The Habit Loop

We covered the basics of the habit loop in yesterdays email:

Cue, Routine, Reward.

And I mentioned that habits are excellent at saving energy, they put the brain on autopilot. All that freed up energy has gone into developing new advances in industry, medicine, agriculture, technology and a whole host of other stuff.

Pretty neat, huh?

Ok, onwards.

The part of our brain that controls habits is called the Basal Ganglia.

In another experiment, rats were sent into a maze in search of chocolate. At first they had to work pretty hard to figure out the pathway through the maze before they found the chocolate but as they got more familiar with the maze they got through it more quickly.

Scientists found that the rats brain activity spiked at the beginning of the maze run, then it slowed down while they were finding their way through and finally it spiked up again at the end.

Those spikes are the brain deciding which activity to hand over to habit and which habit is best to use.

It's why we are such creatures of habit and why we find it difficult to adapt to sudden changes in our routines.

Whatever activity we begin, the brain spends some considerable time and effort trying to figure out what's coming next, it looks for a cue and then decides which habit, if any, to use.

If it finds a cue, the routine follows, then the reward.

The more you repeat this habit loop the stronger and more powerful it becomes until eventually a habit is born and you get cravings

Remember me and the bowing when I was in Kung Fu?

Cue: The presence of, or interaction with, someone I respected or perceived to be in authority

Routine: BOW!

Reward: Not getting my head kicked in so often!!

Here's another demonstration of how powerful habits are. It's the story of a man who suffered brain damage from viral encephalitis.

The guy got really ill and was even in a coma for around 10 days, and when he came around the last few decades of his life were a complete blank. He'd retained his intelligence but he simply couldn't retain new information.

So when he and his wife moved house everyone expected complications to arise. His doctors asked him to draw a plan of his new house for them after a while - he couldn't remember any details about the house.

But, when the call of nature came and he needed to go to the bathroom, off he went without any problem. Because he'd obviously needed to go to the bathroom many times since moving to the house, his basal ganglia had remembered the way even though he consciously couldn't.

The habit was so powerful it overcame the damage to his brain.

Ok, now that we've come this far, let me just say that you can't get rid of a habit but you can change it.

That's going to mean fighting the habit and creating new routines, so that's what we'll take a look at in the next email