How Habits Work: A Simple Guide

Category Computer Science

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Habits are a way for our brain to process the world by automating often recycled behaviors and actions. Habits are created from two a dual processing system. One is a reflective in which we make conscious decisions, and impulsive in which we make reflexive decisions. The impulsive system is created when a behavior is repeated and can become a automated response that does not require thought or effort.

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Do you remember learning to drive a car? You probably fumbled around for the controls, checked every mirror multiple times, made sure your foot was on the brake pedal, then ever-so-slowly rolled your car forward. Fast forward to now and you’re probably driving places and thinking, "How did I even get here? I don’t remember the drive." The task of driving, which used to take a lot of mental energy and concentration, has now become subconscious, automatic, and habitual .

Our brains generate over 50,000 thoughts per day.

But how—and why—do you go from concentrating on a task to making it automatic? --- Habits Are There to Help Us Cope --- We live in a vibrant, complex, and transient world where we constantly face a barrage of information competing for our attention. For example, our eyes take in over one megabyte of data every second. That’s equivalent to reading 500 pages of information or an entire encyclopedia every minute .

Our brains are always looking for trends and patterns, even if we're not consciously aware of it.

Just one whiff of a familiar smell can trigger a memory from childhood in less than a millisecond, and our skin contains up to four million receptors that provide us with important information about temperature, pressure, texture, and pain. And if that wasn’t enough data to process, we make thousands of decisions every single day. Many of them are unconscious and/or minor, such as putting seasoning on your food, picking a pair of shoes to wear, choosing which street to walk down, and so on .

Havits don't always have to be reflexive or automatic, intentional and conscious habits can be just as beneficial.

Some people are neurodiverse, and the ways we sense and process the world differ. But generally speaking, because we simply cannot process all the incoming data, our brains create habits—automations of the behaviors and actions we often repeat. --- Two Brain Systems --- There are two forces that govern our behavior: intention and habit. In simple terms, our brain has dual processing systems, sort of like a computer with two processors .

Habits require us to be mindful and self aware so that we can assess when we start to rely on them too much.

Performing a behavior for the first time requires intention, attention, and planning—even if plans are made only moments before the action is performed. This happens in our prefrontal cortex. More than any other part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for making deliberate and logical decisions. It’s the key to reasoning, problem-solving, comprehension, impulse control, and perseverance .

It can take up to 2 months for a habit to be properly formed and for it to become automatic behaviour.

It affects behavior via goal-driven decisions. For example, you use your "reflective" system (intention) to make yourself go to bed on time because sleep is important or to move your body because you’ll feel great afterwards. When you are learning a new skill or acquiring new knowledge, you will draw heavily on the reflective brain system to form new memory connections in the brain. This system requires mental energy and effort .

Habits can be rewarding or punishing and this can affect our relationship with them.

--- From Impulse to Habit --- On the other hand, your "impulsive" (habit) system is in your brain’s basal ganglia, which plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition. It’s impetuous, spontaneous, and pleasure seeking. For example, your impulsive system might influence you to pick up greasy takeaway on the way home from a hard day at work, even though there’s a home-cooked meal waiting for you .

Or it might prompt you to spontaneously buy a new, expensive television. This system requires no energy or cognitive effort as it operates reflexively, subconsciously, and automatically. When we repeat a behavior in a co-ordinated manner and with frequency, it creates a pathway in the brain. This is called a “habit loop.” As the behavior is repeated, it gets created as a default response and no longer requires thought or effort .

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