Handling habits

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: February 17th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Stronger than an iron will.

More powerful than a promise.

Able to leap the best intentions in a single bound.

It’s the indomitable bad habit… those persistent patterns of behavior that become so ingrained in our lives that it practically takes super powers to break them.

New findings suggest that habits can never truly be vanquished. But they can be overcome.

Using tiny electrodes to record electrical activity in the brain, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied rats who had learned a habit of following sounds through a maze to find a piece of chocolate.

As the rats learned the habit, a marked pattern of electrical activity developed.

When scientists broke the habit by playing sounds without a chocolate reward, the pattern disappeared over time.

But when the chocolate was put back, the habitual brain pattern snapped back into place, unfazed by the time and effort spent breaking the habit.

The study, reported in the journal Nature, pinpoints what people who’ve labored to quit smoking have always known… our brains become wired to repeat certain behavior.

Even if the wiring sits unused for decades, the right smell, taste, sight or sound can send current pulsing through it, triggering a battle of will.

More research may lead to better understanding of addiction and other destructive behavior. One thing for certain, habits… both good and bad… don’t give up easily. Our neural mechanisms see to that.