Nick Mills suit3From the desk of Nick Mills

In neuroscience, food is known as a ‘natural reward’. It makes sense that, in order for us to survive as a species, things like eating, having sex, and nurturing others must be pleasurable to the brain so that these behaviours are reinforced and repeated.

And the brain has evolved a system that deciphers these natural rewards for us. When we do something pleasurable, a bundle of neurons (called the ventral tegmental area) uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to signal to a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

It’s the connection between the nucleus accumbens and our prefrontal cortex that dictates our motor movement — in other words, deciding whether or not to have another glass of wine or a second piece of cake. The brain also activates hormones that tell our body, “Yum, this cake is really good. And I’m going to remember that for the future.”

The only problem with this system is that, because the brain is economical and energy conserving, it works too well. We sometimes develop habits that aren’t desirable, all too often seeking the ‘reward’ that comes from wine and chocolate (among others).

Habits are behaviors wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically. This is what allows you to follow the same route to work every day without thinking about it, liberating your brain to ponder other things, such as what to make for dinner.

However, the brain’s executive command center does not completely relinquish control of habitual behavior. A new study from MIT neuroscientists has found that a small region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most thought and planning occurs, is responsible for moment-by-moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time.

“The new study offers hope for those trying to kick bad habits,” says Professor Ann Graybiel, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. Because our executive centres are involved, we have a lot more control over our habits — and changing them — than we think.

From neuroscience, we know that you don’t eliminate a bad habit, instead you replace it. The goal is to find a way for the desirable behaviour to trigger the reward centres in your brain, so that the ‘system’ works for you and not against you.

Here are some things you can do to replace a bad habit:

  • Choose a substitute — You need to have a plan for what you will do instead of your bad habit.
  • Cut out triggers — Make it easier on yourself to break bad habits by avoiding the things that cause them.
  • Join forces with others — Knowing that someone else expects you to be better is a powerful motivator.
  • Visualise yourself succeeding — No matter what the habit, visualize yourself crushing it, smiling, and enjoying your success.
  • Avoid negative self-talk — One thing about battling bad habits is that it’s easy to judge yourself for not acting better. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, be your own cheerleader.
  • Don’t give up — There are bound to be slip-ups along the way, but the only way you will get where you want to be is if you persevere.

To learn a new pattern takes about 30 days, and then the brain begins to feel somewhat comfortable with the new habit. At first, the limbic system will fight these changes — it’s comfortable with the patterns that have been established, and building new thoughts and behaviors is unfamiliar and therefore, uncomfortable. However, as you build new neuropathways to the cortex, the limbic system begins to feel soothed. With repetition, the brain will eventually integrate the new behaviours and thought patterns into the larger pattern of choices and behaviours.