Bad habits on the brain

I keep thinking I need to eat better: more vegetables and fruits, fewer calories, less snacking and less sugar.

I don’t know if I need more will power and self-discipline to change my eating habits. I’m hearing that the idea of will power is vastly overrated.  In any case, I have always found that attempting to make a major lifestyle change requires a lot of mental energy.

A new book The Power of Habit by New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg confirms that habit change is very much about focus and attention because all our habits – good and bad – originate in the brain.

That is, neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to the part of the brain called the basal ganglia, “which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition,” according to an article about Duhigg’s book that accompanies a podcast of his interview with Terry Gross of NPR radio’s Fresh Air.


I heard Duhigg’s interview earlier this week. In explaining the behavioral and neurological patterns that give rise to habits, he also helped me understand those moments of forgetfulness that lead me to wonder if early dementia is setting in.


When I drive my son and his friend home from school I often turn up our street automatically instead of proceeding straight ahead to take my son’s friend home first. “Mom! You have to take Ty home first,” my son always reminds me.


Or, I’ll pull into the parking lot at Safeway, not remembering what I came for. For a brief few seconds, I won’t even remember getting into the car to drive to the store.


In these situations, my mind has been on something else. I’ve been listening to an interesting author, like Duhigg, on the radio, or to my son and his friend gossiping about other kids at school. Or, I’ve been crafting sentences in my head for an article I’m working on. Or ruminating about politics, an annoying world situation or things I need to do before I turn 50.


With regard to my trips to the grocery store bringing my son home, the part of my brain controlling my driving has gone on auto-pilot.  As soon as any activity – driving to and from a regular destination, brushing my teeth, reaching for a sweet for a post-lunch snack – becomes automatic, the brain goes into a sort of sleep mode, Duhigg. Our basal ganglia takes a behavior and turns it into an automatic routine, or habit.


In some ways, the brain starts working less when you’re doing a routine. “The brain can almost completely shut down,” Duhigg said. “And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else. … “You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all,” he says.


The habit loop involves a three-part neurological process. First, there is a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, then there is the routine or behavior itself, and then there is the reward.


Knowing about the cue and reward parts of the habit loop can help people change habits or break the bad ones. From my experience, you have to put mental energy into becoming more aware of the triggers and then reducing the triggers. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’re told to keep a food journal to become more mindful about what you’re putting into your mouth, when and for what reason. We’ve also heard about  recovering drug addicts who avoid going to parts of town where they used to score drugs, or alcoholics who stay out of bars or away from hard-drinking friends. Employing those kinds of strategies for reducing triggers involves various degrees of planning.


Lab studies show that it’s never too late to break a habit, Duhigg said.


“Habits are malleable throughout your entire life,” Duhigg said. “But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure — that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change.”

One thought on “Bad habits on the brain

  1. Owen Hall* went to a mall
    While driving in the urban sprawl
    He bought a lot
    But then forgot
    The section of his parking stall

    [*The coiner of the question, “Are there any more at home like you?” in his 1900 play Floradora.]


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