The neuroscience of habits

See last week’s post The Power of Habits – What is a Habit? for the introduction to this month’s blog topic.

The neuroscience around understanding habits has evolved dramatically in recent years. With medical scanning technology scientists and medical researchers alike have powerful tools to understand our brain. These tools allow them to see what is going on inside the brain in real time as the subject thinks or does.

Here are five things we now know about the brain and habits:

  1. The part of the brain which forms habits is called the basal ganglia. It is the part of the brain which selects which action to perform from the possible choices. It also controls the sense of reward and accomplishment you get from performing an action. Doing an action and feeling accomplishment about an action work together to re-enforce one another. If you are accomplishing something, your brain slowly learns to keep repeating the behaviour and ignore the other possible choices.
  2. Scientists used to think that dopamine was a reward in itself (dopamine has a key role in the operation of the basal ganglia). However, it is now thought to be what motivates you to seek out a reward. So dopamine is really neutral in terms of what you use the resulting motivation for – you can use dopamine to fuel good or bad habits.
  3. It takes three weeks to embed a new daily habit – this gets the new neural pathways started. If you can stick with a new habit for the first 10 weeks then your neural pathways will adapt to the behaviour and it will become automatic.
  4.  Intention is important. If you create an intention in your brain and rehearse this thought, you can influence the likelihood that it will become a physical reality. Visualise. Visualise. Visualise.
  5. There are now medications which target the basal ganglia because it is implicated in neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s. However there has been an increase in law suits from people taking this medication who found that it affected their ability to control their habits. These people suffered losses from compulsive behaviours such as gambling and shopping even if they did not have a history of such addictions before taking the medication.

For more resources on Habits, see our Pinterest board.

Join us next week for the next post on Habits. To subscribe click here.

In the next posts we will look at:

  • How to eliminate bad habits
  • How to build new good habits

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