Psychologists describe a habit as anything that we routinely do without thinking about it-- which is precisely why most of us have so many of them.
And it’s the brain’s meticulous synaptic automation that makes this happen, literally hard-wiring our routine thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors deeply below the surface where they are stored without us being in control of them. Once wired, the brain then routinely performs hundreds of habits each day.
Learning the Neuroscience of Habits
Neuroplasticity, a term used by neuroscientists to describe the “plastic” or “changeable” nature of our brains.
The human brain is more capable than even our most complex and advanced computers, even the smallest piece of brain tissue no more the size of a tiny grain of sand actually contains more than 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses all communicating with each other, managing and storing unimaginable quantities of data for every event, occurrence, emotion or circumstance of our daily existence.
There’s a flip side to all of this finely tuned automation as “creatures of habit”.
Although it’s a good thing to have the complexities of our physical anatomy or healthy habits running smoothly and reliably in our subconscious mind, it’s not so good when we have deep seeded negative habits and beliefs running around on auto-pilot there. That’s when it takes a heightened of sense self-awareness and a healthy dose of self-discipline to recognize these hidden unconscious patterns and to “rewire” our brains so to speak, to think and act differently.
What’s more, many of our deepest unconscious habits can be extremely hard to recognize in that they are things that we did not consciously choose ourselves, but rather are habits arising from our environment, parents, family or culture, that if left unchanged, still operate on auto-pilot in our subconscious, constantly running the background. This is why we often become stuck in repetitive negative patterns without easily knowing why, and why even though the latest research in neuroscience tells us our brains are “plastic” or able to change, most of our bad habits are still so hard to break—and are notoriously easy to come back once broken.
A recent study led by Ann Graybiel of MIT's McGovern Institute, might now provide some long sought answers as to why.
Research shows that important neural activity patterns that form the “coordination center” for habits are located in a region of the brain called the striatum, and these patterns change when habits are formed, and change once again when they are broken. However, surprisingly, these “habit patterns” can suddenly re-emerge quite quickly when something triggers an old habit – even though the original habit pattern took a great deal of time and effort to learn.
"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," says Graybiel. "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."
The striatum, the location of the brain where habit patterns are stored, seems to hold the key.
Located deep beneath the cortex where it forms part of the basal ganglia, this area is deeply connected to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is the center for higher-thinking, feeling, and sensory perception. It is also directly connected to the midbrain, the area that receives direct input from dopamine rich neurons--the brain chemical associated with sensations of pleasure-- providing feelings of enjoyment that reinforcement pleasure-reward motivated behavior. And it’s this dopamine triggered pressure-reward response that seems to make breaking old habits so difficult.
In fact, when the striatum malfunctions, the dopamine neurotransmitters become imbalanced, and that’s when habits can easily become uncontrollable. This can manifest in behavior such as obsessive-compulsive disorders or at its worst, strong behavioral patterns of addiction.
Despite the challenges of breaking negative habits, there is good news however. The latest neuroscience supports the idea that just like negative habits can become “wired”, the brain’s synapsis can also be reorganized or ‘rewired” for heathy habits through the practice of self-discipline and the use of self-directed Neuroplasticity techniques.
Neuroplasticity To Rewire Healthy Habits
Most of us feel that change is hard and sometimes even downright scary. This is precisely why it’s so easy to feel discouraged, often before we ever even get stared.
So what’s the best way to begin to break a bad habit?
With the most cutting edge research in Neuroplasticity, Neuroscientists tell us that the best place to start is by learning to recognize the trigger for your habit, then begin to override and rewire neuro pathways of that habit by consciously and mindfully replacing the bad habit with a healthy one instead.
Remember that the brain is very malleable and each time we replace a negative habit with a positive action it’s like laying down a new groove in our minds, and the more we repeat the positive habit, the deeper the grove gets, until eventually over time we’ll find that we’ve truly changed the way our mind behaves. It’s all about self-discipline and fully appreciating just how automated the brain really is once it’s wired.
Sound simple enough?
Surprisingly it actually is. Studies show that along with solid techniques to form new patterns of thought and behavior in the brain, a healthy dose of self-discipline, combined with a strong motivation to change is equally as important. Research also shows that it’s much easier and even faster to kick a habit for reasons that we feel strongly and passionate about, rather than if it’s done for external reasons such as pressure from others.
Find your positive passion™, we are not doomed by our genes and hardwired to remain as we are for the rest of our lives.
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