In October 2012, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) set out to find if they could exercise complete control over habitual behaviors in mice.
By inhibiting a small region of the prefrontal cortex — region of the brain responsible for planning and thought — the scientists were able to break the mice’s habits, but, to their surprise, the mice immediately began forming new behavior patterns.
Until now, psychologists and behavioral therapists believed that habits were hidden in the illusive “subconscious.”
But the MIT study shows that the brain is not just aware of habits: it controls them completely, moment by moment. And no matter how long the habits have existed, we can now shut them off, as by the flip of a switch.
The researchers formed habits through repetition and aural cues in mice running through a simple maze over the course of a few weeks. Once they had shown that the habit was fully ingrained, the researchers broke it by interfering with a part of the prefrontal cortex known as the infralimbic (IL) cortex. Using optogenetics, a technique that allows researchers to inhibit specific cells with light, the researchers blocked IL cortex activity for several seconds as the rats approached the point in the maze where they had to decide which way to turn.
The mice’s brains turned from a reflexive, habitual mode to a more cognitive and engaged mode, focused on a goal. Once the mice had broken their old habits, they formed new ones, which the researchers were then able to break again. But the researchers were in for another surprise: the mice immediately regained their original habit. This suggests that habits are never really forgotten, just overwritten or replaced with new ones.
From an evolutionary standpoint, habits make survival simpler by allowing us to make decisions almost automatically, freeing our brain to think about other things as we perform routine tasks. Our brain tends to find familiar, repeatable behaviors out of a sense of security. The problem with “automatic” behaviors is that they leave us vulnerable to forming negative habits, such as procrastinating on bigger projects or smoking cigarettes when driving.
Many fledgling habits go unnoticed because people rarely engage in meta-cognition when undertaking everyday tasks, where habits are likely to form. In fact, as behaviors are repeated in a consistent context, there is an incremental increase in the link between the context and the action — the behavior becomes more automatic. Our habits are a reflection of how we choose to spend time interacting with the world, guided by our short and long term goals — some of which we have had since childhood or seem inexplicable.
When we enjoy certain stimulation, chemicals such as dopamine are released into the brain, relieving stress, improving mood, and providing a sense of reward. But as we repeat the behavior, our tolerance builds, requiring more stimulation to trigger the dopamine receptors.
Sometimes we keep using just to feel normal (dependence), but if the consequences of our behavior become significant and harmful, and the behavior cannot be controlled, our habit is then considered a behavioral addiction, or a process addiction; if it involves illegal or misused substances, it is considered a drug addiction. Those who form “drug habits” often struggle with them for the rest of their lives due to the lasting effects of dependence and dopamine withdrawal on the brain. Like the mice, our old habits are always lurking in the back of our minds.
The ability to break habits in mice may seem like the nexus of a “cure” for addictive behaviors, but it is unclear how inhibiting the IL cortex will affect humans, whose prefrontal cortex is considerably more complex. It is not absurd to imagine a surgery or drug which could hinder the IL cortex in humans, allowing us to escape our negative habits and live reasonably, consciously, unburdened by our old, learned behaviors, but it may not be necessary.
The key to breaking bad habits is becoming aware of the behavior (through friends, family or any support group available); identifying the factors which trigger and encourage its persistence; and altering them however possible.
Similar to describing the feeling of a dream, the context of a habit is important, too: look for indicators and symbols in your everyday life that may stand for something of greater significance and purposefully change their meaning. Keeping a varied schedule is also a passive way to curb habit formation (variety is the spice of life!).
Once you’ve broken the habit, however, remember the mice: you must seek new, positive behaviors that give you a cerebral boost, such as exercising creativity or problem-solving, to keep your brain balanced and healthy.