You feel it coming. The urge is there and you just can't stop yourself. Or can you?

You've had an argument with a co-worker. It begins with a genuine difference of opinion. You feel he isn't taking your point of view seriously. You fume about how he never does. It escalates to insults. Then it reaches its crescendo by leaving a poisoned atmosphere punctured with angry yelling or suppressed fury.

The pattern is the same, each time and every time, no matter how many times you vowed it would end differently.

Or, you're feeling particularly dejected and unloved. Your project didn't materialize as you had hoped. Your friends didn't come through for you this time. You feel alone and sad. You need comfort.

Somehow you find yourself in your kitchen…the bar of chocolate in your hands. Before you even notice, the chocolate has disappeared. And you don't even remember chewing it.

Where did you go wrong? Why do we so often feel like a machine that's been triggered into unrestrained motion? Like chapters of our lives are being played out from a script that cannot be altered?

Dr. Benjamin Libet1 is a neurosurgeon who made dramatic discoveries regarding the human brain that also shed light on our ability to break habitual patterns.

Brain surgery patients are not given general anesthesia because the brain has no nerve endings and feels no pain. Throughout surgery, neurosurgeons communicate with their patients asking them to speak or move a part of their body. This lets the surgeon know that all is well and he hasn't, G‑d forbid, inadvertently strayed into the wrong area of the brain.

Libet took advantage of this opportunity. He used a special clock that tracked time in the thousandths of a second, and asked his patients to move their finger while he monitored the electrical activity in the brain that regulated that movement. He noted when the brain actually began the activity that would culminate in the finger being moved.

Through his experiment, Libet was able to identify the moment of intent to move the finger, the moment of awareness of that intent, and the moment of actual action.

Libet discovered that the part of the brain that regulates movement began its activity a quarter of a second before people became aware of the intent to move the finger. In other words, the brain begins to activate an impulse prior to the dawning in our awareness of the intent to make that very action. Once the patient was aware of the intent to move, there was another quarter second before the movement began.

In the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi develops a holistic approach to leading a psychologically and spiritually fulfilling life, in which the "mind rules over the heart." The mind and intellect must play the leading role in our decision making.

When we allow ourselves to be guided by our emotions, by the flurry of automatic responses to situations, we begin a chain of reactions that culminates in our succumbing to our lowest instincts. In the words of William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, "Everyone knows how panic is increased by flight, and how giving way to the symptoms of anger increase the passions themselves. Refuse to express a passion and it dies. Count to ten before venting your anger and its occasion seems ridiculous." Or as the Chassidic masters succinctly put it, "Silence is the antidote for anger."2

Can the ordinary "everyman" realistically expect to conduct his every act mindfully? Can we stop the downward spiral of reactions, triggered by anger, fear, neediness or resentment?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman says that it is possible, and prescribes a regimen that every person can use to achieve this goal. It is a life long journey to harness our emotions and to contain our destructive responses—but it is the accomplishment of this goal that defines the human being.

What I found interesting about Libet's conclusions is that the ability of the "mind to rule over the heart" doesn't end at the moment when the "final" decision is made to take action. Even after that point, if we can foster a level of mindfulness and awareness, we have a quarter of a second to "veto" the decision and stop the chain of automatic sequences.

We still have a quarter of a second to rewrite the script.

So, what about you and your argumentative co-worker? Who knows…by tapping into this magical quarter of a second, you may even set off a whole new relationship of mutual respect and appreciation…

Now that would be an occasion to celebrate with chocolate.