Behavior Change, On the Road

London Bridge (Tower Bridge) : Reflection on the River Thames

It’s my first trip to London, or to the UK for that matter.  The city itself has the distinctive, quintessential, old-world charm I pictured, yet it’s blanketed with the expected conveniences of modern technology.  My office for the past two days has rotated between a few wifi-enabled local pubs, a scene that may in fact be the clearest example of the integration of the old and the new. Some simple trip stats thus far:  Days in London: two.  Number of times I’ve ordered fish and chips as a meal: two.  Number of close calls I’ve had with speeding cars after looking in the wrong direction while crossing the street: four (This is in spite of the clearly marked ‘Look Left’ or ‘Look Right’ warnings pasted in the crosswalk).

Being born on the east coast, and having frequent access to the hustle and bustle of New York City, the past four years in laid-back San Francisco has redefined my view of city life.  But London makes San Francisco look like a city of hardasses.  Here, everything is toned down a bit.  Even the beer is easygoing.  An IPA in California will knock your socks off with its alcohol content (some of them upward of 7% ethanol), and bowl you over with the bitter taste of hops.  But here the IPA is actually an enjoyable experience for most, smooth and mellow.

If I ever did a stint living overseas, I think I’ve found my city.

Indeed, the past two weeks have been insane as we took PLoS Blogs from a pipe dream to a fully-functional website.  Lack of sleep, not eating properly, and the constant adrenaline rush that follows building the next great science communication platform definitely took its toll on me.  I still got a fair amount of running in these past days, but nothing fast, nothing crazy.

Following the stress of the past few days and the abundance of fish and chips in my belly, going for a run was the number one priority for today.  I opted, however, for a much safer treadmill jaunt rather than navigating the city streets and traffic patterns that flat out confuse me.  I only intended to get a quick 3- or 4-miler in, because I had a great deal of work to do, and was still trying to slay the seemingly insurmountable jet-lag beast.

But today’s run was easier than expected, if not easier than usual.  Instead of an obligatory run where I count off the seconds until I’m done, I had to force myself to stop after nearly 6-miles.  Why was it so much easier today?  More than likely, the difference was all in my head.  Was I still caught in the adrenaline rush that preceded the launch of PLoS Blogs?  Was I still riding the dopamine wave from our success and the congratulatory emails?  Perhaps.  But the difference may have also, at least in part, been due to the equipment itself.

When I run, there’s no doubt a small dopamine burst somewhere in my head every time I hit another mile marker.  There’s just something about whole numbers that resonates with my reward system.  With the mileage tracked in kilometers, those dopamine bursts occurred more frequently, which may help explain the increased enjoyment of today’s run.

Another feature of this treadmill was its display, which charted your progress around an outdoor course or circumnavigating a 400m track.  For me, watching a small red dot hop along this computer-generated scenery certainly tops either blankly staring at a wall or even watching TV while using a treadmill.

Both Thomas and I have written before on this blog about how technology can change behaviors.  And admittedly, I’ve often blindly thought that change means initiating new behaviors.  But today, technology also seemed to help me keep those behaviors going longer than usual, an equally important aspect to healthy living.

While my scientific “study” (playing it fast and loose with the word “study”, I know) is riddled with holes and confounders, it’s compelling to think about the consequences of small rewards in behavior change.

When I get back to reality, I’ll see if I can dig up some scientific studies on this idea.  But for now, I’m off to a pub with some friends.


photo via Flickr/anirudh koul