How Are Habits Formed in the Brain
When we think about making changes in our life be it for personal reasons, work related, for better health, and even relationships, we usually only see the actions and behaviours which are the physical manifestations of our habits. To use the well-worn analogy, they are only the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to understanding habits there’s a lot more, we don’t see which is hidden.
Habits are a collection of neurons which fire together every time we carry out a particular action or behaviour. The neurons are connected by neural pathways and the pathways are used to send signals between the neurons. Understanding how the neurons fire and connect will help you understand exactly what it takes to form habits, change habits, and how the brain changes with them.
Up to 60% of what we do each day can be attributed to our habits. Many habits form unconsciously and then are automated, so we don’t even think about them – which is the point of habits! Actions and behaviours we can carry out with little to no thought helps us get through the day so we can focus on the things we want to consciously tackle.
How Habits Change Your Brain
An important point to note: When you are making changes in your life and your habits, you must make a physical change inside your brain. When you are creating new habits or attempting to change old habits, you are physically changing the structure within your brain. Without the physical change, new habits will not form, and old habits cannot be changed.
At the high level it involves neurons, neural pathways, ‘electrical’ signals, and a fatty tissue coating called Myelin. There’s a lot more going on, but for the purpose of this blog the four components mentioned is all we need to focus on to understand what a habit looks like inside our brain.
Depending on which report or study you read, there are about 85,000,000,000 (85 billion) neurons in our brain. You can imagine the astronomical number when it comes to the different ways these 85 billion neurons could be connected. You can see the possibility of having a huge number of habits is available due to the vast number of neurons.
However, there are restrictions. One of the key restrictions for the brain is the amount of energy it can use. Keeping neurons and neural pathways connected takes energy. Wrapping the fatty tissue, Myelin, to the neural pathways also takes energy and material.
The brain typically weighs less than 2% of our body weight, however, it uses 20% of our daily energy! If the brain were able to keep every habit by ‘feeding’ every active neuron and neural pathway it would probably need more energy than the body could generate each day.
So, the brain must made decisions on which neurons and neural pathway to keep and which to dismantle. And each of these decisions will and does physically change the brain. The brain continually builds new neural pathways, maintains well used pathways, and dismantles the less used ones.
The Steps in forming a habit
Whenever we do something new, a vast number of neurons fire in the brain related to the actions required and associated with the new activity. The brain knows this is something new, or it’s different to all the other habits and neural pathways it has already built.
The neurons which fire could number in the thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions as the brain tries to work out everything the body (and the mind) must do to perform the new action.
Let’s look at an example of what the brain goes through when you try something new. In this instance, I am going to use the example of playing tennis for the first time. This would apply to learning anything whether it’s physical or more cerebral. For now, lets stick with learning tennis and hitting the ball with a forehand stroke.
Step 1 – Starting the habit formation
Let’s take a random number and say it fires 100,000* neurons as you attempt hitting the ball with a forehand. The brain will have a look to see if this is similar to something you have done before and call on the neurons and neural pathway already in place to help if it is.
The brain will ‘fire up’ all the neurons it believes it needs as it notices several things you are trying to do:
- You are holding a tennis racket which you have never held before.
- You are trying to control the racket, so it needs to get muscles working to help you do that.
- You are attempting to swing the racket backwards and then forward.
- You are also trying to keep an eye on a tennis ball heading your way.
- It needs to calculate where the ball is going to land.
- It needs to calculate where on the court the ball will be, and what will be a good height so you can hit it.
- It needs to get your legs and whole body moving towards the ball.
- It needs to help you keep your balance.
- It needs to get the energy to your muscles to continue this action and any other actions needed.
- It’s trying to work out how to hold your head so you can see the ball and away from the tennis racket as it rises after hitting the ball.
And so on…
There are many things the brain must do, manage, and work out. So, it fires all these neurons related to all different parts of your body, your thoughts, and experience so you can get into a position to be able to hit the ball.
The brain is also trying to figure out the pathways it needs to connect between the neurons. At this point the brain overestimates the neurons and neural pathways it needs because isn’t sure what exactly is needed to hit the ball.
At this point the brain sets up weak neural pathways and will monitor what’s going on. It will also be using a lot of energy not just physically but also mentally as it calculates and works out what to do.
If you have one tennis lesson and no more, the brain will not be strengthening the neural pathways. However, when you go to the next lesson a few days later or even a week later it will go through the same process of firing those 100,000 neurons and the neural pathways.
The more lessons you have and the more you practise the forehand physically, or even in your mind, or in the kitchen whilst you are waiting for the water to boil, the same neurons and neural pathways will light up.
Step 2 – Embedding the habit
By going to more lessons and practising the forehand, your brain realises this is the beginnings of a new habit (or new skill) and will start to strengthen the neural pathways between the neurons.
At some point, it will start to add a fatty tissue, called Myelin, to the neural pathways. It’s like covering a bare electrical wire with a plastic coating. This coating of Myelin will help the signals between the neurons travel faster. The more Myelin added to the neural pathways the better and faster the signals travel between the neurons.
Repetition is the key to strengthening the pathways and neurons, and the layering of Myelin. This is the start of embedding the habit firmly inside the brain because the same neurons and neural pathways will be required the more you play.
Step 3 – Habit Automation and Tuning
The next part of the process is about streamlining the neurons and neural pathways. As already mentioned, repetition will add Myelin to the neural pathways, and it will also help in working out which of the pathways and neurons are key to play the forehand (and tennis).
As you practise and get better with the forehand the brain will start to trim the number of neurons and in turn the neural pathways. This makes it easier to strengthen only the pathways necessary, and connect the neurons needed. Over time it may only require 70,000* neurons rather than the 100,000 we started with when it comes to the forehand.
The more you practise and play tennis the more automation of the various tennis strokes will take place. I have only used the forehand stroke as an example, the brain will be going through the above process for every aspect of tennis you learn! And it will be doing all these at the same time.
If you have played any sport for a reasonable length of time you will know there comes a point when you don’t even think about the technique as it becomes automatic. It frees your mind to think more about what’s happening around you, your opponent, and your next move.
It’s not just sports, it occurs even in how we think! This is how we create mindsets which either limit our progress or push us further each day.
So, to repeat, step three is the continual tweaking, trimming, automating, and tuning of the habit.
*This figure is used for illustration only – it will vary from person to person depending on how their brain is wired, their skill, expertise, experience, and the complexity of the habit etc.
How Long Does It Take for Habits to Form?
This can be anything from 3 month to years. It also depends on several factors:
- How complex is the habit – they broadly fall into Simple, Standard, or Complex habits.
- How often you repeat the habits each day. Is it something you do once a day or can you repeat it several times a day? Or it something only repeated once or twice a week. This will have a bearing on how long it takes for the habit to form.
- What rewards/benefits you receive in the short term or the long term (see my post on Why Are Bad Habits Easy to Acquire)
- Does the habit require physical and mental activity or practise?
All of these will affect how long it takes for habit not just to embed in the brain, but for all or part of it to be automated.
Repetition is the key to forming and automating any habit in the brain.
Physically changing the brain and the neural pathways are essential to make any change in our action, behaviours, and life. It all starts with the changes in our brain. How long it takes varies and is dependent on several factors.
However, the key to forming habits is repetition. It also helps to keep your brain well-nourished and maintained through good nutrition, exercise, and sleep to make sure it has the capacity to make the changes it needs to help you form the habits you want.
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