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Good Habits, Bad Habits, and the Brain

Do you have any bad habits you want to get rid of?

Are you always late for appointments and other events? Many are, and though you always seem to have a reason for your tardiness, it’s clear that lateness is a bad habit. Do you habitually put off your studies until you’re forced into cramming mode? I bet you could create a list of some of your worst habits with only a few minutes of thought.

And do you do good things every day without realizing they’re actually habits?

Do you work out every morning before breakfast? Are you always on time (or early) for appointments?  I’m sure that, on reflection, many of the things you do are good habits that you don’t really have to think about. You just do them.

Well, on today’s Associated Press web site there’s a fascinating article on habit formation and the brain.  Here are a few of its key ideas.

As it turns out, when you repeat an action over and over, especially at the same time every day, the neuron connections in your brain actually change to fit the pattern of the habit. Neurologists and other brain scientists have known for some time that the brain in “plastic” –that is, it changes depending on a wide variety of stimuli.

So you crave chocolate? Why? Well, because it tastes good, right? Yes, but only to a certain extent. I like chocolate too, but I don’t crave it. I can go indefinitely without it, but some people have great difficulty resisting. Why?  Because the “reward circuits” of your brain have become habituated to the pleasure you get from chocolate.  It forms a habit of chocolate eating.

Okay, so how to you break a bad habit? Well, you acquired the habit in the first place by repeating the action you took over and over until your brain formed a neuron path that then prompts you to go on repeating it. To break a habit, you use the plasticity of your brain to form a new path. Instead of eating chocolate when you crave it, eat an apple (or anything else, for that matter) instead. Before long, your old habit will be replaced by the new one.

According to the AP article, “New Year’s resolutions? Brain can sabotage success,” the science of habit formation has enormous implications for various addictions, including drugs and alcohol. It also can relate to the establishment of attitudes that you bring to your life and your work.

What is an attitude? It’s simply a habit of thought, and it is formed (or broken) the same way any habit is.

Here’s an example of an attitude: suppose you think or say, “I’m not any good at math.” Now, that statement could be merely factual and supposedly provable by concrete evidence: scores, grades, and the like. But do you know why you fail with mathematics? Usually not, and often it’s used as a kind of excuse, a “cop out.” But now think of that statement as an attitude, a habit of thought, formed early in your schooling as a result of a few bad experiences. You then repeated the habit over and over thereafter.

What this means is that all these years you’ve been giving and reinforcing input– an instruction–to your brain. You’ve been telling your brain you can’t do math. Well, after that kind of conditioning, it’s no wonder your brain has complied and turned your attitude into a reality. You’ve “rewired” your brain to block comprehension of mathematics.

Can this habit be broken?

Sure, just replace it with a new one: “I do well with mathematical concepts and problems” (phrased, like the bad attitude, in present tense). Repeat that again and again, over a period of time, and you will have a new attitude. Your plastic brain will rewire those portions of itself that deal with symbolic reasoning, and that’s what math is. Don’t be surprised that as you then practice doing math problems with a new attitude you will get better and better.

Life is getting more and more complex and demanding of our mental resources. The last thing any of us need is to have our own brains working against us. Click on the link above and take a look at the article. It’s fascinating.

If you comment on this posting and the AP article, relating them to your own experiences, you’ll receive 5 extra-credit points in whatever course of mine you are registered. It is your responsibility to call my attention to your comment. Click on the “Comments” link below (it might say “No Comments” if you are the first one).