One thing that all people (and even some animals) have in common is habits. Bad ones, good ones — our lives are all about changing them, and most, if not all, personal achievements result from sticking to a habit… or getting rid of one.
Habits help our brains to be more efficient and free up the mental space for other tasks
In the UK, we are in the 8th week of lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Habits are undergoing all sorts of transformations due to our altered daily routines, and mine are no exception. The most damage was done to my evening routine, and I spent hours on my phone before bedtime, mindlessly scrolling my feed.
Needless to say, every morning I woke up exhausted, which started to affect my work productivity. I made an active decision to not use my phone at least an hour before bed each night, but it turns out it is more complicated than it seems.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Will Durant
A habit is something that we do regularly, often automatically, without any forethought. When we first start forming a new habit, however, we have to be very deliberate and effortful in order to perform the desired action.
We focus a lot on the results, too, imagining the future joys of good habits: job promotion, improved wellbeing, creative achievements, stronger body. In my case, I was dreaming about waking up and feeling rested without the usual gallons of coffee.
Having background in both health psychology and neuroscience, I am not only interested in being good at changing my habits, but also in understanding how the brain regulates such an important process.
In order to disentangle the neuroscience behind habits, it is important to understand two key processes: “action-outcome” and “stimulus-response”, the former leading to the latter for a successful habit forming.
Let’s take a simple example of a light switch. When you come back to your dark flat, you flip the switch because you’re looking for an outcome — an illuminated flat. This is an “action-outcome” system — a deliberate action with the result in mind.
When you repeat this enough times, it becomes so automatic that you stop considering the outcome. So, if your lightbulb goes out and you forgot to change it, chances are you will still flip the switch automatically when you come home, even though you know the desired outcome of your action is not there anymore. At this point, the action has moved from an action-outcome process and it becomes what we call a “stimulus-response” association — you see the switch, you habitually flip it.
Presumably, our behaviour is a balance between these two systems, but they also compete when we try to form a new habit. When I first tried to reduce my phone use before bed, it was incredibly hard to make the effort — my “action-outcome” system was still in place, as I was having to consciously remind myself to stop looking at my phone to avoid morning tiredness.
Both “action-outcome” and “stimulus-response” processes have corresponding parallel networks in our brains. The “Action-outcome” (sometimes called goal-directed) process happens primarily in the dorsomedial striatum (DMS), which is a part of a larger reward system in the brain. DMS is part of a neuronal network called an “associative loop” with other brain areas, such as thalamus (which is a relay center between sensory experiences and the rest of the brain) and associative cortex, which is responsible for language and abstract thinking.
DMS also has an adjacent part, dorsolateral striatum (DLS), which is conveniently responsible for the “stimulus-response” (or habitual) association. DLS also forms a neuronal network, which is called “sensorimotor loop”. This circuit involves the thalamus as well, but then connects to the sensorimotor cortex, which is responsible for registering our body movements and senses, such as touch. Associative and sensorimotor loops are parallel pathways that overlap in the thalamus.
Animal studies also provide a valuable contribution to habit research. Peculiar neural activity in the DLS (“habit” area) was detected in rats. When they performed a novel task, the neuronal firing was active during the whole performance. However, as the training continued, DLS activity was more pronounced at the beginning and the end of the task, while reduced mid-way. This suggests that the brain requires its full power only when the activity is novel; when the task becomes familiar, the brain can “rest” while completing it.
This pattern is called “chunking”, suggesting that the brain chunks certain actions together to form a habit and perform it more efficiently. For example, when you habitually brush your teeth, you perform many smaller actions (take your toothbrush, open toothpaste, squeeze it on your toothbrush, put it in your mouth), but your brain considers it one automatic task. Other examples are parking, adding sugar to your tea, and many other activities we do in our daily lives. Chunking helps us turn familiar patterns into habits without requiring too much effort and concentration.
One way to speed up the habit formation is to create cues, which are simply triggers associated with your behaviour, such as laying out your workout clothes the night before your morning run. Once you have effortfully and deliberately acted upon this cue enough times, it will become automatic.
This applies to bad habits, too, and non-smokers who smoke in the bars are a perfect example: the drink is the cue, the automated behaviour is smoking. In breaking my habit of phone use before bed, my night-time routine became my cue — I knew that after I washed my face and brushed my teeth, my phone goes to the furthest corner of the room.
Of course, some habits are harder to break than others, and the success will vary among individuals.
Drug addiction, for example, can be considered a very strong, almost involuntary habit. It becomes so powerful largely due to the neurochemical disruptions and brain lesions associated with drug misuse. This habit is infinitely harder to break than more mundane habits, such as leaving a bathroom light on (which I am definitely guilty of). People with certain conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, also find it harder to break habits.
We all know the saying “it gets worse before it gets better”. I have mentioned it in my “Neuroscience behind mindfulness” blog before, and I will mention it again: it takes time and effort for your brain to adapt to your actions and turn them into habits, but as long as you are creating cues for yourself and acting on them, rest assured it will get easier — your brain will make sure of it.