Your Basal Ganglia & You

Habits, Part 2

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg mentions a paper published in 2006 by a Duke University researcher claiming more than 40 percent of the actions people perform each day are habits rather than decisions—meaning the actions are unconscious rather than conscious. This isn’t surprising to anyone familiar with the Enneagram, the premise of which is that we are all essentially sleepwalking through life, each according to the dictates of our particular type. But I was surprised to learn the habit habit is actually a labor-saving device created by our brains.

Neuroscientists have found that when a new behavior is being learned, the frontal cortex of the brain is extremely active. But after enough repetitions of a routine, activity in the frontal cortex decreases and the basal ganglia takes over. The basal ganglia, according to Duhigg, is “a golf-ball sized lump of tissue” located deep in the brain where the brain stem meets the spinal column. (The brain stem and spinal column are more primitive parts of the brain than the frontal cortex. They control the automatic behaviors that keep us alive, such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, etc.)

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks.

– Charles Duhigg

Frontal cortex activity uses up a lot of energy. So in an effort to be more efficient, the brain attempts to turn routines into habits, thus allowing our minds to “ramp down.” We don’t have to waste energy thinking about how to get to work, or ride a bicycle, or toast a piece of bread in the morning. That frees up the frontal cortex to do other things, such as solve problems, invent widgets, write symphonies, or find some trouble for us to get into. The basal ganglia is so good at this process it can store habits even when the rest of the brain is asleep. That’s why my brain was able to take my five minutes of stretching and make it a cue for me to begin my exercise routine even though I wasn’t at all aware of the connection.

Brain efficiency is all well and good, but if the brain were to ramp or power down at the wrong time, we might fail to notice something of vital importance to our survival. That’s where the habit loop comes in. The sequence of actions that includes the cue, the routine, and the reward is known as “chunking.” The brain ramps down and turns things over to the basal ganglia when a recognizable “chunk” of behavior starts, and then it ramps back up when the chunk of behavior ends.

So running on autopilot is just part of the human condition. We can’t really prevent the brain from doing its thing and it wouldn’t even be a good idea to try. But once we grasp how the habit loop works, we do have some control over which of our behaviors get “chunked.”

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One response to “Your Basal Ganglia & You

  1. Pingback: Choosing to Change | Farther to Go!

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