THE HABIT LOOP – How Habits Work – Part 4

By 2000, seven years after Eugene’s illness, his life had achieved a kind of equilibrium. He went for a walk every morning. He ate what he wanted, sometimes five or six times a day. His wife knew that as long as the television was tuned to the History Channel, Eugene would settle into his plush chair and watch it regardless of whether it was airing reruns or new programs. He couldn’t tell the difference.

As he got older, however, Eugene’s habits started impacting his life in negative ways. He was sedentary, sometimes watching television for hours at a time because he never grew bored with the shows. His physicians became worried about his heart. The doctors told Beverly to keep him on a strict diet of healthy foods. She tried, but it was difficult to influence how frequently he ate or what he consumed. He never recalled her admonitions. Even if the refrigerator was stocked with fruits and vegetables, Eugene would root around until he found the bacon and eggs. That was his routine. And as Eugene aged and his bones became more brittle, the doctors said he needed to be more careful walking around. In his mind, however, Eugene was twenty years younger. He never remembered to step carefully.

“All my life I was fascinated by memory,” Squire told me. “Then I met E.P., and saw how rich life can be even if you can’t remember it. The brain has this amazing ability to find happiness even when the memories of it are gone.

“It’s hard to turn that off, though, which ultimately worked against him.”

Beverly tried to use her understanding of habits to help Eugene avoid problems as he aged. She discovered that she could short-circuit some of his worst patterns by inserting new cues. If she didn’t keep bacon in the fridge, Eugene wouldn’t eat multiple, unhealthy breakfasts. When she put a salad next to his chair, he would sometimes pick at it, and as the meal became a habit, he stopped searching the kitchen for treats. His diet gradually improved.

Despite these efforts, however, Eugene’s health still declined. One spring day, Eugene was watching television when he suddenly shouted. Beverly ran in and saw him clutching his chest. She called an ambulance. At the hospital, they diagnosed a minor heart attack. By then the pain had passed and Eugene was fighting to get off his gurney. That night, he kept pulling off the monitors attached to his chest so he could roll over and sleep. Alarms would blare and nurses would rush in. They tried to get him to quit fiddling with the sensors by taping the leads in place and telling him they would use restraints if he continued fussing. Nothing worked. He forgot the threats as soon as they were issued.

Then his daughter told a nurse to try complimenting him on his willingness to sit still, and to repeat the compliment, over and over, each time she saw him. “We wanted to, you know, get his pride involved,” his daughter, Carol Rayes, told me. “We’d say, ‘Oh, Dad, you’re really doing something important for science by keeping these doodads in place.’ ” The nurses started to dote on him. He loved it. After a couple of days, he did whatever they asked. Eugene returned home a week later.

Then, in the fall of 2008, while walking through his living room, Eugene tripped on a ledge near the fireplace, fell, and broke his hip. At the hospital, Squire and his team worried that he would have panic attacks because he wouldn’t know where he was. So they left notes by his bedside explaining what had happened and posted photos of his children on the walls. His wife and kids came every day.

Eugene, however, never grew worried. He never asked why he was in the hospital. “He seemed at peace with all the uncertainty by that point,” said Squire. “It had been fifteen years since he had lost his memory. It was as if part of his brain knew there were some things he would never understand and was okay with that.”

Beverly came to the hospital every day. “I spent a long time talking to him,” she said. “I told him that I loved him, and about our kids and what a good life we had. I pointed to the pictures and talked about how much he was adored. We were married for fifty-seven years, and forty-two of those were a real, normal marriage. Sometimes it was hard, because I wanted my old husband back so much. But at least I knew he was happy.”

A few weeks later, his daughter came to visit. “What’s the plan?” Eugene asked when she arrived. She took him outside in a wheelchair, onto the hospital’s lawn. “It’s a beautiful day,” Eugene said. “Pretty nice weather, huh?” She told him about her kids and they played with a dog. She thought he might be able to come home soon. The sun was going down. She started to get ready to take him inside.

Eugene looked at her.

“I’m lucky to have a daughter like you,” he said. She was caught off-guard. She couldn’t remember the last time he had said something so sweet.

“I’m lucky that you’re my dad,” she told him.

“Gosh, it’s a beautiful day,” he said. “What do you think about the weather?”

That night, at one o’clock in the morning, Beverly’s phone rang. The doctor said Eugene had suffered a massive heart attack and the staff had done everything possible, but hadn’t been able to revive him. He was gone. After his death, he would be celebrated by researchers, the images of his brain studied in hundreds of labs and medical schools.

“I know he would have been really proud to know how much he contributed to science,” Beverly told me. “He told me once, pretty soon after we got married, that he wanted to do something important with his life, something that mattered. And he did. He just never remembered any of it.”

-Charles Duhigg

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