How are habits formed?
Habits are formed when a behavior becomes automatic or subconscious as a result of repeated practice. Habits are automatic patterns of behavior that are triggered by contextual cues, and they can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the behavior itself.
The formation of habits typically involves a cycle of cue, routine, and reward. First, a cue or trigger in the environment prompts the individual to engage in a specific behavior. Then, the individual engages in a routine or behavior that satisfies a particular need or desire. Finally, the brain receives a reward (perhaps a release of dopamine) that reinforces the behavior and makes it more likely to be repeated in the future.
Over time, this cycle of cue, routine, and reward becomes ingrained in the brain, and the behavior becomes more automatic and effortless. With enough repetition, habits can become second nature, and individuals engage in them without consciously thinking about it. For instance, the dopamine reward cycle is built into the brain’s wiring even if it is detrimental for your real life (drugs, alcohol, gambling, gaming, shopping, etc.)
However, breaking a habit can be challenging because it requires disrupting the established pattern of cue, routine, and reward. To break a habit, it’s necessary to identify and change the underlying cues or triggers that prompt the behavior, and to replace the routine with a new, healthier behavior that still satisfies the underlying need or desire.
How long does it take to create a habit?
The time it takes to create a habit can vary depending on several factors, including the complexity of the behavior, the frequency of the behavior, and the individual’s motivation and consistency in practicing the behavior.
Some habits may be easier to form than others. Research suggests that habit formation can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, depending on the behavior and the individual. The average is 162 days, that 21 day concept you’ve heard about just isn’t true for anything more complicated than switching from sparkling water to still.
More complex habits like going to the gym every day take much more time. Similarly, behaviors that are practiced more frequently are likely to become habits more quickly than those that are only practiced occasionally.
Ultimately, the time it takes to form a habit depends on a variety of factors, and it may be more helpful to focus on consistency and motivation in practicing the behavior rather than a specific time frame.
What is the role of the brain in forming and maintaining habits?
Brain circuits play a crucial role in the formation and maintenance of habits. Your habits are automatic, repetitive behaviors that are triggered by contextual cues and are reinforced by rewards. The formation of habits involves the establishment of neural pathways in the brain that link the contextual cues with the behavior and the reward.
When a habit is first formed, the behavior is initiated by a deliberate decision, and you must consciously engage in the behavior. However, with repeated practice, the behavior becomes more automatic and less reliant on conscious decision-making. This is because the neural pathways in the brain that link the contextual cues, the behavior, and the reward become strengthened through repeated use.
Over time, the brain circuitry associated with the habit becomes more efficient, and the behavior requires less cognitive effort to initiate and complete. This is why habits can become so ingrained and challenging to break.
The brain circuits involved in habit formation and maintenance include the basal ganglia, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus. The basal ganglia are responsible for initiating and coordinating the motor movements involved in the habit, while the prefrontal cortex is involved in decision-making and monitoring the context in which the behavior occurs. The hippocampus plays a role in memory consolidation, helping to link the contextual cues with the behavior and the reward.
Together, these brain circuits work to establish and maintain habits, making them automatic and resistant to change. Understanding the neural basis of habit formation demonstrates why neurofeedback brain training, changing those circuits, is needed for successful habit change. Will power (conscious decision making) plays a very minor role.
What does Hebb’s Law have to do with it?
Neurofeedback is a technique that utilizes real-time monitoring of brain activity to provide individuals with information about their brainwaves. By using this information, individuals can learn to self-regulate their brain activity and potentially change certain patterns or “habits” within their brain circuits.
Hebb’s Law, named after Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb, states that “neurons that fire together wire together.” When two neurons are repeatedly activated simultaneously, the connection between them strengthens, leading to more efficient and automatic neural pathways. In the context of habits, this means that certain behaviors or patterns of thinking become ingrained in the brain through repeated activation.
Neurofeedback therapy leverages Hebb’s Law by providing individuals with real-time feedback on their brain activity, typically in the form of auditory and visual cues. We use an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brainwave activity, and your brain observes how the brainwaves change at rest or in response to specific tasks, stimuli, or cognitive states.
Through this feedback, the brain can learn to modify its activity to achieve desired changes in its neural patterns. For instance, to reduce anxiety or increase focus, the brain learns to recognize the brainwave patterns associated with those states. It actively trains itself to produce those patterns more consistently.
Over time, with repeated practice and reinforcement, the brain’s neural connections can adapt and reorganize, leading to the establishment of new patterns or “habits” in the brain circuits. This process is known as neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to rewire and reorganize itself based on experience and learning.
Our neurofeedback training process here at The Balanced Brain is a “learning” model of training. Over time, by repeated observation, your brain learns how to find and maintain optimal performance which results in smooth functional operation and a reduction in your symptoms. Increased ability to maintain proper mood, focus and attend at will, sleep more restfully, the many and varied outward expressions of your brain’s circuit pattern dysregulation. All observed and acted upon by the very flexible learning organ between your ears. The process of changing brain circuit “habits” through neurofeedback is gradual and requires dedication, practice, and guidance from a trained professional.