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Think about the first time you drove to a place where you had never been before, but now you travel to often. How did you get there? Did you use a map, follow your GPS, or ask someone for directions? Did you have to pay attention to road signs and landmarks? Most likely, your answer to this question is yes. Now, think about the most recent time you traveled to that same place. Was it easier? Were you still paying as much attention to those signs or landmarks as you did the first? Or, did you have to pay attention at all? Why does this happen? As our brains become more and more familiar with a particular behavior, something strange happens. That behavior becomes mostly automatic.
What happens to the brain as it forms a new habit?
Our brains are wonderful things. Think of them as your computer browser or your smart phone. Anyone who has new software has probably begun to realize that the more you search for a particular subject online or use a certain word when texting, the more often your device will recognize what you are typing, before you’ve even finished the words. Sometimes this is nice, and other times it’s annoying.
Well our brains work the same way with habits. The more often we repeat something, the more often our brain will recognize what we want before we’ve even finished our task. What’s troublesome is when this occurs automatically, and it’s not the word that we had intended to write, or the task that we wanted to accomplish.
Think of this as a candy dish. The dish is in front of you and all you want is one piece. Then fifteen minutes go by and you look down to see that all of the candy is gone. That is your brain completing the task for you.
Why are habits formed?
There are two main parts of the brain that participate in habit formation. The first is the striatum at the center of the more primitive basil ganglia (reptilian brain) and the second is the neocortex, the top layer of the cerebral hemispheres (thinking brain.) Studies show that at the beginning of the habit formation process, the striatum will be active the whole time. This explains why when you first drive somewhere new, or let’s say learn a new exercise move, it is more difficult.
However, after a new habit is formed, the striatum is only active at the beginning and end of the formation process. This is why sometimes you won’t remember the middle of your drive, just your departure and arrival. Another example is why you suddenly realize that you ate every piece of candy out of the candy dish.
Our minds do this to free up space for new information processing. If we didn’t have this capability, we would never get passed tying our shoes or brushing our teeth.
You might be asking, how come it takes so long for a good habit to form? This is because the infralimbic cortex (IL) does not recognize change until the habit is fixed within the striatum and the IL is a necessary component to habit formation.
Why Is It Difficult to Overcome Bad Habits?
Understanding the infralimbic cortex is crucial in understanding how to change habits. Our infralimbic cortex (located in the Neocortex) is responsible for taking our brain from an automatic processing mode to a more aware, thinking mode. Even when habits are fully formed in the striatum, the infralimbic cortex can override the new habit and skip to the old, (i.e. eating an entire bag of chips on a bad day instead of opting to go to the gym.)
This can also be considered a positive thing, because even when a bad habit is fully formed, the neocortex still has some control to override it.
How To Create New Habits
Studies show that the people who are most successful at overcoming bad habits have a few things in common. These are: Self Efficacy, Action Planning, and Satisfaction.
Self- Efficacy is the belief that something can be done. “I believe that I can lose these 10lbs!”
Action Planning, is having a system in place to stick to every day, (i,e. laying your workout clothes the night before, or preparing meals for the week.) Furthermore, if you are having difficulty maintaining a new habit, it is the individuals who continuously plan their activities who are more successful.
Satisfaction is continuing to see positive results. For example, people who weigh themselves every day are more successful in losing weight, because they are being consistently satisfied and reassured.
Finally, once a new behavior is implemented, it must be repeated frequently. As this occurs gradually, the changed behavior will become more automated, (grabbing the almonds instead of the chips.)
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Graybiel, A.M., & Smith, K.S. (2014). GOOD HABITS, BAD HABITS. Scientific American, 310(6), 38-43.
Trafton, A. (2012, October 29). How the brain controls our habits. Retrieved November 13, 2014, from
MIT News: http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2012/understanding-how-brains-control-our-habits-1029