the human brain: a slave to habit

Scientists have recently uncovered new discoveries about the human brain and its interaction with its environment. These studies have centered around habits: how they are formed, how they are reinforced, and how they can be changed.

Your brain deals with a lot of stimulus and action every day, and that takes energy. In most cases, the brain’s goal is to cut down on work and energy consumption, so many of the daily activities we do are all streamlined into ‘blocks’ of automatic behavior. This ‘blocking’ of common tasks happens every day, like when you pull your car out of the driveway. When you were just learning how to reverse the car into the street, it took a lot of concentration and focus to keep the car straight, interpret the mirrors, push the gas, look behind you, etc. But now since you’re well-practiced at that routine, it becomes a ‘block’, simply “pulling out of the driveway”.

In lab studies, scientists observed this behavior of ‘blocking’ in rats. They set up a maze that had a latched door at the beginning and chocolate somewhere at the end. In the first few times the rats did the maze, their brains were cranking out the processing power. But after those first few times, the rats’ brain activity looked much different. There was a spike of brain activity at the sound of the latch at the beginning of the experiment and another spike at the rats’ acquisition of the chocolate. The space (of low brain activity) in-between those two spikes is what we can call a ‘block’ or ‘habit‘.

The whole experiment put together explains the ‘habit loop’, which starts with the ‘cue’ of the latch unlocking, the ‘routine’ of running through the maze, and the ‘reward‘ of the chocolate. Although this habit loop is specific to the rats, it presents itself in many aspects of our daily lives. For instance, a smoker has his cue (boredom), his routine (smoking), and his reward (relaxation?). Same thing with morning coffee addicts: cue (commute to work), routine (buying the coffee), and reward (caffiene buzz to start the day).

This key insight into humans’ thought processes can help us shape the way we act and think. Knowing that there are ways to change your habit loops can help you enact those changes. It is possible for an aspiring runner to engrain a morning run into his habits, as long as he understands the cycle: cue (putting on running shoes), routine (running), reward (satisfaction/weight loss). It is also well within the realm of possibility for a habitual cigarette smoker to kick the habit as long as he understands the cycle that he is caught in, and how he can amend that cycle to keep the reward without the consequence of all that smoke.

There’s much more on this habit loop and how it relates to consumer marketing and corporate sales on the new york times website here:  

It’s an awesome article, and I highly recommend it. You can be the change in your life, by understanding ourselves, we understand our destiny.


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