Why Habits are so Powerful and Potentially Dangerous

People say that change is difficult, and they are correct. Change is difficult, but we are all capable of change. Our lives are continually changing, learning to drive, marriage, babies, new job responsibilities, and new technological tools. Initiation is the most challenging phase of change because when we are learning to perform new tasks, it is mentally exhausting. Learning a new skill requires our cerebral cortex to do the heavy lifting. As the new task becomes routine, the more resilient basal ganglia take over. The action becomes easier and easier to perform. Our conscious brain goes on autopilot, and the actions flow effortlessly. You undoubtedly experienced this when you were learning to drive. In the beginning, it required your full concentration, but now you can drive, adjust the cabin temperature, tune the radio, carry on a conversation, and heaven forbid, use your smartphone while driving.

Change is possible, but it starts with mindfulness. The hardest part of change is not repeating what we have done before. Almost half of the decisions we make each day aren’t conscious ones. They are made out of habit. To free-up cognitive bandwidth, our conscious mind pawns-off repetitive tasks. This system relieves our conscious mind from having to make countless decisions. This arrangement allows us to avoid decision fatigue and mental exhaustion. The downside is that we aren’t mindful of our habits. Bad habits are dangerous because we don’t give them much thought. We encounter a trigger and execute a learned response. In the early 1990s, MIT Researchers studying the brain activity of rats navigating a maze made a surprising discovery. As the rats navigated the maze for the 100th time and zipped through it faster and faster, their brain activity quieted. During the initial phase of the experiment, when the mice were learning the maze, their brains were exploding with activity, but now their minds were only active at the beginning and end of the routine. The process of learning a new routine requires both the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia to work. The cerebral cortex is guiding the action, while the basal ganglia are learning the pattern. Once the routine has been performed enough times, the basal ganglia can perform the routine without any guidance from the prefrontal cortex.

Our basal ganglia learn patterns and convert the sequences of actions into automated routines. This is known as chunking. These routines are stored in our basal ganglia, waiting for a cue in the environment to be initiated.

rats habit loop

Every habit has a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward. Our mind identifies the Cue, a physical, mental, or emotional trigger, then it executes a conditioned Routine to receive a Reward. In this case, the rat encounters the Cue, it hears a click and sees the maze partition disappear. The Cue initiates the Routine, and the rat runs through the maze in a memorized sequence of turns. At the end of the Routine, the rat receives his chocolate Reward.

Brain Activity Habit Loop

Our brain relies on routines stored in our primitive brain to conserve mental energy, but it needs to decide which Routine to perform and when to perform it. The initial spike in brain activity is the rat determining which Routine to perform. Once the rat decides, it’s decision centers quiet, their basal ganglia take over, navigating the maze quicker than when it was slowed down by conscious thought. At the end of the exercise, when the rat sees the reward, the brain jolts itself awake. It makes sure that the pattern unfolded as anticipated. Habits are a four-step process. First, there is a Cue that stimulates a Craving and triggers a Routine. Then there is a conditioned Routine, stored in our basal ganglia, that we execute to satisfy our Craving. Finally, there is a Reward that reinforces the habit by causing our brain to judge the routine worth remembering and repeating. This explains the pattern of brain activity the researchers observed, and it helps explain why habits are so valuable and potentially dangerous. Ann Graybiel, one of the scientists who oversaw many of the basal ganglia experiments, said, “Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.[i] “If a learned pattern remains in the brain after the behavior is extinguished, maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to change a habit. It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back,” Graybiel said. “This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions.”[ii]

Unfortunately, bad habits are the easiest type of habit to restart because they provide immediate gratification. While we have evolved as a species, our reward system hasn’t. It still heavily favors immediate gratification. And as I said earlier, our primitive brain, where all habits reside, is a hedonistic fellow whose goals don’t extend past a few minutes. Habits are dangerous because they remove us from the decision-making process. Our conscious mind goes asleep. This is a blessing in the case of good habits, a curse in the case of bad ones. Habits are the building blocks of self-creation. Habits form us as much as we form them. This is the reason why Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” No one is born great. If you study anyone that has accomplished great success, you will discover daily rituals that lead to the development of their talents.

“Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” Eckhart Tolle

The hardest part of breaking a bad habit is knowing when we aren’t making a deliberate choice, but rather one out of habit. We must force our cerebral cortex to participate in the decision-making process, or we will be stuck repeating bad habits. Mindfulness is the key. If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot.” Kelly McGonigal.

[i] Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014).

[ii] Cathryn M. Delude, “Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard”, News Office Correspondent October 19, 2005.

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