Monday, 14 December 2015

The Science of Habit Change

Part 1/14 (to see other parts of the article, click on the pages at the bottom)

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When we speak of the struggle with pornography, the word “addiction” is often used. Addiction sounds like a scary word, but it’s really just another way of describing habits that have become deeply ingrained in our brains.

The New York Times Best Seller book “The Power of Habit ” by Charles Duhigg, can help us gain a deep understanding into how habits work and how they are susceptible to change. With the understandings from this fascinating book, based on up-to-date scientific studies, we can hopefully gain valuable insight into how we can regain control over our unwanted lustful behaviors.

In the coming pages, we will attempt to bring you a summary of the parts of this book that are perhaps most relevant to our struggle.

The Magic Formula for Habit Change

When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a donut from the kitchen counter? Did you tie the left or right shoe first? Did you choose a salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or eat dinner in front of the internet?

Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.

The basal ganglia, a small region of the brain situated at the base of the forebrain, plays an important role in stored habits. Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Interestingly, scientists have discovered that mental activity in the basal ganglia actually decreases as a behavior becomes more habitual. When a habit emerges, the brain becomes more efficient (and needs fewer resources) because automatic patterns take over. When we get dressed in the morning or drive a car, instead of needing to remember and decide what to do at every step of way, the brain has chunked hundreds of routines into habits that we no longer have to think about when we do them. This effort saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain allows us to stop thinking constantly about our basic behaviors, such as walking and eating, so we can devote mental energy to more important tasks.

And at the core of every habitual pattern is a habit loop.

The habit loop can be broken down into three basic steps:

  1. A cue (or trigger)
  2. A routine
  3. A reward


First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. The cue can be internal, such as a feeling or thought, or external, such as a time of day, place or the company of certain people.

The second part of the habit loop is the routine, the behavior that leads to the reward. The routine can be physical (eating a donut), cognitive (“remember for the test”), or emotional (“I always feel anxious in math class”).

The third part is the reward. Not surprisingly, the reward can also be physical (sugar!), cognitive (“that’s really interesting”), or emotional (“I always feel relaxed when reading the news.”). The reward helps the brain determine if a particular habit loop is worth remembering.

In the habit loop illustrated below, a mouse learns to automatically run through a maze after hearing a click, because the habit has become ingrained through a chocolaty reward.


When a habit emerges, the frontal lobe of the brain, where decisions are made, stops fully participating in the process. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.

However, simply understanding how habits work – learning the structure of the habit loop – makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears.

Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structure of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to learn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.

This explains why it’s so hard to create exercise habits, for instance, or change what we eat. Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside of our heads. By the same rule, though, if we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower those behaviors – if we take control of the habit loop – we can force those bad tendencies into the background. And once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit. In other words, once we learn to override the old pattern, the new pattern takes over and becomes a new habit.