The biology of habits

Each day we engage in a countless number of routines that we have acquired over the course of our lives. We wake up at a certain time, brush our teeth, take the same route or road to work; by repeating these tasks over and over again, they become automatic, our brains thus avoiding an overload of energy.

Some habits that help us stay healthy include eating right, exercising, or meditating. Conversely, poor diet and overindulgence in sweets or harmful substances can put our well-being at risk.

Although our habits are an important part of our day-to-day, understanding how the brain converts a new behaviour into a routine has posed a high level of difficulty as a case study. In this context, we use neuroscience – a collection of scientific disciplines that study the nervous system – to help us better understand the mechanisms that regulate control of nervous reactions and the brain’s behaviour.

The knowledge acquired thanks to this line of research is helping us understand how the brain forms good habits and why we struggle to give up bad ones. Studies suggest that, if we deliberately condition our brains, we can control our habits, both positive and negative. Even when we appear to be acting automatically, there is a part of our brain that is supervising our behaviour.

What is a habit?

A habit is the result of an action that you subconsciously repeat on a regular basis. In this regard, it becomes much easier for your brain to execute a repeated action from the past than to begin a new one.

Here, a habit is a network of connections between neurons inside your brain, like a path that has already been marked out.

This is one of the reasons that explains why it’s difficult to adopt a new habit at first, and why it’s easy to fall back into old habits, even if you’ve decided to make a change.

The advantage of a habit is that it becomes so automatic that you do it without even thinking (without motivation or willpower). The disadvantage is that some of the habits you’ve formed over the course of your life are likely to be unhealthy, and you repeat them over and over again even though they are harmful to your well-being.

Remember that a habit forms through constant repetition. If you routinely perform an action, a new neuronal connection will be made and, in turn, a habit will be formed.

Don’t waste any more time: make the decision to achieve your goals by forming good habits today.