Habits – Connecting Brain and Body

Why is it so easy to make a New Years resolution but really difficult to stick with it? What is your brain doing?

We’re almost 2 weeks into 2019 now and I for one have managed one and a half weeks of eating better after the Christmas binge but how will I keep it up until it becomes normal? How about you – what have you started as a new habit and how are you doing?

In researching the 2nd edition of ‘Neuroscience for Learning and Development’ (due out in July 2019) I became curious about the actual mechanism of creating habits. How does your brain manage to take a new conscious activity and change it into something unconscious and automatic?

A recent study looking at endocannabinoids has shown something very interesting. Endocannabinoids are chemicals released into the body when you have exercised – one of a mixture of hormones and neurotransmitters that give you a ‘runners high’. However they seem to be directly involved in habit formation too. As you learn something new your orbitofrontal cortex (part of the prefrontal cortex -PFC) actively controls conscious goal directed activities. As the skills become more practised  endocannabinoids start to decrease the activity in your orbitofrontal cortex and increase activity in the basal ganglia where habits are controlled. It may be this is an energy conservation mechanism to shift energy intensive cortical activity to more efficient activity in the basal ganglia. And to free up your prefrontal cortex again for more complex cognitive activities like planning and decision making.

Clearly this takes some time which is why you need to consciously rehearse new skills and habits until those endocannabinoids have done their work. Until they have, old habits will always take precedence. What does this mean for you and your plans for the new year?

Give yourself time to create a new habit. If you were building muscle to run a marathon you wouldn’t expect to run 26 miles in your first week but you would expect to train and practice for months and your brain needs time to make those new connections too.

Establish strong cues to make your goal directed towards your new habit – you’ve got to go through the prefrontal cortex learning again and again before you can get to the basal ganglia level.

Small steps and rewards – for instance we’re eating using the 5:2 method of 2 days minimal eating and back to normal for the other 5 days. It’s easier to restrict yourself when you know it’s only for 2 days rather than a whole week and the intrinsic reward in having achieved that small step gives us the dopamine hit to keep it up. The rewards of the new habit have to be stronger than the old habit.

Connect your body with your brain – now that I know a little about how the endocannabinoids affect habit formation and that they are also part of the runners high I’m running more in the belief that more of them in my brain may help the better eating habit too; and the running won’t hurt either.

Let us know how you get on with your new years resolutions.