What does our brain tell us about habits?

Big part of our life is, without us consciously thinking about it, occupied with habitual processes, such as eating 3 meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner… all at specific hours of day), sleeping (due to our circardian rythym), working (9am-5pm), and so on. We do not question these habits, neither do we have difficulty in remembering to do them, nor do we feel like not doing them. It is sort of automatic and instinctive. Habits let us do things automatically without thinking. This ‘not thinking’ part should be, obviously, inherent to our brain. What does our brain do about habits?

Part of a neuroscience research has a strong focus on understanding the habit formation in our brains. According to it, as the neurons send messages about a new formed habit, a region on the brain called dorsolateral striatum gets a short activity burst. As the repetition is happening over and over again and the habit becoming stronger, the neural circuit in striatum is getting formed and becoming more intensive. This change of neural activities in the brain is called – neuroplasticity. Because of the neuroplasticity it is possible to create a habit, by forming new neural connections, at any age. So, by repeatedly doing a task we can create a habit out of it, and science confirms it.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

– Aristotle

At the beginning, it is difficult to turn the wished activity into a habit, because the behaviors are not automatic yet. We do certain things because we want to reach a goal, also called as goal-directed behavior. However, by repeating the given activity many times with the help of reward created at the end, we can learn to perform the behavior more automatically, even at one point we will not care about the reward anymore. One of the main reasons for moving from goal-directed behavior to the habitual behavior is because the neural activity moves from anterior to posterior brain, the activity becomes as instinctive as eating and sleeping, in spite of devalued outcome, or of the degraded contingency of action-outcome process.

Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.

-Epictetus

Understanding this characteristic of neuroplasticity gives us the freedom to change our brain drastically by creating a disciplined repetition of activities until they form a habit. Literally, only oxygen and blood fed to brain is the limit to what we can do. So no excuses anymore. More practice we accumulate, the more neural circuit generated in dorsolateral striatum, and the more automatic those habits become. “Neurons that fire together wire together… and neurons that fire apart wire apart.”

Mentioned in a research paper of MIT, some characteristics of habit are:

  • habits (mannerisms,customs, rituals) are largely learned; in current terminology, they are acquired via experience-dependent plasticity.
  • habitual behaviors occur repeatedly over the course of days or years, and they can become remarkably fixed.
  • fully acquired habits are performed almost automatically, virtually non consciously,allowing attention to be focused elsewhere.
  • habits tend to involve an ordered, structured action sequence that is prone to being elicited by a particular context or stimulus.
  • habits can comprise cognitive expressions of routine (habits of thought) as well as motor expressions of routine.

These characteristics suggest that habits are sequential, repetitive, motor, or cognitive behaviors elicited by external or internal triggers that, once released, can go to completion without constant conscious oversight.

There is no need to mention the benefits of forming good habits and getting rid of bad habits or giving specific techniques and methods on how to do it. There are tremendous amounts of studies, articles and books on it, such as The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Atomic Habits by James Clear.


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