“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle
It is 2020 and you have a chance to re-make yourself all over again. For most of us that means resolving to change old habits and create new ones, and that means re-wiring your brain and that is why you are reading this in a neuroscience blog post.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines habit as “an acquired behavior followed until it has become nearly or completely involuntary.” We repeatedly think and do many of the same things every day, so we all have lots of habits. It is a good way for the brain to be efficient and conserve energy by going on autopilot. Thanks to something called neuroplasticity our brains respond to us thinking or doing something repeatedly by creating pathways called neural circuits which become stronger each time they are activated. In particular, activity in a part of the brain called the striatum
changes as new habits are learned. Even just thinking about and rehearsing a new habit can help build it. Studies show that it takes the brain about 3 weeks to create an established neural circuit, hence the idea that making a new habit takes 3 weeks. Of course, more complex habits can take a lot longer to develop. And be aware, negative habits can form just as easily as positive ones.
It is better to focus on building new habits rather than trying to eliminate the old ones, as focusing on old habits may end up just reinforcing them. Scientists who study habits talk about resistance, and how to decrease resistance to build desirable habits or increase resistance to discard undesirable ones. This relates to the observation that we, humans, are basically slackers and very good at taking the path of least resistance. So, in the simplest terms, you want to make healthy behaviors mindless and automatic, and unhealthy behaviors effortful. For example, each night set up your environment to make it much easier to get into your exercise gear in the morning than to get to the couch and pastries. Repeat every day for enough days, and voila! Oh, if only it were that easy. It is not, but that is a good way to start.
If you want to learn more, check out Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at University of Southern California. Give it a read, and good luck crafting the new, excellent you.
Neural circuit: a set of neurons interconnected by synapses to carry out a specific task when activated.
Neuroplasticity: the brain's ability to change by forming/ reorganizing neural connections throughout life.
Striatum: a cluster of neurons within the basal ganglia of the forebrain.
Author: Nadia Fike, MD/PhD is a pediatric neurologist and Director of The Center for Neurosciences Foundation.