The neuroscience of habit with Dr Jeffrey Schwartz - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

The neuroscience of habit with Dr Jeffrey Schwartz

Written by on October 28, 2015 in Happiness, Learning, Work with 0 Comments


“I define the mind as the choices and decisions we make about the stream of information the brain sends us,” Jeffrey M Schwartz says.

“The nature of habit and the way it’s wired into the brain detaches it from choices and decisions. It takes an extra effort to bring the mind into habit,” he says. Jeffrey believes that if you learn how to beat habit you can really say that you have a powerful mind. “Habit operates on something that is very close to automatic, which makes it hard for choices and decisions to penetrate into the process.”

Jeffrey quotes William James, who said that “Habits are the stuff of which behaviour consists.” The effort that we make by choice is the effort of attention. How do we pay attention? Jeffrey says that with effort, we can pay attention to which habitual behaviours are bad or good and learn how to change them.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder have an overactive orbitofrontal cortex. The ‘habit centre’ of the brain is called the striatum, which is deeply embedded in the core of the brain. It’s also involved in making decisions about value. What we’re looking at today is the interaction between the outer front part of the brain, the cortex, and the deeply embedded striatum. Jeffrey says that the striatum is like the automatic transmission of the brain. It takes over the advanced outer cortex. The striatum is very involved in drug addiction, OCD and other problematic states when human behaviour gets out of control. “It gets out of control because it’s running on automatic,” Jeffrey says.

Reward-seeking is hooked up to the very famous neurotransmitter dopamine. “It’s worth knowing that reward can be a two-edged sword: it can be good and it can be very bad.” It can be wired to bad habits that cause a lot of problems, for example, the way that cocaine increases dopamine release. Bad habits are bad because they detach themselves from decision-making and goal-seeking.

Jeffrey references the research of Anne Graybiel, who defines habit as a chunk of actions: “A sequence of actions treated by the brain as a single unit of action.” He tells us about his past habit of smoking one to two packs of cigarettes per day. The sequence of actions involved in smoking a cigarette – taking it out, holding fire in front of your nose, inhaling – are treated as one action by the brain when it is a habit. You’re barely aware of the various actions you’ve performed.

Goal-seeking behaviour is different to habit. In the process of learning a new behavioural habit, we have a strong interaction between prefrontal cortex and dopamine in the striatum. When a rat in a laboratory follows a path towards either chocolate milk or sugar water, and finds one, it gets a nice boost of dopamine.

However, when rats are ‘overtrained’ – running the task of finding sweets again and again – they associate what was a reward with a feeling of nausea. Even when the tone sounds, telling the rat to go seek sugar, and it feels nausea, it will still run to find the sugar. There are so many examples of this in human behaviour. “The habit no longer depends on the reward. The habit has a life of its own,” Jeffrey says. The behaviour becomes wired into our habit centre, even when it causes you (or a rat, in the case of the experiment) to be come nauseous! “When it’s habit, it moves from the decision-making part of the brain to an automatic part of the brain.”

“When we, as animals, run towards things that we basically know aren’t good for us any more, habit has formed,” Jeffrey says.

There’s one more important part of the brain for habits. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is related to things that are relevant and valuable to us. Research has shown that when you activate this area, it breaks the habit: “It immediately breaks, just by activating one little area of the brain.” But when habits form, they get deeply embedded, and they’re still there. After breaking a habit, it can come back immediately after inactivating this part of the brain.

Think of people with bad habits: smokers, drinkers, overeaters. They try hard to break the habit, but one little slip – one cigarette, some stress – and the habit comes back. “Habits are powerful. We think we have them beat, but they’re still there, waiting to come back,” Jeffrey says.

Things that are ‘valuable to me and relevant to me’ activate the same areas: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the dopamine area. These two lines of research – habit and subjective value – have not been tied together yet.

“What can we do about this?” Jeffrey asks. New research shows that self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and leads to subsequent behaviour change. If you show health messages to people who lead sedentary lives, people tend to tune out. The messages don’t change behaviour very much. “What has been discovered that can actually change behaviour is when you ask people to reflect on their core values,” Jeffrey says.

The core values most people mention are creativity, spontaneity, family and friends, religion, faith, sometimes money or even politics. Researchers asked people in this study to reflect on their chief core value, such as:

  • I am a loving member of my family
  • I’m close with other people who share my faith
  • I am a valuable human being
  • I contribute to my community.

Next, they showed the people in the study health messages. Instead of disregarding the messages, the part of the brain that allows us to change our habits was activated. The people in the study actually listened to the health messages and went on to change their habits.

“What is mindfulness?” Jeffrey asks. He says it’s an activity, a state of mind, awareness, focus. Direct knowing and deep experiential awareness, being knowledgeable about what is happening in the moment. “Is mindfulness judgmental or non-judgmental? The answer is yes.”

“Just because its yours, it doesn’t mean it’s great,” Jeffrey says. “All of us that have a lot of things going on inside of us that aren’t that great.” Jeffrey says we need to consult the inner wise advocate, comforter, counsellor. “Use good judgment!” You need to use both judgment and non-judgment. “We can use mindfulness to bridge non-judgemental observation and judgmental decision-making,” Jeffrey says. You can ask, “Is this a helpful thought? Is this a helpful behaviour?”

Jeffrey says that when you practice mindfulness, you become aware of all the nonsense going on in your mind. You can then use this observation to make judgments about what you will allow to play out in your life.

“The brain is passive, the mind is active. The mind is the choices and decisions you make. You have to use the brain and the mind as a team. The brain puts out the call, the mind decides whether to listen.”

Jeffrey M Schwartz, M.D., USA

Leading neuroplasticity researcher and co-author of You Are Not Your Brain and the groundbreaking books Brain Lock and The Mind and the Brain; Department of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine


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