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Tuesday, January 22, 2013


The force of habit; we all have behavior that can be termed “habitual.” Humans develop hundreds if not thousands of them and they are mostly benign. Habits can be as innocent as washing your hands after flushing the toilet, locking the front door when you leave home, or petting your dog on the head.

People say that they have a “habit” of doing this or that, but what they frequently mean is that they have a practice or tendency to do something. Their action occurred because they had a conscious thought to make it happen, even if the thought was very brief. If you say that you have a habit of visiting The Statue of Liberty when you are in New York, you probably mean that you have a “practice” of doing it. It is likely a conscious decision.

A “habit” is defined as a relatively simple, routine behavior that is subconsciously repeated on a regular basis. Usually a person is not aware of the behavior at all. It occurs without thinking because the pattern of its use has long since been learned and internalized in the brain.

When behaviors are often repeated and associated with a specific context (such as a place or time of day), they are triggered in your brain. The more often the behavior is repeated, in conjunction with the context, the stronger the habit. Subconscious habits are cued by context. In experiments, animals in a strange setting seem to forget their habits. People who smoke are triggered to light up at the completion of a meal or when entering the room where they keep their cigarettes (both are contexts). Typical habits include overeating, nose-picking, procrastination, or obsessive/compulsive thoughts and actions. Smoking is in between a habit and an addiction. The desire for a cigarette, the pleasant feeling and the chemical high, is more related to an addiction; but the time and place a person smokes is likely to be more of a habit.

A habit itself is neither good nor bad; it is just a behavioral process developing in your brain. What makes them advantageous or not is their affect on your physical or psychological well being. Oddly, old habits are very hard to break and new habits form with difficulty over a long period of time.

So where are your habits stored? Scientists believe the center of habit formation is in the “basal ganglia,” a collection of tissues located at the base of the brain. Along with the cerebral cortex and thalamus, it directs motivational and emotional functioning, voluntary motor control, and (most importantly) procedural learning and habit development. It is life’s little instruction book for simple behavioral routines.

Ann Graybiel, a scientist associated with MIT, believes that the brain’s creation of habits is evolutionary, and that early man did not generally rely on habits. Learning habits takes a lot of brain power and that it takes up most of the brain area itself. Primitive man was not a “multi-tasker” and had to consider each action he made, even though he did the same things over and over. The development of the basal ganglia allowed some behavior to be ingrained so that modern man could function on a simple level, using habits, while consciously thinking about more complex behaviors.

Recently, basal ganglia malfunction has become a prime suspect in medical disorders of movement, habit, and mood. The feedback between the basal ganglia and the cortex may be manifested by maladies such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Habit and addiction are seen as two different phenomena though. “In the case of addiction, we get a surge of dopamine, a reward signal in the brain in the additive phase (habitual behavior creation),” says Dr. Graybiel. “This really turns the brain on. In a habit, we probably do too but after a while the behavior becomes autonomous. Then, even if the reward rush isn’t there, we do it anyway.” Habits and addictions also differ in their response to an individual’s degree of will power. If a person is still in control of their behavior, then it’s likely a habit.

And finally, can a habit (good or bad) be eliminated? No, probably not. The best a person can hope for is that the habit can be subdued to a point that it doesn’t exhibit itself - that is until the appropriate triggers and context are present.

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