What happens in the brain when we form a habit?



Published Mar 22, 2023


In a perfect world, developing good habits, such as working out, eating well and reading more, would be as simple as scrambling eggs.

Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.

The brain is continually looking for ways to reduce effort, which is why habits develop, say scientists.

Left to its own devices, the brain will attempt to turn practically any routine into a habit. This is because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage.

Have you ever wondered what happens to our brains when it turns a decision into a habit? I’m sure I'm not the only person who gets frustrated by the fact that when I try to adopt a new habit in a few days, I quickly forget about it.

Changing behaviour can be complex because people are creatures of habit and the things they do are the behaviours they want to do.

By their nature, habits can guarantee that newly desirable behaviours will be used consistently and not forgotten. Yet, new habits take time to establish and need a precise set of conditions to be satisfied in order for them to do so.

A journal entry on “The art of forming habits” asserts that developing a new habit affects the basal ganglia, a part of the brain, which suggests numerous rewards when performance settings are constant; as a result, changing habits necessitate altering beliefs, perceptions and cognitive methods.

The study says the intentional process primarily controls the start of behaviour, reflecting on rewarding behaviour and anticipated results. The intentional process of the behaviour takes on the characteristics of a habit, such as being effective, unconscious and unintentional, with repeated exposure to the behaviour in stable circumstances.

In short, habits can also develop when good or enjoyable events trigger the brain’s “reward” centres. And the more often you do the action, the stronger it becomes.

Research says it typically takes 66 days or more for a new behaviour to become automatic. Also, the length of time it takes for a new habit to take hold might vary greatly, depending on the situation.

The Conversation published an interesting article on habit formation that included compelling insights, such as how to break unwanted habits.

Many of us have excess weight we could lose if only we ate right and exercised more. Why don’t we do it?

Enjoyable behaviours, whether beneficial to our health or not, cause our brains to release a chemical called dopamine, making pleasure-based habits that much more difficult to break. When we’re not doing those things, dopamine (the feel-good chemical) creates the craving to do it again.

Tips on how to break a habit:

  • Identify your triggers, then steer clear of or change them.
  • Find a replacement.
  • Practise self-compassion: Setbacks are a normal part of the process, so recommit and try again.

Tips on how to form a habit:

  • Start small.
  • Be consistent. Regularly practise the behaviour until it becomes automatic.
  • Reward yourself. This is the best way to remain motivated.

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