How the brain makes -- and breaks -- a habit

June 29, 2016

An international team of researchers has revealed how the brain makes and breaks a habit. The findings could eventually have major implications for the treatment of addiction and obsessive compulsive disorders.

Working with a mouse model, the University of California San Diego team demonstrated what happens in the brain for habits to control behavior.

Habits are behaviors wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically. This allows us to perform every day tasks without thinking about it, allowing our brains to work on other things simultaneously, such as what to make for dinner.

Some habits are necessary. However habits often become so ingrained that we keep doing them even though we’re no longer benefiting from them, the inability to switch from acting habitually to acting in a deliberate way can underlie addiction and obsessive compulsive disorders.

The ability to make and break habits is of particular importance to expats, for whom it is necessary to learn new behaviours and cultural norms, while at the same time letting go of some of the cultural habits they have taken with them from their home country.

The study, published in Neuron and led by Dr. Christina Gremel, a psychologist at the University of California San Diego: “provides the strongest evidence to date … that the brain's circuits for habitual and goal-directed action compete for control — in the orbitofrontal cortex, a decision-making area of the brain — and that neurochemicals called endocannabinoids allow for habit to take over, by acting as a sort of brake on the goal-directed circuit.”

"We need a balance between habitual and goal-directed actions. For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose," Gremel said. "However, we also encounter changing circumstances, and need the capacity to 'break habits' and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information. When we can't, there can be devastating consequences."
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