A recent cover story in Scientific American revealed how the brain creates habits and why they are so hard to break. In their article, researchers Ann Gaybriel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Kyle S. Smith (Dartmouth College) outline three stages to laying down a habit:
- Explore a new behavior
- Form a habit
- Imprint it into the brain
Exploring New Behaviors
As you explore a new behavior, three parts of your brain—the prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain—communicate together to form positive feedback loops that help you determine whether nor not the behavior helps you achieve your goals.
Let’s take as an example, reaching down to pick up and put on your shoes. When you first learn to do this, you might make the choice, consciously or not, to counterbalance as you reach forward to pick the shoes up by allowing your head to drop back and down. To reach your shoes, you are extending your arm out quite a way beyond the stable support of your mid-line and your center of gravity, and taking the weight of your head back creates a feeling of stability. It may not be the best way to do this, but it works in the moment and, anyway, you are more concerned with getting your shoes on than you are with anything else.
The next time you put your shoes on, your brain remembers the sequence of behaviors you performed to fulfill your goal and sets up an expectation of success or failure. You put your shoes on the same way you did before. It works again. The brain makes a note that this sequence of behaviors is an effective way of achieving the goal. This process is repeated every time you put your shoes on, reinforced each time.
Forming a Habit
A habit, from the perspective of the brain, is a sequence of actions or behaviors that get lumped together into one single unit: a chunk of brain activity. When you are first exploring the action, the brain acts with deliberation. It has no expectations and needs to make conscious choices. Let’s take our example of putting on your shoes. The sequence of deliberate choices to get your shoes might look like this:
- You see your shoes.
- You reach out and down to pick them up and drop your head back to counterbalance the reach of your arm.
- With your head thrown off balance, your back gets stiff as you bend down to get to your shoes, so you support yourself by putting your other hand on your thigh.
- You sit down with a plop and slump forward to pick your shoes up and put them on.
- You try and stand up from your slumped position with your head back and down and need to push off the chair to get up.
As I said, these might not be the most efficient or elegant set of choices you could make, but your goal is to put your shoes on and not necessarily to bother with the details. After this has happened enough times, the process gets simplified in your brain to this:
- You see your shoes
- You put them on
Your brain takes all those different choices and lumps them together into one behavioral package.
Imprinting The Habit
Once you have repeated the behavior enough for it have become combined into one single chunk of neurological activity, the infralimbic cortex and the striatum work together to make it semi-permamanent in the brain. When you need to put your shoes on, you use the habitual chunk. As the chunk is in there semi-permanently in your behavioral repertoire, your brain won’t necessarily distinguish between your shoes and a wet towel on the bathroom floor, or anything else that you need to pick up from below your current level, so it uses the same chunk.
What Makes A Habit So Hard To Break?
Once the habit is “chunked” and imprinted like this, very little neurological activity is required to use it. In an experiment, rats were trained to run down a maze and turn left or right when they heard a particular sound to receive a reward. When they were first being trained, activity in the brain was very high. As they started to learn how to respond to the signals they were being given, brain activity got less, except for when they had to make a decision. Once they were fully trained, there was high brain activity at the beginning of the run and at the end, but while they were performing the habitual behavior, brain activity was significantly lower. To say when we do something habitually, we are doing it “without much thought” is a fair description of what is actually happening in the brain. Sometimes, when we do things habitually, we are barely conscious of them at all, let alone capable of breaking down the habit into the successive choices that make it up.
How The Alexander Technique Can Help You Break Your Habits
The Alexander Technique teaches how to think in activity, rather than be at the mercy of habitual “chunks” of behavior. It gives you a framework within which to observe the habits as they arise. It teaches you how to let go of the habitual behavior and how to replace it with deliberate, conscious alternatives.
To read the article in Scientific American click here. (You will need to purchase a copy of the issue to read the full article.)
To read an interview with Ann Gaybriel, click here.
To read a technical article on the research, click here.