What Science Tells Us About Habits

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What Science Tells Us About Habits

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The human brain is amazing! From birth, millions of bits of information are funneling into our brains, yet we are able to learn to make sense of the most important information and act on it.

The brain also develops shortcuts to help us act efficiently. Imagine if we had to consciously think through every tiny decision and action, from when and how to bathe, dress, eat and do the many other activities of our daily routine! It would be overwhelming.

Instead our minds are set up to record responses that can be repeated in the same type of situation. The most important of these we call habits.

"When these habits have been so heavily learned, the under-lying neural circuitry becomes the brain's default option at any moment—what a person does automatically and spontaneously, often with little awareness of choosing to do so".

Research (and common sense!) suggests it's easier and better to start good habits and avoid bad ones when we are young.

A study by Larry Jacoby, professor of psychology at Washington University, "confirmed that the responses we learn first are those that remain stronger over time." The study, published in the November 2004 issue of Psychological Science, suggests that old habits are relatively automatic, while new learning requires control. "Stress can weaken our control over memory and behavior... With weakened control, those automatic responses—such as eating a cookie or smoking a cigarette—can over-ride our new good intentions".

But bad habits can be overcome. Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland wrote: "What starts as self-discipline or will power, such as an angry person who practices counting to ten, can become a new ingrained behavior. This is the way an alcoholic keeps out of bars and a smoker gives up cigarettes for good. Each time we exercise will power, we rewire the brain to overcome inborn temperaments ...

"Choosing good habits takes hard work, but the sharp edge of temptation can be dulled with practice. The longer we practice good behavior, the easier it becomes, until it becomes a habit" (Living With Our Genes: Why They Matter More Than You Think, 1998, pp. 293-294).

"Learning to control one's temper, for instance, is like learning to ride a bicycle. Understanding what needs to be done on a cognitive level only helps to a limited degree. It is only by getting on a bike and riding it, falling over, and trying again repeatedly, that one ultimately masters the skill".

Stephen Kraus, author of Psychological Foundations of Success who received his Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University, gave the following tips based on his research:

"1. Replace a bad habit with a good one. Completely eliminating a habit is much harder than replacing it with a more productive habit...

"2. Exercise... helps in accomplishing a variety of goals, and in eliminating a number of bad habits. Frequent exercise helps break habits of overeating, and in kicking all kinds of addictions, particularly if exercise is substituted for an end-of-the-day cocktail or cigarette...

"3. Reward success... Actions followed by rewards are strengthened and likely to recur" (www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Kraus2.html). VT

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