You Are What You Do

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle once proclaimed. Now that we have welcomed the New Year, it is the perfect time to rewire our brains to develop better habits and reverse our old ones. Every year, millions of people make New Year resolutions with the promise that this year, they will stick to them. So why is it that so many people fail to live up to their promises? The answer lies within our own habits. By acknowledging the impact that our habits have on our everyday lives, we can increase the chances of reaching our goals. Over the past few years, research on habit formation has been a hot topic, especially in the field of neuroscience. Simply stated, habits are behaviors that are automatically performed. For example, having a soda for lunch everyday, procrastinating at work or school, and tardiness are all habits, albeit negative ones. Some positive habits you may have are reading the newspaper, brushing your teeth, and exercising, just to name a few.

There is no doubt that habits are intricately complex and difficult to flesh out, especially because each individual habit has distinct neurological underpinnings. It is plausible that nicotine addiction is similar to a binge-eating habit in terms of neurobiology. On the other hand, it would be erroneous to posit that the neurological mechanism involved in a cigarette smoker’s addiction is the same as the mechanism involved in another person’s compulsive nail biting habit. Understanding how habits are formed and how they can be reversed not only has implications for healthy individuals, but also for clinical populations. For example, patients who are diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are essentially suffering from an inability to break their habits. Research findings reveal abnormality in anterior cingulate cortex and insula function in individuals with hoarding disorder (HD), a subtype of OCD. Furthermore, it has been found that individuals with HD have difficulty with decision-making, a process modulated by the lateral habenula in healthy individuals. It goes without saying that our habits effortlessly guide our behavior for better or for worse. When we’re faced with a specific situation, it’s simply more efficient for us to rely on prefixed schemas, a primary reason why habits are so difficult to break. When our negative habits have ramifications, a less automatic and perhaps more cognitively taxing approach must be taken. For example, you may have a habit of checking your phone while you’re driving. You know about the risks, but for whatever reason still choose to reach for your phone while driving. The crux of the problem is that you’re in a schema where you have performed this particular act countless times in the past. The control our habits have over our decision-making process is overwhelming. A possible solution to this issue would be to leave your phone in the trunk of your car. This should be fairly easy to do, especially knowing that your habit is putting your own and others’ lives at risk. You will be surprised to see that this new habit will become automatic after an average of 21 days. After your old habit is overridden, you can keep your phone in the car with you, but you must be cautious. It is recommended that you avoid any precipitating factors that may trigger your old habit (e.g. keep your phone on silent).

Let’s examine this simple, seemingly harmless habit of checking messages on your smart phone in bed before falling asleep every night. There is substantial evidence indicating that the quality of sleep is significantly diminished by the use of cell phones before bedtime.  Looking at a self-luminous screen stimulates the human circadian rhythm and suppresses levels of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. The electromagnetic radiation that is emitted from these devices raises concerns as well. Research has established links between sleeping with a cell phone nearby and depression, personality changes, and mood swings. The areas of the brain influenced by this habit, structurally and functionally, have also been found to deteriorate our attention system. Taken together, these risks pose a serious threat to our well-being. Can you think of a potential solution to breaking this habit?

As difficult as it may seem to improve our habits, neuroplasticity has made it possible for us to accomplish any cognitive feat within the constraints of our own capacity. Without neuroplasticity, traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients wouldn’t be able to walk, talk, or eat again. Similarly, we wouldn’t be able to teach ourselves previously unknown skills, such as mental arithmetic. It is important to note that neuroplasticity also has its own limits, depending on factors such as degree and location of injury in the brain. There are TBI patients with extensive cerebral contusions who never learn to walk or talk again. Nonetheless, neuroplasticity is usually evidenced in the period of spontaneous recovery post-injury in majority of clinical cases, including the profound ones. In addition to the cortical remapping that occurs in response to injury, neuroplasticity also applies to neuronal changes resulting from learning. Learning a second language is one example of this. Research has shown that after the age of 12, learning a second language is exponentially more difficult, a finding in concordance with neuroplasticity research.

The correlation between habits and anatomical changes in the brain is an interesting one. Scientific research lends empirical support to the hypothesis that habits can directly alter our neurobiology. For example, research has shown that consuming snacks with high caloric content decreases serotonin transporters in the human hypothalamic region. Another example is that physical exercise habits correlate with gray matter volume of the hippocampus in healthy individuals. Needless to say, habits are highly constrained and must be examined independent of each other. The exact nature of the relationship, whether we are genetically predisposed to develop certain habits, or habits facilitate neuroanatomical changes, remains elusive.

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