How to make and break habits

Researchers have identified a neural pathway involved in switching between habitual behavior and deliberate decision-making. 

So really, you are not helpless when it comes to changing habits!

But which habits should you change and which should you retain?

Not all habits are bad. Some are even necessary.

A case in point is the habit of washing hands, especially with the pandemic hitting us hard or even not touching our faces or wearing a mark.

According to Gremel, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego, the brain has circuits for habitual actions and actions driven by a goal. These circuits constantly compete to take control. 

This takes place in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) of the brain, which makes the decisions.

Endocannabinoids are the neurochemicals that act as a brake on our goal-oriented circuit and allow our habits to take over.

The inability to switch from acting habitually to acting in a deliberate way can underlie addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Previous works by Gremel and Costa suggest the OFC is the area that relays information for goal-oriented actions. 

This was found when the neuron output in the OFC was increased through optogenetics, and they increased goal-directed actions. 

Habit takes over when the OFC is quieted.

In the current study, since endocannabinoids are known to reduce the activity of neurons in general, the researchers hypothesized that endocannabinoids might be quieting or reducing activity in the OFC and, with it, the ability to shift to goal-directed action.

We need to bring balance among our habits and our goal-oriented actions to function efficiently. And we should be able to break these habits when and if needed.

The findings suggest a therapeutic solution for OCD or addiction patients, where they can let go of their habits and have a goal. 

This might help to treat the brain’s endocannabinoid system and so reduce habitual control over behavior.


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