Brain hewing for bad habit change

There are skills that have had to be learned before the brain can automate them. How it does this might provide a method for us to think our way out of bad habits.


Do you struggle with overcoming bad habits? Do you find it difficult to stick with an exercise routine and constantly find yourself back where you started? So much of what we do in our day-to-day lives whether it be driving, making coffee or touch-typing happens without the need for conscious thought. Unlike many of the brain’s other unconscious talents, these are skills that have had to be learned before the brain can automate them. How it does this might provide a method for us to think our way out of bad habits. Take a second and think back to what you did this morning. Chances are, you woke up, got out of bed, brushed your teeth and went through your usual morning routine. How much did you think about what you were doing? Was it a result of active decision making or habit? Though we may not realize it, habits make up more than 40% of our actions. Habits are our brain’s evolutionary shortcut-they allow our mind to go on autopilot, so our bodies can take over. Here’s what happens when we do the same thing over and over again-like a morning routine –our brain takes notice. It turns this sequence of action into an automatic routine which stores the habit for later use. This happens, so we don’t have to make infinite numbers of decision all day long. Habits are huge time and energy saver, except when they negatively impact our happiness, wellbeing or productivity. Whether it’s overspending, nail-biting, constantly checking our phones, chronic lateness or late-night snacking, it’s all too easy to allow our brains to fall into wasteful habit. But here’s the good news- since our habits are crafted by our minds, the key to breaking the bad habit is simply knowing the right way to communicate with other brains. It’s that easy.

Habit forms a crucial component of behaviour. In recent years, key computational models have conceptualized habits as arising from model-free reinforcement learning mechanisms, which typically select between available actions based on the future value expected to result from each. Traditionally, however, habits have been understood as behaviours that can be triggered directly by stimulus without requiring the animal to evaluate expected outcomes. Here Scientists develop a computational model instantiating this traditional view, in which habits develop through the direct strengthening of recently taken actions rather than through the encoding of outcomes. They demonstrate that this model accounts for key behavioural manifestations of habits, including insensitivity to outcome devaluation and contingency degradation as well as the effect of reinforcement schedule on the rate of habit formation. The model also explains the prevalent observation of preservation in repeated-choice tasks as an additional behavioural manifestation of habit system. They suggest that mapping habitual behaviours onto value-free mechanisms provides a parsimonious account of existing behavioural and neural data. This mapping may provide a new foundation for building robust and comprehensive models of the interaction of habits with other more goal-directed types of behaviours and help to better guide research into the neural mechanism underlying control of instrumental behaviour more generally.

The process of habit formation in the brain involves various cells and processes that help amount our daily rituals into routines. Dartmouth researchers recently discovered that the dorsolateral Striatum, a region of the brain, experiences a short burst of activity when new habits are formed. According to the research published in the Journal of Neuroscience, it takes as little as half of a second for this burst to occur. And as a habit become stronger, the activity burst increases. The Dartmouth researchers found that habits can be controlled depending on how active dorsolateral striatum is. The research finding illustrates how habits can be controlled in a tiny time window when they are first set in motion. According to Kyle S Smith,an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Psychological and Brain Science at Dartmouth ,the strength of the brain activity in this window determines whether the full behaviour becomes a habit or not. The result demonstrates how activity in the dorsolateral Striatum when habits are formed really does control how habitual animals are providing evidence of a causal relationship. The research finding showed that dorsolateral Striatum burst in brain activity correlated with a rats habit for running maize (Rats brains are similar to human). For the new study, the researchers manipulated the burst with a method called Optogenetics, where flashing blue light excites the brain cells while a flashing yellow light inhibits the cells and shuts them down. Ann Graybiel of MIT and her colleagues have shown that a region deep inside the brain called the Striatum is key to habit-forming. When you undertake an action, the prefrontal Cortex, which is involved in planning complex task, communicate with the Striatum which sends the necessary signals to enact the movement. Overtime input from the prefrontal circuits fades, to be replaced by loops linking the Striatum to the sensorimotor Cortex. The loop together with the memory circuits, allows us to carry out the behaviour without having to think about it or to put it another way, Practice makes perfect. No thinking required. The upside of this two-part system is that once we no longer need to focus our attention on a frequent task, the spare processing power can be used for other things. It comes with a downside, however. Similar circuitry is involved in turning all kinds of behaviours into habits.

Another study out of DUKE UNIVERSITY found that a single type of neuron in the Striatum called the fast-spiking interneuron serves as a” “master controller of habits. They found that if it’s shut down, habits can be broken. This cell is a relatively rare cell but one that is very heavily connected to the main neurons that relay the outgoing message for the brain region; according to NICOLE CALAKOS an associate Professor of neurology and neurobiology at the Duke University Medical Center. According to him, this cell is a master controller of habitual behaviour and it appears to do this by re-orchestrating the message sent by the outgoing neurons. Understanding how habits are formed in the brain is critical developing strategies to change them. If there’s a certain habit you’d like to change or create, say getting up earlier, drinking more water or reading more-good news, you don’t need to understand neuroscience to get going. All it takes, according to researchers from Warwick Princeton and Brown Universities in repetition. To study this, they created a model using digital rats that shows forming habits depend more on how often you perform an action rather than how much satisfaction you get from it. Psychologists have been trying to understand what drivers our habits for over a century and one of the recurring questions is how much habits are a product of what we want versus what we do. What we know from lab studies is that it’s never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a bad habit is to understand its structure that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behaviour, it becomes much, much easier to change. Diagnosing your bad habits will not only help you find effective alternatives, but it’ll also help you become more aware of your habit. This awareness will transfer your habit from an automatic sub-conscious routine to a deliberate conscious behaviour.           

(The views expressed are the writer’s own. Writer can be reached at:

First Published:Nov. 23, 2020, 1:16 p.m.

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