Inspirational Articles

How Our Brain Creates Our Habits

How Our Brain Creates Our Habits

Conscious Living Column

By Gord Riddell and Kathy Ryndak


When we think of the many awesome things that the human brain is capable of, most likely we will identify its ability to analyze information and facts, and then store it for us as memories or for retrieval when we need to recall that specific set of facts. Every second our brain sorts through billions of pieces of information via our senses, making choices as to what is important and what is not. It receives and interprets impulses from our senses as we are listening to music, seeing colour filled landscapes, tasting foods and experiencing the touch of another human or pet. All of this happens automatically, without any thought or action on our part. Our brain is very specific and so highly personal as it takes in, filters, remembers and stores our data basing it solely on who we are and how we perceive our self, in our world.  It can only be described as highly subjective. A simple example is, ten people can witness any event and there will be, without a doubt, ten variations of the same event. Each witness has recalled their observation of the event and that perception is based on their history, values, beliefs and opinions of the world.

Our brain also filters, stores and activates our emotional self. The myriad of emotions that humans are capable of are stored, from bliss to rage. The memories we have put away, are most powerful and readily recallable when an emotional response was part of the original experience. The stronger the emotion was, the more powerful the recall will be. While the brain may be closely monitoring outside our bodies via our senses, it is also monitoring for similarities of experiences. The brain stores our feelings; this is true, but only within a frame of reference. In other words it stores our emotions by matching a feeling or combination of them with any associated behaviours that occurred at the time the memory was created. This is vitally important for us to hold in our awareness if we want to change anything within our psyche because any experience you have had is combined with others that may only slightly resemble other ones from the past; our brain will interpret a situation and will immediately pull up all associated behaviours for that feeling and situation. It certainly helps explain why so much of our emotional life is replaying the exact same scripts over and over only with different people. Our brain doesn’t differentiate who the other players may be, it does identify that when we feel this, then this is how we act and behave. The feeling and the situation similarity are the major cues for our repeated behaviour.  An example, if we had a parent who yelled at us as a child, and it so frightened us that we froze on the inside and burst into tears, there is a very high probability that if an authority figure yells or appears very angry we will play the same script and behave exactly the same way, freeze and cry.  The only major variation is, if a person refuses to ever feel that experience again, they will go to the polar opposite, which is to leave and be angry.

How We Form Habits 

With the modern imaging equipment available today researchers have been able to identify what parts of the brain are activated based on various activities and feelings. What has been identified is when we are learning, planning or we find our self in a new situation the prefrontal cortex, the analytical thinking part of the brain, is fully engaged and hard at work.  Over time as we develop highly repetitive behaviours, the prefrontal cortex identifies habitual actions and basically gives the job to a very deep and ancient part of the brain, the basal ganglia, one of the oldest structures of the brain system. 

Once a behaviour, be it physical or emotional, has become repetitive and is assigned to the basal ganglia, we have an established habit ready to be activate before we even know it. There are some very distinct advantages for this process to exist for the brain. Importantly, once a habit is established, it frees up the prefrontal cortex to do what it is designed for, analyzing. Once freed up we can be thinking, planning and creating whole new sets of data and experiences while our the habit part like driving and walking, look after repetitive actions. It also allows the brain to relax and not have to work so hard. A new study from MIT has shown though that the prefrontal cortex does not give up complete control of our habitual behaviour. There appears to be a “monitor” that cues the ganglia to take over initiating behaviour as required.  

All Habits Are Not Created Equal 

Many of us associate the idea of habits with activities we do, but probably shouldn’t do. Habits are associated mostly with bad and unhealthy behaviours. However, our habits allow us to do many things without having to think of every step while doing activities that are constant and repetitive in nature. As humans we are most comfortable with repetition, or knowing the next step. The biggest majority of our day is spent in enacting many of our habits from the order we get out of bed and get ready to go to work, drive to work, through to the way we prepare to go to bed, all is virtually identical each day. The list is quite endless as to the myriad of behaviours that are so memorized we don’t even have to think. Habitual activities form some part of all spirituality and usually are referred to as “rituals”.

It is known that all habits have three key components to them. To begin, every habit has a triggering cue. Something, whether it is time, location, a feeling, person, no feeling, a colour, or a landmark can serve as a cue to initiate stage two of this cycle. Stage Two is the behaviour itself. Most habits are highly ritualized from start to finish. The order rarely changes through to completion. Upon finishing the behaviour we arrive at Stage Three, the reward, the payoff for the behaviour. All of our behaviour, at this time in our life, has a pay-off. There are a great many things that you have stopped doing because there was no longer a reward in doing it. However, there can be ninety-nine reasons to not do something but there is one reward that fulfills the need underlying the habit, we will continue to do it despite adverse possibilities. In order to change a habit we need to very closely examine two things: what is the cue for the habit to begin and what is the reward at the end. Neither is easily identified and what may appear to be an obvious answer probably is not. There are as many cues as there are reward possibilities all playing into the habit cycle. Both the cue and the reward need to be fairly closely identified if you are to succeed in breaking the cycle. Once identified, the more difficult task of breaking the cycle begins. Maintaining the awareness of what your cue is and having a new coping skill in place that will take you past the cue, without entering into the behaviour you want to change. 

There is little difference between a habit, a dependency and addictions. They are all behaviours that started in our conscious mind and through their repetition which became more ritualized, combined with the very nature of how the brain handles repetitive activities, they move into the unconscious mind, making it more difficult to know when we are triggered, how we are triggered or that we are even doing an activity until we are well into the cycle. This unconsciousness is not insurmountable but does add to the challenge of changing or breaking habitual behaviour. 

This article barely scratches the surface as to the complexity of habits, their importance and dangers, the cycle they have in common and the on-going research. The one piece we want to consider is how we start a healthy habit.  Not surprisingly, it is the reverse basically of breaking a habit. You must first establish what will be your cue to begin this new behaviour.  Next, what is this new behaviour? How does it start and following through to how it comes to a conclusion. Lastly, what is the reward for this new habit each time to complete it? As an example, you want to establish a habit of walking one mile each and every day. What is your cue going to be to get out there? No matter the rain or the snow or freezing temperatures, what will be the cue to put on your running shoes, dress appropriately for the weather and begin that walk? Remember, everyday! Finally what is the reward you receive that makes you want to start and finish this walk? This new behaviour can only become a habit, ingrained in the deepest part of the brain that you do not even think about it and begins each time you are cued. As you can see, starting a new habit is almost as difficult as breaking one. The trick is to know the 3 elements of the habit cycle, as it gives you everything you need to make or break a habit.