful for me to, you know,

help me in many ways, stress, focus, all these things. And I even found that I got so into it that I would, in, during boring medical school lectures, I would, I would meditate cuz at least, you know, felt like I could do something productive. And as I was doing my MD PhD program, no interest in doing mindfulness research or anything like that,

it wasn’t even a field yet. When I started, when I finished my program, I had, you know, been practicing about eight years and decided to shift my entire research focus. So I was studying, you know, why we get sick when we’re, when we’re stressed, but using animal models. And I decided from an ethical perspective to stop doing animal research and wasn’t sure what I was gonna do.

So as I started residency, I had a couple of years, you know, it’s good when you’re sleep deprived cuz it kind of forces you to like think of all the wild and crazy things. But I remember deciding that I wanted to study mindfulness because I had seen in my, as I was, you know, finishing medical school, a lot of my patients with addictions were talking the same language that I had been learning in,

in Buddhist psychology. And I was thinking, wow, this can’t be a coincidence. And I got really interested in studying addiction and developing treatments, prediction because we haven’t, you know, we didn’t, we still don’t have great treatments for addictions, especially medications. And so, you know, decided to take this leap and start studying mindfulness. And I remember people in,

in my residency training, I was at, I was at Yale at the time telling me that I was gonna kill my career, you know, because there was really very, very little research. This is around 2004, very, very little research going on in the mindfulness field. And it seemed very flaky, you know, candles, unicorns, you know,

the whole, the whole stereotype around meditation. But I, I remember specifically thinking, well, I’d rather do something that I’m really passionate about and fail than, you know, continue doing what I can. You know, I could probably do fine doing the research that I was doing. We’d published good papers and, you know, I’d kind of learned how to think in,

in graduate school. So I wanted to apply that methodology that I’d learned, you know, rigorous scientific methodology to studying mindfulness. And so I actually started my first study while I was in residency. I was in a substance use treatment clinic in, in New Haven and started just asking these questions like, could we use mindfulness training as a first line treatment for addictions to help people not relapse to alcohol and cocaine use disorder,

for example. And found that, you know, in a small pilot study that we could actually do that. So that kind of kick started my career and started as an assistant professor at Yale and, you know, started going from there. So I dunno if that’s enough of a snapshot. I can sort of go that, that kind of encapsulate some of the other questions.

But just to clarify, so you were in that support group, were you leading it or were you there personally for your, to deal with your own healing issues? Well, certainly I, I didn’t have any of the classic chemical addictions, but I, I ended up writing a book called The Craving Mind, where as I was exploring addiction, we started to see all the different ways that we,

I had a lot of, let’s say societally sanctioned addiction. So for example, you know, I was addicted to exercise, you know, to thinking to things like that. So, you know, didn’t have a chemical addiction, but certainly felt like I could relate a lot to the, the patients that I was working with. Certainly I, you know,

a huge amount of privilege relative to them, you know, education, being a White Street, you know, sister. So I’m, I’m just trying to understand, so you were a patient in the group or were you leading the group? I was leading, so I created a, you know, I kind of adapted Alan Marla’s, what’s called mindfulness based relapse prevention.

So Sarah Bowen and Chala and Alan Marlett had developed a, a program called Mindfulness Based Relapse Pro Prevention. And I had adapted that with their help. I’d adapted that to be, to have a little bit of a clinical model where kind of every four weeks people could join the group. And as part of residency I was training to learn to lead groups, you know,

as and work with patients. So that was part of my residency training. Interesting. So that, so it was kind of a personal interest that kind of sparked you offering it. And you know, I have, I mentioned before we got on, I have a s senior in high, two boys, a senior in high school and a sophomore in UMass Amherst.

And I’m not sure how to verbalize it to them, but something that you said that your passion kind of like, even if I blow it and then I’m, I’m an out, I’m an outcast, but that’s almost like the heroes journey. You pick up the feather and all of a sudden it leads you to what makes you, you. And, but I’m still not sure.

How would you tell your kids, you know, about to, to deal with, to, you know, on that life lesson or how would you, I know you actually, someone in Brown introduced us, even though I had known of your work, obviously. So why do you tell a student or, you know, in their path in life,

do they follow their passion but, you know, as, as a side gig or, or is it your, you know, is there any life lesson that kind of ex you could extrapolate or that was just your personal experience? That’s a good question. So first I think a big guiding star, you know, where a compass for me was around all the suffering that my patients had,

especially with addictions. You know, people with addictions get marginalized. There’s a lot of, you know, societal judgment, self-judgment, you know, feelings of un worth. And so the suffering was a real compass for me in terms of wanting to help with the suffering. So I wouldn’t just say, Hey, you know, if you like video games,

follow your passion. I wouldn’t, would not recommend that though. I, I think what I would say, if I were to say to one of my students, for example, at Brown, you know, who’s graduating and trying to figure out what they want to do, I would say see, you know, see what, where you can bring your talents and your passion together to help the world,

you know, and follow that. And, you know, it may not happen. You know, you can’t just force that to happen. I think it, for me, it’s really about finding where the, you know, it’s like water flows and so it’s like, let the water flow. Don’t try to force it to flow. And that’s it,

it’s about being open to possibility. It’s about being creative. It’s about not, you know, not following assumptions or rigid frameworks. It’s really about being open and kind of setting an aspiration. Like I would, I would like, so for me it was like, how can I, how can I be of service? How can I help people with addictions?

And, you know, not having, not letting people talk me out of it, but really kind of listening to that and seeing, you know, seeing what arose, what can, what opportunities arose from that. Wow. Got it. Got it. No, that, that’s, that’s useful. I might actually play that part, this part, part of the tape back from,

from my kids, but so, you know, so this is kind of organized by Wisdom fee plus our new org, new membership and community that we’re building. And, and this podcast, by the way, you mentioned John Kazin is called the Street Smart Wisdom Podcast. And this is season three. We were on kind of on hiatus a little bit,

but John Kazin helped me name this when we were, when I was just starting, he was a guest on the first couple of episodes. And so our goal is to kind of take ancient ideas down to street level. So, and you know, and I think that was so visually and this leads into what you do. So, and the, I love when you had Anderson Cooper on,

and of course I’ve shown numerous people that it’s not just woo woo, like you were saying, this was all, you know, out of the mainstream back in the day. And, and only people meditating or, you know, trying psychedelics or weird people were, were doing this stuff. But watching the Anderson Cooper session and then you, that was just one of many subjects,

I’m sure you’ve worked with o o over the years, but just to be able to visually see a scientific representation was, is just profound. So, so I would say, so next part I would say, well, what do you do? And, you know, what’s the imp I would add, what’s the importance of it being science based, not just like,

you know, intuitive. It feels good. So go for it. Well start with the second part of the question. You know, as a scientist, I want to understand how things work. As a physician, it’s really important for me to be offering evidence-based treatments to my patients. So it would be unethical for me to say, Hey, try this completely unproven thing that I read on the internet.

Cuz it sounds cool, you know, that that’s not gonna work. You know, from a a stick standpoint, I could lose my license, but from a carrot standpoint, I really want to help my patients. And so, you know, I’m not gonna offer them something that it, that doesn’t have at least some evidence space behind it. So the science is really important.

And, you know, as a physician, if there were good treatments out there, then I would just keep prescribing the treatments. Unfortunately, you know, I’d found, you know, with addictions for example, I had really struggled to help my patients with smoking cessation. Kind of the, the most evidence-based thing out there was called the Five A’s where,

which I can never remember all five of ’em, but like you would ask, you advise, you know, you assist there, you know, there’s something. But basically we’re telling our patients, you know, quit smoking, good luck. Here’s some nicotine patches if they’re helpful. So I wanted to find a better way now people quit smoking and you know,

the, the, the practices that I’ve been learning myself seem to be really helpful with helping with cravings. So, you know, we developed a program for smoking cessation and found that we got, you know, in a randomized controlled trial, we got five times the quit rates of cold standard treatment. And we could also look mechanistically to see what was happening.

And what we could do was help people instead of, you know, force yourself not to smoke, you know, willpower is much more myth than muscle. It’s really about bringing awareness in, bringing curiosity in and helping people get curious like, oh, what does this craving feel like? I remember, I, I worked at the VA hospital at the time.

I, when I was first developing this program, I had a patient come in who said, doc, you know, if I don’t smoke, my head’s going to explode. Felt like my head was gonna explode cuz like how do I, how do I help this guy? And so I went to, I had a whiteboard in my office, and so I went to the whiteboard and I said,

well, describe head exploding for me. And as he described the physical sensations of that really strong craving, you know, I, and I asked him how intense is it? And the intensity was going up and up and up and he was describing, you know, tightness, tension, this, you know, vibration. And then at one point it,

the intensity peaked and then it started to go down and his eyes got really wide and, you know, I was thinking, okay, I don’t think this is head exploding. So I said, well what, what just happened? He said, you know, I always smoke before it peaks. And I didn’t realize that when I have a craving, you know,

it, they actually can go away on their own. So he had this big epiphany right in my office that he didn’t have to smoke. And what we had done was just bring awareness to that moment and have him get curious about the cravings. And he could see the cravings are just, you know, thoughts, emotions, body sensations that come and go and that he didn’t have to smoke.

And that offered him this tremendous, this open, this door of freedom where he’s like, oh, I don’t have to smoke. And so that’s where, you know, really just these simple, they’re not easy, but these simple principles of like curiosity and kindness where we’re bringing them to each moment they can help us see, you know, what’s driving our lives and also help us see that that awareness itself can help us step out of these habitual patterns.

So, you know, smoking was the first program that that we developed and studied, you know, randomized controlled trials. And so we dev you know, my lab develops, you know, I, I developed these training programs. We’ve now offer them through app-based mindfulness training programs so that, you know, anybody can download them. And the idea is,

can we bring in these simple principles of helping people understand how their minds work, right? That’s really, I think of mindfulness as helping people see how their minds work, what are the habitual patterns of their minds, and then how can they bring that curiosity in? And, you know, in a, in a very neuroscientifically derived way, I mean,

I, I think the Buddha essence Goenka described the Buddha as a super scientist, right? He really was the, you know, an amazing scientist of the mine. We can bring in these ancient principles that are now, you know, formulate in, in modern science even, you know, Nobel prize winning that we, we published a paper suggesting that the Buddhist concept of dependent origination is the original formulation of what’s now called positive and negative reinforcement,

which Eric Kendel got the Nobel Prize for in the year 2000 showing it’s evolutionarily conserved all the way back to the sea sl. So we can apply these principles, whether you think of them as ancient Buddhist principles or modern scientific principles, to me it’s, it’s really about what’s the most pragmatic way to help people understand how their minds work and then learn to work with their minds so that they can,

they can, you know, step out of these cycles of suffering. So we’ve developed, we’ve developed an app called Craving to Quit for smoking cessation. We’ve done neuroimaging studies. So my lab does ranges from, we develop these programs, we study them in clinical studies to see if they’re just clinical efficacy. We do translational research where we do neuroimaging studies to see how they change the brain.

We, we span, you know, whatever needs to be done, we, we figure out how to do it. So smoking, we’ve developed a program called EAT right Now for helping people with overeating or stress eating or emotional eating that was actually just recently recognized by the C D C as a, as an official diabetes prevention program. So now, you know,

we need that evidence to be able to bring that to the C D C to say, Hey, here’s an alt, you know, alternative to the willpower based, you know, just stop eating cake and start eating salad to prevent diabetes. And like, hey, pay attention as you eat and see what happens. Which is what the program’s about. We even developed a program called unwinding anxiety for helping people with anxiety.

Cause anxiety can be driven like a habit. And we’ve done studies with anxious physicians, even with people with generalized anxiety disorder. We’ve got a 67% reduction in anxiety and people with generalized anxiety disorder. So, you know, that’s, that’s how we spend our time is, you know, where are people stuck in cycles of suffering? How can we develop treatments?

How can we study those treatments to see how well they work and make them better? And if they work well, how can we get them out to people That, that, I love this stuff. So for the eating, so is there any like recommended diet component to it or it’s really just be mindful, you know, a mindful approach to what you consume or combination or,

Yes, so there are a lot of evidence-based diets out there and what I find is a lot of people try to force themselves to stick to a diet. You know, for example, there’s, you know, the Mediterranean diet, there’s the dash diet, there’s a primarily vegetarian diet, you know, all Plant-based, Right? And there was, there was actually a,

a study that I just saw in, in JAMA like yesterday suggesting that there are four, three to four diets. So the plant-based diet, the Mediterranean, the dash, there’s another one I can’t remember all have shown ba and you can mix and match those to reduce mortality, like all cause mortality by 20%. So for me, primarily from a health and ethical perspective,

I’m a big fan of plant-based diets and also from an environmental perspective, if we all went plant-based, I think it would really help the planet from what I can understand. So it’s not about trying to force someone to, to eat some, you know, particular diet we focus on cuz and all that, you know, all that information’s out there and you know,

the fad diets are gonna change every couple of years anyway. So we don’t focus on that, but we really focus on helping people listen to the wisdom of their bodies. So for example, you can be in a plant-based diet and you can overeat, right? And that’s still not gonna be that healthy for you. So we have people really pay attention as they eat and see do people Really,

b do people really binge mung beans or, you know, Well, it’s a good question. It’s harder to binge on mung beans, I think. Yet. I think there are, so an example of, as you know, if somebody’s on a plant-based diet, many people have, you know, members of the Clean Plate Club where they grew up,

where they had to finish all their food, even if That’s, that’s a, a regular thing with my, my kids. I’m like, you know, my parents told me that people starving in Africa. So when I say that to my kids, they say, so send it to Africa or, you know, which is, you know, I,

you know, they’re kids, but they’re growing up and now they’re starting to see that. But still, so what do you, the clean plate diet is, you know, I grew up, it was, I, I had a trauma if I didn’t, if my plate wasn’t clean, hmm, I, you know, I wasn’t doing right in the world and personally and in my family,

Right? So, so that’s an example of where, you know, well-intentioned parents can, you know, that don’t wanna waste food, who wants to waste food can be training their children to not listen to the wisdom of their bodies that says, Hey, I’m, I’m full, I’m not full. You know, and so That’s amazing. So listen to the wisdom of their bodies and that’s not so out there that,

you know, you could say that to a teenager, just listen to, you know, pay attention, you know? Yes, yes. And so here we can kind of retrain ourselves to listen to our bodies. That that’s, that’s what our u right now programs is really about, is helping people kind of relearn re kind of, you know, re remeet kind of reassociate,

you know, it’s like get to get to know their bodies again. A lot of people, you know, I think I heard this first from John Cosson, he quoted this James Joyce Short story where he says, Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body. And that’s how a lot of us live is, you know, this disembodied head where we’re not listening to our body signals.

And it’s, I see this all the time in my psychiatric clinic, but also see it all the time just in general where a lot of people are, you know, we’re just taught a societal condition to not pay attention to our body signal. So seems like a good place to start. And that’s that our bodies are so wise, they’re, you know,

I think of this as our, our feeling bodies are much smarter and stronger than our thinking brains. You know, we’d like to think that we can think our way into things and out of things, but if that were the case, for example, my psychiatric clinic would be very different. If a patient came in and said, I wanted to quit smoking,

I would just say, stop smoking. You know, and they could think, you know, or stop overeating or stop worrying. That’s not how our brains work. Our brains are really des you know, they’re set up so that we, if something’s rewarding, we’re gonna keep doing it if it’s not rewarding and we’re gonna stop doing it. So for example,

we, my lab just published a study where with our e right now app, we look to see what happened when we had people pay attention as they overate and we could measure the reward value. Because if something’s rewarding, you know, as I just mentioned, they’re gonna keep doing it. If it’s not rewarding, they’re going to stop. So within 10 to 15 times of somebody really paying attention as they overate,

we found that that reward value dropped below zero. And people started shifting their behaviors, which could be, you know, they could have been done in doing this for 20 or 30 years. And it doesn’t take that long to shift behavior because our brains are really neuroplastic, they have to be able to adapt quickly to a changing environment. So if we help our brains see,

hey, wait a minute, overeating doesn’t actually feel very good. I’ve never had anybody yet say, wow, thank you. You know, I never realized how gut it feels to overeat because that’s just not the case. You know, we feel our stomachs feel bloated, we feel sluggish, we, you know, all these things that, that are signals telling us,

Hey, you know, this probably isn’t very healthy for you. And, and, and I think what’s the accent that you, a as you’re eating, it takes a certain amount of time that your stomach knows that you ate kind of thing. So by paying attention, I think it kind of closes that feed, that feedback loop, It can certainly help.

So I think the, the best research I’ve seen is it takes about 15 minutes for us to feel signals of satiety, you know, of, of fullness. And so if we scarf down a bunch of food and we don’t remember, hey, give, give, give my stomach 15 minutes to catch up to see if I’ve had enough, then we could keep eating,

you know, and, and because we’re not getting that signal. So even if we, if we scarf down a bunch of food and we have a mindful moment and say, wait, okay, give myself 15 minutes to see if I need more, then we can still let that wisdom our body say, Hey, you know, let me, let me check the signals here and let you know if you need more.

It’s really different than just having, you know, just habitually eating or just eating because we, we, we feel like we’re still hungry and we’re not, you know, we’re not listening to that wisdom. Right, right, right. So to kind of, first of all this, I can go on, but for, to wrap up this segment,

we have kind of a, a question we ask in these things. So I think I have an idea what the answer is, but if you were a superhero, what would your origin story b, was there some catalyst that set you on this path? I think you mentioned it before, but I don’t know. Yeah, so I would say the,

the catalyst that set me on this path was my own, my own suffering. And then that was compounded by just really starting to get a sense of the globality, if that’s a word, but the, how we all suffer, you know, whether it was my patients in my clinic or, or people that I knew or just, you know, seeing people in society.

So the suffering was really the catalyst, catalyst for me. That was, that was the, the kryptonite in a good way. Right. And that led you on a broad to, to kind of scale your, your, your, the outcomes of your work, so to speak. Amazing. All right


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Steve Stein

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