Our Mindless Brain?


In the last several years I’ve developed the habit of snacking late at night after the kids go to bed. And not harmless snacking either—cookies, cake, candy, anything chocolate, really. Next thing I know, all the sugar has kept me awake until after midnight. When I finally fall asleep, here comes the crazy dreams because my brain is wired. Like the one I had where I was an acrobat balancing on one toe on the head of a pin, while singing that addictive song from Frozen. Okay, so maybe the dreams are kind of fun, but still exhausting.

I’ve tried to break this habits several times with little success. I end up beating myself up for being so weak. Why can’t I stop? I didn’t used to have this problem.

Turns out there’s a reason habits are so hard to break. They involve multiple parts of the brain in a phenomenon similar to the “chunking” used in our memory storage. Habits are imprinted in multiple circuits between the neocortex (specifically the infralimbic cortex) and the striatum (in the midbrain). These areas of the brain set up feedback loops to help us determine if a particular behavior is worth repeating. Once we decided that it is, the striatum sets up boundary markers for these chunks of behavior so they can be completed easier. God has hard-wired this into our brains so that we can use our brain power for other functions while our habits are performed almost without thinking. Which is great, unless it goes awry with a bad habit.

Amazingly, researchers have found that, even though habits feel out of our control, they aren’t. In testing mice, they discovered that turning off the neurons in the infralimbic cortex (using a light-sensitive technique called optogenetics) caused the animals to lose their habitual behavior. It seems that a decision-making part of the brain is monitoring the habitual activity, even when we haven’t consciously decided to perform it.

What does this mean for my bad habit at bed time? Since I’m not about to allow researchers to embed light-sensitive electrodes in my brain to turn off some of my neurons, for me, it means a lot of work. Breaking a habit is not unlike breaking an addiction (albeit on a much smaller scale). I need to make the conscious decision every night to ignore the chunk of my brain dedicated to my bad habit. One way to do that is to find a reason to break the habit that’s more important to me than the habit itself (perhaps disrupting that feedback loop in my brain).

Something more important. Like maybe losing weight or better sleep at night. Problem is, those things can’t compare with cookies—hence my dilemma. Perhaps I should re-think the electrodes in the brain thing?

What about you? Do you have any bad habits you’ve tried to break or have broken? Have you stopped a habit only to have that chunk of behavior come back?

Reference: Graybiel, Ann M., and Kyle S. Smith. (2014). Good Habits, Bad Habits. Scientific American, 310 (6), p. 39-43.


Photo Credit: ID 18932264 © Hubis | Dreamstime.com

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