Dec 9, 2021
Polls show that roughly about 55% of New Year’s Resolutions are health related. An often-referenced psychological study from 1988 showed a 17% success rate of maintaining New Years Resolutions over the course of two years. Other polls and studies show dismal results in keeping New Years Resolutions past a few months. Gyms are notorious for skyrocketing memberships in January only to be back to normal attendance by around March. Health goals tend to be set and reset at all different times through the year, (unfortunately often after a doctor’s appointment) but so often health goals fall by the wayside within weeks to months.
Health consumerism is fueled by predicting consumer habits. Maintaining good health also relies on healthy habits and is often at odds with health marketing. Get-fit-fast or transformative programs are widely popular because the idea of doing a cleanse for a couple weeks, abstaining from alcohol for one month, a fitness challenge, or the excitement of a new gym membership all feel like tangible solutions to an existing problem.
The idea of a kick start to change health habits is tremendously appealing and easy to sell, but undesirable habits usually aren’t formed by a kick start, and they probably won’t change with a kick start program. This first installment of a 5 Part Series will start with the neurology of habit formation and change because when changing health, it almost always boils down to mind over body. Understanding how we are wired around habit formation may give us more understanding and autonomy over how we go about making desired health changes no matter what time of year it is.
Just a note: this article focuses on changing habits rather than starting or stopping a habit. When researching the difference between starting or stopping habits, the two are often actually considered one in the same. ie: Starting an exercise habit is stopping a habit to watch TV after work. Stopping a habit of eating ice cream at night might mean starting a habit to eat more fruit through the day or starting an evening walk habit.
Habit by Association:
It’s almost impossible to talk about habit building on a psychological level without Pavlov’s Dogs. While many are familiar with the experiment, there are some elements to the study that deserve to be double underlined.
Over time Pavlov would repeatedly condition the dogs by ringing a bell and then feeding the dogs. Once the dog was conditioned to associate the bell with food, the dog would salivate at the just the sound of the bell. Today it’s well researched and established that like Pavlov’s Dogs, the human brain is extremely associative. Another key part of Pavlov’s Dogs is that the dogs salivated. They didn’t just get excited in anticipation; they had an unconscious, uncontrollable, physiological response to the bell as if they could smell the food when the bell rang.
Much like Pavlov’s Dogs, the human brain uses repetition to identify cues that trigger a habitual behavior. The human brain has a lot of flexibility to create associations, so a cue for a habit can become any perceived association. A very reduced way to put associative learning to create habits is “neurons that fire together wire together”. Neurons generally fire in loops and the repetition of the same neurons firing consistently strengthen their association to fire together. Through repetition, habit loops require a little less conscious effort to complete the habit each time the habit is cued. Neuron associations get ingrained a little deeper each time like tire tracks on a dirt road. This is a very efficient mechanism for learning and survival skills. It saves us from re-learning a new task every time we do it. For example learning to type at first takes conscious effort, but with repetition it becomes a motor skill that requires no conscious effort. The brain is wired to excel at repeated tasks.
“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are──or, as we are conditioned to see it.”
― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
It should be mentioned that repetition is different than time. When creating habits there’s a lot of advice from psychologists and fitness experts around how many days it takes to set a habit in place. It makes habit formation feel more tangible and definitive to be able to put it on a calendar. This comes from a tendency to perceive habits as something people do or don’t do every day; neurology of habit formation indicates that habitual behavior is constantly taking in new associations and cues. Repetition ingrains the habits and associations that become the most “hard wired”.
Associative learning that cues habit behaviors makes it very easy to subconsciously condition habits. Small environmental associations can become cues such as location, time of day, mood, memories, people, and activities. Things like cell phones, games, and slot machines are packed with triggers such as visual lights, sounds, buzzes that subconsciously cue interaction with it because all those triggers are associated with wins, losses, or messages. The floorplan of stores like Target are designed to cue the shopper into buying more than they planned on by using association through the aisles. If experiencing a movie is associated with popcorn, it becomes habitual to get popcorn at the movies. The smell of popcorn quickly becomes a cue to buy popcorn even if the buyer didn't really want popcorn.
Conscious vs Subconscious Habit:
After a cue, a repeated and deeply ingrained habit response is actually a physiological or visceral response rather than a logical one; much like the saliva from Pavlov’s Dogs. Ingrained habitual actions aren’t governed by conscious thought.
Formed habits don’t live in the prefrontal cortex where conscious problem solving takes place. The most active part of the brain in habit formation is the basal ganglia (in the subconscious) which is also active with memory, pattern recognition, and emotions.
What’s amazing is that with repetition humans can execute very complex series of actions without using conscious thought to do so. This is why it’s so hard to remember driving to work (the whole drive is a subconscious habit) or what you cooked for dinner last night. The prefrontal cortex basically goes into battery saving mode. Habitual behavior series that no longer require conscious thought like driving to work or typing is called “chunking”.
A 2018 study at MIT with rats showed that the same set of neurons fired at the beginning and at the end of a “chunking actions” signaling completion. The study also found some evidence (needing more research) that if rats were interrupted during a chunking set of actions, neurons in the feedback loop would suppress the neurons signaling the new distraction until the chunked actions were complete. This may indicate neurological patterning that literally suppresses straying from the set habit.
There is some good news. Humans are generally good learners. So far the neurology of habits doesn’t really work in people’s favor to change habits. The human brain likes to create environmental associative cues plus the onslaught of fabricated cues (thanks, popcorn and Target) that we subconsciously experience physiological responses (cravings, emotions, negative thought patterns etc) to all of these cues.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.
- Will Durant
Neuroplasticity comes rescue to save us from constantly living in bad habits. Neuroplasticity is the ability to change which neurons fire together and to wire together. The human brain is extremely associative but it’s also flexible. So, the same repetition that conditioned the original behavior can be “written over” with new associations. Humans have the ability to re-condition our habits through repetition. The hard part is that we have to consciously condition ourselves against the existing triggers that are subconsciously formed.
Several experts and coaches maintain that simply knowing that every decision towards the desired habit is actively re-wiring the mind is empowering to keep repeating the desired habit.
In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It's not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently. - Tony Robbins
Even after a setback, the previous re-wiring makes a comeback easier. Every time someone creates a new neuron association pathway no matter how small, it is strengthening the connection for those neurons wire together in the future. Neuroplasticity is how the brain learns and grows, and it allows us to recondition habitual behavior.
Changing habitual behavior is neurologically met with subconscious resistance. The subconscious is usually resistant to change because it likes to maintain it's comfort zone or homeostasis. It takes repeated conscious override to re-wire the subconscious. Without understanding this there’s a lot of disappointment, shame, and loss of confidence when changing habits is harder than it sounds.
Habits are set on triggers and cues. We can start rewiring habits by changing the environmental cues. Once habitual behavior becomes ingrained in the subconscious it can be difficult to identify the environmental cues that surround it. When excuses and cravings start surfacing to resist change, several psychologists advise taking time to think or journal on exactly when, where, and what was going on in your surrounds immediately before those thoughts popped up. Conversely those cues can also be conditioned in the favor of the desired habit. For someone trying to remember to drink more water, a cue for water can be deciding to drink water every time that person leaves the conference room. The conference room soon becomes the environmental cue for water.
Change the environmental cues that trigger unwanted habits or create cues for wanted habits
Plan it out. Schedule it. Predict the cues or circumstances that will make habit changing difficult
Replacing one habit for another can be helpful. For example trading a soda for a different sweet beverage
Change one habit at a time. Aim for small differences like 5-10% better over a measured time
Don't white-knuckle it or make a big change all at once
Acknowledge the progress
Repeat, repeat, repeat
Habit is a constant practice; it works more on a continuum with sustained effort to make repeatedly better decisions over time. Thanks to neuroplasticity, even if a desired habit isn’t accomplished every time, all the previous work makes it easier to pick that habit back up again. Every repetition towards the wanted habit counts. Neurologically, repetition is the way we re-wire our brain towards the habits we want.
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Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012;62(605):664-666. doi:10.3399/bjgp12X659466