Thinking back just a few short months ago we all made new year’s resolutions. How are you doing with yours? Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to change habits? I'd like to share a little with you about how your brain works and why change can be so difficult.
Everything we do, feel, or think is reflected in circuits of neurons in our brains. Neurons, or brain cells, communicate with each other at a gap, called the synapse. One neuron releases chemicals -neurotransmitters- into the synaptic space, where it is picked up by the receptors of the next neuron. There are billions of neurons in the human brain; each neuron connects with up to 10,000 other neurons, resulting in trillions of synaptic connections. These interconnected neurons become circuits that underlie our habits.
The more we do something the stronger that neuronal circuit becomes that supports that habit. Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuroscientist in the 1940s, noted that once a circuit of neurons is formed, when one neuron fires, the others fire as well—strengthening the whole circuit. This has come to be known as Hebbian theory: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Circuits of neurons maintain our habits, and our habits strengthen those neuronal circuits.
Scientists have shown that experience changes the connection between neurons. Everything you do changes your brain. The more you do something, the more likely you are to do it in the future. The habit-driven brain doesn’t distinguish between good and problematic behaviors; it just builds repeated behaviors, thoughts, and feelings into stronger and stronger neuronal circuits.
Here is the great news! Even though we are creatures of habit, we are also creatures of change and adaptation! Our brains are constantly changing in response to our changing environment. Our adaptability is the secret to our success as a species. The challenge is to harness our adaptability and use it toward positive ends, to make choices about who we want to be in our world.
According to a recent study, a daily action like eating fruit at lunch or running for fifteen minutes took an average of sixty-six days to become as much of a habit as it would ever become. However, there was a lot of variation, both among people and among habits – some people are more habit-resistant than others, and some habits are harder to pick up than others.
The study also showed that if you miss a day here or there when you’re trying to develop a habit, it doesn’t derail the process, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t keep a perfect track record. But the first days seem to make the biggest difference, so it’s worth trying to be particularly diligent at the beginning of the attempted-habit-acquisition process.
What do you think? What has been your experience in developing habits? How long has it taken, and what tricks have you found to help yourself acquire -- or kick -- a habit?