3/16/12 - habits are controlled by your basal ganglia cells

In today's excerpt - when a habit is formed, that activity is governed by your basal ganglia cells, in a region completely separate from the primary cognitive areas of your brain. That's why you can brush your teeth or give someone your phone number without giving it the slightest thought, and while thinking intensely about something completely different:

"The process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as 'chunking,' and it's at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day. Some are simple: You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, such as getting dressed or making the kids' lunch, are a little more complex.

"Others are so complicated that it's remarkable a small bit of tis­sue that evolved millions of years ago can turn them into habits at all. Take the act of backing your car out of the driveway. When you first learned to drive, the driveway required a major dose of concen­tration, and for good reason: It involves opening the garage, unlock­ing the car door, adjusting the seat, inserting the key in the ignition, turning it clockwise, moving the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, mentally estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned and monitoring for oncoming traffic, calculating how reflected images in the mirrors translate into actual distances between the bumper, the garbage cans, and the hedges, all while applying slight pressure to the gas pedal and brake, and, most likely, telling your passenger to please stop fiddling with the radio.

"Nowadays, however, you do all of that every time you pull onto the street with hardly any thought. The routine occurs by habit.

"Millions of people perform this intricate ballet every morning, unthinkingly, because as soon as we pull out the car keys, our basal ganglia kicks in, identifying the habit we've stored in our brains re­lated to backing an automobile into the street. Once that habit starts unfolding, our [primary] gray matter is free to quiet itself or chase other thoughts, which is why we have enough mental capacity to realize that Jimmy forgot his lunchbox inside.

"Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly look­ing for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advan­tage. An efficient brain requires less room, [and] ... also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, so we can devote mental energy to inventing ... video games. ...

"This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and crav­ing emerges. Eventually... a habit is born.

"Habits aren't destiny. [They] can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision mak­ing. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So un­less you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.

"However, simply understanding how habits work—learning the structure of the habit loop—makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears."


Charles Duhigg


The Power of Habit


Random House


Copyright 2012 by Charles Duhigg


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