Habit Formation

by Angel Chen

Every afternoon, Charles stops by the office breakroom to grab a cookie. What reward stimulates his consistent behavior? Is he enticed by the sugar high following the afternoon slump? Or, does he crave a change in pace out of his mundane work day? Even simple tasks such as our morning routines are habits you have unconsciously formed based on environmental conditioning and neurochemical circuitry.

Within the prefrontal cortex which controls movement and emotions, the basal ganglia processes sets of actions into habits. Deeper inside the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making orbitofrontal cortex contains two main circuits: goal-oriented and habitual. At the University of California San Diego, Dr. Christina Gremel’s team trained mice to press levers for a food reward in either an environment that supported goal-directed development or a habitat encouraging habit formation. Researchers deleted specific endocannabinoid receptors from one of the mice group’s  brains to observe the effects of this neurochemical on behavioral repetition. Healthy control-group mice were able to repeatedly press the lever through habit by shifting from the goal-directed circuits. However, the mice that were missing receptors did not form habits, demonstrating endocannabinoids’ role in suppressing neural activity through the goal-oriented circuit while the habitual circuit persists.

Why do we constantly fall back into our same old habits even when they are unproductive, like nail biting and procrastination? The psychological process of habit formation follows a ‘habit loop’ cycle that starts with a cue, triggering the next part of an automatic behavioral response. Finally, a reward acts as a stimulus driving the habitual behavior. Furthermore, familiarity in our environments enables the brain to focus on unrelated functions while the basal ganglia processes unconscious behaviors into automatic routines. To achieve the same rewarding feelings, people repeat the same pattern of cue, behavior, and finally reward until habits are formed.

The first step to transforming negative patterns into positive lifestyle routines is self-awareness by identifying the root of the cause and locating your triggers. For people diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder or addictions, therapy and prescribed medication may hold the key to reducing tendencies for addictive habits. But if you often find yourself using deadlines as an excuse to put off your work until the last minute, do you tend to reach for your phone every time you sit down in front of your textbook? Because habits are driven by our environmental patterns, working toward a deadline in a familiar setting ingrains routine cues that trigger the brain’s auto-pilot. Therefore, switching your study spot to an unfamiliar setting would discourage the habits you have associated with another location.

Once Charles identified that his daily stimulus was his motivation to socialize during his mundane work day, he was able to embark on steps to change his routine. Whenever he felt an urge for a cookie at noon, he would instead take a 15-minute walk by his coworkers’ cubicles. By removing himself from the cues and rewards within his routine environment, Charles was able to stimulate new lifestyle patterns. By thoroughly identifying your triggers and your preferred reward, you are able to acknowledge negative behaviors and practice repetition of new behaviors into positive habits.