We're all creatures of habit, whether it's putting on the same pant leg first, parking in the same spot at 4:30 every morning at the gym,or buttering the same side of soda crackers. Ask anyone how habits get formed and they'll say, "by repetition, of course." And while that's true, there's something literally deeper behind that, something that's going on in the brain at a neuronal level that's forming habits.So let's put on our coveralls and hard hats, headlamps and protective goggles and descend down into this incredible apparatus where the real action is.
Habits consist of three elements: 1) The cue, or trigger, 2) The routine or behavior, 3) The reward. These form a three-step loop. The cue is the trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode. The cue can be anything, a location, a smell, a feeling. And it's usually pretty innocuous. The routine or behavior is what is activated by the cue, often accidentally at first. It's then followed by a reward, a treat, feeling calm, just about anything. We're all familiar with the rat hitting the lever to get the food pellet. It's the same way we teach our dog to do a trick. Once he sits up, usually with some coaxing, we give him a treat. A few repeats of this process and he quickly learns to sit up on our command and will do it even if there's no reward. In fact, occasional reward is a more powerful reinforcement than rewarding every time. It's how casinos keep gamblers coming back by letting them win once in awhile.
Anyone with a dog knows how quickly they become attuned to us and anticipate some kind of reward. How many of us spell things around them such as "w-a-l-k"? Or what my wife and I call "The W word."
Now this brings us to the last piece of the habit loop, anticipation. When the cue is triggered the brain anticipates reward and over time and repetition, the cue, routine, and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. And, voila', a habit is formed. It's the anticipation of reward that strengthens the habit, even at an unconscious level for something as mundane as nail-biting. Brain studies have shown that when we anticipate something pleasurable such as getting a bargain at a sale, having a massage, or a gourmet meal, feel-good chemicals are released in the brain and thus, habits are strengthened.
So let's get back down to the neuronal level. Any physical action we do, such as drinking a cup of coffee, activates certain nerve cells in the brain that directs our hand and arm to grasp the cup and bring it to our mouth. The brain carries out this action automatically without us having to direct it to do so.
Same for smoking, an activity that smokers typically find relaxing and pleasurable, in other words, rewarding. Now put the cup of coffee and cigarette together several times and you have a new habit formed. When neurons in the brain are paired together repetitively their actions become linked. Hebb's Law (named for Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb) states that "Neurons that fire together wire together.)
Here's how one of mine works. I love soda crackers, especially with butter on them. Loved them since I was a little kid. At night when I'm laying out my breakfast before going to bed and I'm plugging in the toaster next to the butter dish, I sometimes get this feeling of hunger (no matter what or how much I ate for dinner) and a powerful craving for soda crackers and butter. It's the toaster, butter dish and location on the countertop and the anticipation that are the triggers for me. Sometimes I can ignore them and walk away, other times I'm hooked. Tonight I got hooked.
In my previous life in advertising I created an ad for a large hospital promoting a smoking-cessation program that promised to help smokers identify and break the links that triggered smoking and not start again. The photo was a cup of coffee, steam rising from the surface. The headline was simply, "Every day is full of reasons to start smoking again."
Habits die hard. Once established at a neuronal level they become hardwired into the brain and can lie dormant for years even after breaking the habit, waiting to be triggered and activated again. The golfer who, after years of lessons and practice hitting the ball straight down the fairway, suddenly starts hooking slicing into the rough again.
There's a desert toad here in Arizona that burrows into the mud following the monsoon rains in a state of semi-hibernation. It can stay this way for years and suddenly when the monsoon rains return and conditions are right will emerge from the mud to mate. They let out an ear-splitting mating call that sounds like a wounded animal. The first time we heard it my wife and I went prowling through the wash behind our house with flashlights looking for a wounded animal. Mission accomplished, the toad burrows back into the ground again waiting for next year's rains. So habits are like that toad, patiently waiting for the right conditions to burst forth again.
So I've talked about how habits get formed and what goes on in our brain that makes it happen. Next time I'll talk about how to break habit patterns. See you then.
Next Time: BREAKING HABITS or HOW MY SWISS ARMY KNIFE SAVED ME.
Here's my book recommendation: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It's a fascinating and easy to understand explanation of how habits get formed and, most importantly, simple ways to break them. And of course, it's on THEFEARMONSTER's banned book list.