Life is habit forming and people develop habits as strategies to help cope with daily living. People develop habits throughout their life span. Contrary to all those weight-watchers and 12-step programs, habits are also very difficult to break.
There’s a lot of discussion about bad behaviors. Texting on the street or while driving is a dangerous behavior, if not to you than to others. Habitual behaviors aren’t even part of our consciousness. They just happen. Habit formation may be nature, nurture, or environmentally associated. A study at MIT explores how habits form and reside within the brains of laboratory rats. Can it help us understand how life is habit forming and how we can form new habits?
A study posted in Neuron explores the neuroscience aspects surrounding habit formation and problems with revising or changing habits. Although breaking habits can be hard, MIT neuroscientists have now shown that they can prevent them from taking root in the first place, in rats learning to run a maze to earn a reward. The researchers first demonstrated that activity in two distinct brain regions is necessary in order for habits to crystallize. Then, they were able to block habits from forming by interfering with activity in one of the brain regions, the infralimbic (IL) cortex, which is located in the medial prefrontal cortex.
The medial prefrontal cortex has been implicated in a variety of cognitive and executive processes such as decision making and working memory. The medial prefrontal cortex of rodents consists of several areas including the prelimbic and infralimbic cortex that are thought to be involved in different aspects of cognitive performance. Despite the distinct roles in cognitive behavior that have been attributed to prelimbic and infralimbic cortex, little is known about neuronal network functioning of these areas, and whether these networks show any interaction during fast network oscillations.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers’ ability to optogenetically block the formation of new habits in rats suggests that the IL cortex not only exerts real-time control over habits and compulsions, but is also needed for habits to form in the first place.
The study suggests a new way to look for abnormal activity that might cause disorders of repetitive behavior. Now that the researchers have identified the neural signature of a normal habit, they can look for signs of habitual behavior that is learned too quickly or becomes too rigid. Finding such a signature could allow scientists to develop new ways to treat disorders of repetitive behavior by using deep brain stimulation, which uses electronic impulses delivered by a pacemaker to suppress abnormal brain activity.
People become addicted to the habits they form and developing new habits, even though they may be intuitively right, seem nearly impossible. The validity of these rat studies don’t take into consideration that human prefrontal and limbic systems are far more sophisticated and employ language coded cognition factors. Humans have will power and willpower is a tool that can help use remove and change our habits.
With all those ads and articles that show how cigarettes, alcohol, and recreational drugs are habit forming, and other articles that show you how to break those habits, we must be mindful that habits form in the mind, as this research helps indicate. Life is habit forming and breaking or developing new habits throughout a lifespan may need huge amounts of self-control. If you believe in monism, where the mind and body are one, habits are crucial to living and bad habits may lead to dying.
Forming the right habits are individual-specific but habits do help maintain survival and they are carved in our brains. Every new year that passes, people make lists of resolutions and some are about breaking habits and making new ones. It appears that old habits die hard and new habits are barely born. How can we change them? What habits would you like to change?