The Science Behind How Your Brain Builds Habits

What is a habit, and how does your brain build habits? How long does it take to form a habit? Are you even wondering how to change a bad habit? Consider the little things you do every day without much thought. Your wash your face and brush your teeth in the morning before you are fully awake and aware. You lock the door behind you while thinking of the day ahead at work and, later, you panic because you don’t remember having done it.

A habit is, thus, a learned behavior that becomes automatic after sufficient repetition. And habits are beneficial. To give a computer-related analogy, they are like macros in Microsoft Word.

A macro defines a batch of similar actions (like attaching a document to several emails) that can be grouped and performed with just one click. Once you defined a macro, you can use it over and over again, without having to go through all the steps of operating manually.

How Do Habits Work?

habit loop-forming habits-habit building
PC –

The image above shows what a habit loop looks like. The habit loop consists of three elements:

  • a cue – can be anything that triggers the habit
  • a routine – the behavior you wish to change or reinforce
  • a reward – positive reinforcement for the desired behavior

Coming back to habits, they are actions that we perform with minimum input from the brain. Every conscious and intentional action that we usually perform requires the brain to form a command. This command is transmitted to the relevant part of our body to achieve it.

For instance, when you go to the fridge to get a bottle of beer, the brain forms the command. This makes you walk to the refrigerator, open its door, and extend your arm to grab the bottle of beer. It may seem like something straightforward for you, but it is the result of a whole chain of commands inside your brain.

With habits, on the other hand, the brain does a minimum of work. Once you start the sequence (like taking the brush from the stand and putting toothpaste on it), you perform the rest of the action with minimum intervention and supervision from the brain. Using this habit loop, you can learn to build positive habits that can set you up for success.

Learn to be smart: Brain Exercises That Make You Smarter Each Day

So, How Does Your Brain Build Habits?

the-science-behind-the-way-your-brain-builds-habitsImage Credits – Gavin Whitner

Various researches attempted to find out why and how habits are formed in our brains.

For the why part, we already have a definite answer for habit building: it frees our brain from being permanently focused on every little action we perform – like putting a car on autopilot.

As for the how part, things are more complicated. Several independent studies showed different ways in which the brain builds a habit. In this article, I will present two recent studies that came up with definite answers to this issue.

Bookending Neural Signals

A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led by Ann Graybiel conducted the study I will discuss first. The Current Biology journal published the findings of their study.

The researchers identified a process named “chunking.” They found the process by which a human brain performs habitual actions. Thus, a chunk represents the entire series of steps necessary to perform a habitual activity.

But how does the brain know when a chunk is about to be set in motion?

The MIT team believes that specific brain cells are programmed to bookend each piece corresponding to habitual action.

To prove this, the team attempted to train rats to press two levers in a certain order. A portion of milk chocolate was rewarded to these rats when they performed these steps correctly.

By analyzing the brains of the rats once they acted several times correctly in a row, the scientists noticed a particular activity in the striatum part of the brain, which is associated with decision-making: different sets of neurons would send specific signals and the beginning and the end of the task.

The MIT team called this peculiar brain activity bookending.

So, how does bookending work when the brain builds habits?

First, when the initial bookend is activated, the chunk (habit) is set in motion until the action is completed. Once you successfully perform the habitual action, the other bookend signals the brain to take over again and become active in monitoring the person’s actions. Ann Graybriel explained the phenomenon:

“It is a high-level signal that helps to release that habit, and we think the end signal says the routine has been done.”

Chemicals Produced By Our Bodies Control Our Habits

A study was published in the Neuron journal in the year 2016. This study was led by Christina Gremel who is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of California at San Diego.

It was identified how a chemical naturally produced by all mammals controls the way our brain builds habits, maintains them and forgets them.

The chemical in question belongs to a class called endocannabinoids. We have receptors for this chemical all over our bodies, including in our brain.

Endocannabinoids are responsible for controlling various physiological processes we experience, such as pain sensation, appetite, mood, and memory. Also, as its name states it, this chemical mediates the psychoactive effects of cannabis.

But what is the connection between endocannabinoids and habit-building?

One set of receptors for this chemical are located in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the brain area responsible for transmitting information for intentional and goal-directed actions. When the activity of OFC decreases, under the action of endocannabinoids, this is when habits take over.

After an experiment on mice, this is what the researchers found out. They managed to suppress specific receptors for endocannabinoids in the OFC part of the brain of a group of mice. These mice, as compared with the control group (which was not interfered with), did not develop habits, even after intense training.

Further Applications of This Study

The second study opens ways for the treatment of many behavior-related conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). As Christina Gremel observed:

“We need a balance between habitual and goal-directed actions. For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose.

However, we also encounter changing circumstances and need the capacity to ‘break habits’ and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information. When we can’t, there can be devastating consequences.”

Conclusion on Building Habits,

Habits can be our best friends and help us perform simple tasks without putting our brain at work too much. However, they can also become our enemies when they take over our lives and overrule conscious, goal-oriented actions.

By understanding how your brain builds habits, scientists also find ways to treat people who have become prisoners of our own habits. And I am sure that we all know how hard it is to break a bad habit, especially an addictive one like smoking or gambling.

Perhaps, in the future, it will be a matter of correcting a chemical imbalance in our bodies to cure people of habits they cannot break with their own will.

What do you think? Will we soon develop a pill or a shot to cure bad habits? How long does it take for you to form a habit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read more interesting and helpful posts below!

Silvia Constantin
SEO and Content writer, translator, dreamer. These are some of the words which describe Silvia. She believes in the power of words - both for good and for evil. She also believes that we can all choose to use words in a positive manner, to share information, ideas, feelings, and truth. There is nothing more rewarding than to be the instrument through which knowledge is shared among other people. From this point of view, she considers herself in a privileged position of trust, which she strives never to betray.

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