brain habits

How to change Habits

It is hard to change habits. Why do people start smoking again? Why is it so easy to start, and then hard to stop?

Changing habits has to do with how the human brain works. Research suggests that behavior is controlled by two different parts of the brain. There are goal directed actions, and there are automatic actions.

Goal directed actions are behaviours we consciously try to control. Automatic actions are things we do unconsciously without thinking about them.

Goal directed actions are controlled by the pre-frontal cortex. Goal directed actions focus your attention on getting something done. You will put a lot of effort in thinking about how to get what you want.  Automatic actions are controlled deep inside the brain, in the basal ganglia, part of the reptilian brain. Automatic actions react automatically, without thinking about it at all.

Put simply, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for new behaviours, the basal ganglia controls old behaviours.

Triggering automatic habits

When someone decides to give up smoking, their pre-frontal cortex is what they use to try to change their behavior. The basal ganglia ignores the pre-frontal cortex. The basal ganglia doesn't think. It doesn't know what is going on in the pre-frontal cortex. And doesn't care. It just waits patiently for a stimulus and acts on it, starting the automatic pre-programmed behavior, over and over.

The basal ganglia knows that there is a stored behavior routine to deal with whatever the stimulus is. All it has to do is to find it and start it. Once the routine is started, the basal ganglia can go back into its crocodile dream state. Until the next stimulus wakes it up. Then it searches for the right bundle of behaviors, starts it going, and goes back to sleep again. It never considers whether the behavior routine is good or bad for you, it just starts it running and forgets all about it.

Origin of habits

The automatic behavior got programmed into the basal ganglia in the first place by the prefrontal cortex. A stimulus happened, the prefrontal cortex thought about it and told you to react in some way.  If the result successfully deals with the stimulus (the problem) then the basal ganglia notes this. If the next time you meet that problem, you do the same behavior and it solves the problem, then you reinforce the basal ganglia memory. After the same thing happens again and again, the response becomes automatic. You never think of a different response because you have an automatic one that works just fine. 

The job of the basal ganglia is to identify the stimulus and find the matching response. It learns that when that particular stimulus appears, some particular response is the thing to do. Once the basal ganglia learns the routine, the prefrontal cortex leaves the basal ganglia to get on with it. In simple terms, your conscious mind passes it to your unconscious mind. Your unconscious mind then triggers an automatic behavior routine.

Life is difficult enough without having to consider afresh what to do every time you come to a door, or if someone smiles at you. Why waste energy thinking when you can just delegate it to another part of the brain, and let it react for you? And that is how a habit is born.

How to change habits

However, we are not condemned to repeat the same behaviour for life. People can and do change their habits. The prefrontal cortex can over ride the basal ganglia. And if it does it often enough, and in exactly the same way, the basal ganglia will learn a new habit for the old stimulus. You can retrain it. But the prefrontal cortex can only over ride the basal ganglia when it is paying attention and acting deliberately in the new way. The instant the prefrontal cortex gets distracted, it forgets. So the basal ganglia automatically takes over and produces the old behavior again.

Origin of Cravings

When one part of your mind is distracted, and the other part is trying to perform its automatic behaviour but can't, that is when the cravings start. The automatic part of the brain, the basal ganglia, knows what it is supposed to do when it gets that particular stimulus. It knows that to end that problem it has to go through a predefined routine. The problem will not end until it does that routine. It believes that until the routine is done your body is in danger. And that cannot be allowed. So the basal ganglia runs a program that it knows will make the body uncomfortable until the behavior routine is performed. That way it is keeping you safe. The more distracted you are the more automatic the process is, and the harder the basal ganglia will try to make the behavior happen.

And what stops the prefrontal cortex from paying attention? Other things happening. Or stress. Stress is just another name for a situation where you need to focus on something to the exclusion of all else, and just let the body run on automatic pilot. And that is why people start smoking again. Stress makes them forget their good intentions. Before they are even aware of it, they are lighting up, just going through the old routine that always worked in the past, that doesn't even need thinking about.

Retraining habits

The basal ganglia can relearn, but it only responds to rewards and repetition. So the prefrontal cortex has be vigilant long enough, and repeat the new behaviour often enough, for the basal ganglia to give up its old behaviour and learn the new behaviour.

The problem of course, is that basal ganglia will learn anything. And if the repeated behaviour is to keep starting again at every bit of stress, then that is what it will learn. You can train yourself into being unable to give up!

What do you think?

David Mason

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