The Science Behind Habits: What it takes to rewire your brainMar 09, 2021 04:14PM ● By KLAUDIA BALOGH
By the third month of 2021, eight out of 10 people will have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions. They would have needed to hang in there just a little longer to make a lasting change.
To make new habits last, you must rewire your brain. “When it comes to forming positive habits, it comes down to being very consistent for the first 66 days,” says James Garrett, a scientist who has dedicated nearly two decades to unpacking the brain science behind what makes human beings thrive. According to the latest studies, he adds, the actual range of habit formation is between 18 and 254 days.
Habits are an important part of human behavior; however, they can either help or stand in the way of you reaching your goals.
Brushing your teeth every morning, making your coffee a certain way or eating a pint of ice cream when you’re anxious are all habitual actions. In fact, research has shown that more than 40 percent of the actions people perform daily are habits. Your brain prompts your body to perform those actions upon a trigger without you giving it much conscious thought.
A habit begins as a single action,
which if repeated long enough, becomes a hardwired neural pathway. Note that
the brain doesn’t know the difference between good or bad action; it just knows
action. ice cream when you’re anxious
are all habitual actions. In fact, research has shown that more than 40 percent
of the actions people perform daily are habits. Your brain prompts your body to
perform those actions upon a trigger without you giving it much conscious
If you picture the brain as a map, you see billions of roads—some are narrow trails, others wide highways—lighting up for every thought, action and feeling, each of which travels on a certain road.
The actions performed the most create the widest highways. Those become your habits. The narrow trails may be new habits you’re trying to learning—for example, not hitting the snooze button but instead waking up to go for a walk before breakfast.
The human brain is a supercomputer, processing information all the time, adapting and reacting to everything you do, feel, think or are exposed to. To ease the load, however, it will grab any chance it can to take a break from analyzing so much information. Habits allow the brain to turn on autopilot and still let you complete tasks while thinking less. It’s a way for your brain to seek a state of comfort and save energy.
It’s more comfortable for the brain to jump on an already well-traveled highway than to explore a narrow trail. Thus, for an average of 66 days, hitting snooze will feel easier than waking up for that morning exercise.
The good news is, it does get easier with consistency. The brain adapts and the narrow trail will turn into a wider highway while previous habits fade away. It’s not so much that your willpower gets stronger, but that you’re rewiring your brain. It is what scientists call neuroplasticity, meaning the human brain can and does change throughout life by strengthening one neural connection and weakening another.
Changing a habit tends to move in two directions: picking up a new one or letting go of an old one. Habits don’t pop up out of nowhere. They are tied to a certain environment, people or feelings. To master or change a habit, you generally must recognize its three characteristics: (1) what triggers the action; (2) what the action is; and (3) what reward you get upon performing that action.
Take eating ice cream as an example. The cue that creates the craving is a feeling of anxiety; the action is eating; the reward is the quick dopamine (feel-good hormone) rush from the sugar.
To let go of that bad habit, it’s best to replace it with a good one. For example, instead of eating ice cream when you’re anxious, have a bowl of berries or a piece of dark chocolate, or even go out and exercise. It will still activate that reward pathway, but without the unwanted calories.
Those who fail the fastest are those who try to accomplish too much at once. Remember, the brain likes being comfortable, and if it’s pushed too far out of its comfort zone, it will just make your life miserable until you revert to your old ways. So, when it comes to changing your habits, one small step at a time can go a long way.
“Picking up new good habits or letting go of old bad ones is a skill you can master,” Garrett says. “When you set out to master habits and you crush it every single day, even when it’s hard, you still do it relentlessly, and you’re really consistent, that’s what instills that sense of what psychologists call self-efficacy, this confidence that you can do this again. And what it gives you is a sense of personal mastery. It teaches you that whatever you set your mind to, you can master, you can get good at and you can become.”
Klaudia Balogh is a health and wellness writer for TOTI Media.