Research Paper By Lucia Hargasova
(Conscious Leadership Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain. Santiago Ramon y Cajal
The more often we perform an action or behave a certain way, the more it gets physically wired into our brain. This amazing quality of the brain, known as neuroplasticity, is the ability of the brain to change its physical structure and function based on input from experiences, behaviors, emotions, and thoughts.The brain forms neuronal connections based on the actions we do repeatedly throughout our lifetime.
The Power a habit
Claude C. Hopkins, one of the greatest advertising pioneers of the early 1800s, believed that, in order to sell more toothpaste, he could convince American citizens to start brushing their teeth. He is credited with popularising toothbrushing as we know it.This the story was discovered by Charles Duhigg while reporting on his book, The Power of Habit.
He needed to convince people that brushing their teeth should be part of their daily routine. Impressively, he was able to get around half of the American public to pick up this new behavior and repeat it daily. But the question remains; how did he do it? Hopkins was able to change the behavior of millions of Americans, by tapping into neuroscience and decoding the awesome power of habits:
- Cue: He got people thinking about the bacteria in their mouth overnight. Running your tongue across your teeth you will feel the ‘plaque’.
- Craving: A craving for that minty toothpaste advertised every morning and the fresh clean feeling everyone is talking about
- Response: Brushing your teeth
- Reward: He focused on beautifying teeth. Thanks to repetitive advertising, he convinced people, using this film, that an unbrushed smile looks ugly and a prettier smile was the reward for brushing regularly.
Results: 7 % of Americans brushing their teeth to 65% in 10 years.
In this story, Hopkins is not a coach, he simply facilitated the journey of self-directed neuroplasticity. The purpose of this case study was to show how possible it is to create a new habit, even on the mass scale of half the population. Despite being a difficult task, it has been seen that it is not impossible. There are many examples of a similar phenomenon taking place in modern times. Namely, the celery juice craze, whereby the prices of celery are increasing by up to 300%. Thanks to the health and advertising benefits of celery juice, many people have made it a habit to consume celery juice right as they wake up as part of their daily routine.
What are habits?
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains in detail how habits get formed. Commonly, habits are considered actions and behaviors we do automatically, or subconsciously; like walking, riding a bicycle or driving a car. When we first engage in a new action or behavior, our brains must process tons of new information, correcting and replacing until we are able to do it correctly. However, as soon as we understand how a task works, the behavior starts becoming automatic and the mental activity required to do the task decreases significantly.
When we first try to adopt a new behavior, we must engage our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking, and insert conscious effort, intention, and thought into the process. Debbie Hampton, a leading blogger and writer in the brain health field, explains that “when we’ve performed the new routine enough times for connections to be made and strengthened in your brain, the behavior will require less effort as it becomes the default pattern.” Researchers from MIT have identified that if neurons fire from the habit formation region of the brain at the start and end of specific behavior, then it becomes a habit. The firing of these neurons will create patterns over time, both in the brain and in one’s behavior.
Where & how does this happen?
Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia, situated at the base of the forebrain, is strongly interconnected with several other brain areas. Without going into the technical details, numerous studies have linked the acquisition of automatic activity (habits) with the basal ganglia (reinforcement learning). The basal ganglia are known to control voluntary movements as well as emotional expressions. This area is not just concerned with body movements but is also linked to the emotional part of the brain. As habit creation is more of an automatic process and requires less brainpower, similar to a computer, it frees up space in your brain and memory to take in new things. Thus, it is apparent that taking advantage of creating habits and, therefore, decreasing mental activity needed for mundane tasks, such as going to the gym, waking up early, etc., is to our benefit.
the habit Loop: The same researchers at MIT discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit. This habit loop consists of three parts: A cue, a routine, and a reward.
Image Source: Duhigg Charles, Power of Habit
The Hebbian Theory (1949) suggests that it can beneficial to have neurons that fire together. The neural network helps us learn, store, and recall information in an effective way. For example, when we’re getting to know someone, the neural network helps you to remember the person’s name through many subtle triggers. It is possible to learn to remember someone’s name by training your brain to trigger a new connection with that person.
The network can also go awry when we try to unwire or rewire neurons to respond to a situation in a new way. A tragic example would be the memory of abuse during childhood. Physical contact of any kind might trigger a fight-or-flight response, even when it is not appropriate.
Why is it so hard to break old habits or create new habits?
Our brain will always try to take the path of least resistance. To help with this, it creates pathways for habits that it can follow with ease. When our brain is repeating a habit (the feeling of “running on autopilot”) it doesn’t need to use much energy because it doesn’t have to engage the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is used for higher-level skills like paying sustained attention to difficult tasks or decision making. It requires larger amounts of energy and has to be engaged when learning or completing new behaviors. When it is engaged, we will focus our attention on our new behavior, or the change we want for ourselves. When it isn’t engaged, we slip into old habits.
Knowing this helps us understand why stress and tiredness lead us back to old habits; stress and tiredness minimize our brain’s resources. Therefore, when we run out of energy, our prefrontal cortex disengages, and we are shoved back down the path of habit.
What is the biggest habit of creating triggers?:
- Time: Time is perhaps the most common way to trigger a new habit. Waking up in the morning, for example, usually triggers a cascade of habits: go to the bathroom, take a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, make a cup of tea, etc.
- Location: If you have ever walked into a cinema bought a bag of popcorn and ate it all without even realizing it, then you understand the power of location on our behavior. Location is one of the most powerful, yet least recognized habit creating triggers.
- Emotional State: Based on research, habits created based on emotions are the hardest to. For example, we tend to eat when we are bored or sad, despite not being hungry. We play mindless games or impulsively check social media to distract us from our stress and anxiety, not because we enjoy them.
- Other People: The quote from motivational speaker Jim Rhone, “you are the average of the five people you surround yourself with,” is often repeated but rarely applied. These days, surrounding yourself to a limited 5 people is virtually impossible with the increasing use of social media and social influencers affecting our lives. As a result, people have become more accustomed to following social trends. For example, buying the new iPhone because everyone else is buying it, not because you need a new phone.
Routine: It’s a common saying that to master a new skill, it takes 10,000 hours of practice. Unfortunately, it’s not as straight forward as that. The amount of time differs hugely between tasks and between people. It comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s popular 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, where he cites 10,000 hours as the “magic number” of practice time.The the only certainty is that, when it comes to making a habit, whether it’s learning guitar or meditation, there’s no substitute for repetition.
Reward: Scientists now know that neurons in the brain can fire to give us a chemically induced rewarding feeling. Moreover, it has been seen that once a habit and a reward are tied together in our brain, those reward neurons start firing even before you do the behavior. This is called ‘craving’ and can consist of anything from ice cream as soon as it gets hot, toa drink when we are socializing. This helps to explain why we pick up bad habits even though we know they are bad, and why they are so hard to break. The reward is the reason the brain decides that the ends justify the means. The reward provides positive reinforcement for the desired behavior, making it more likely that you will produce that behavior again in the future.The the reward can be anything, from something tangible (e.g. chocolate), something intangible (e.g. a half-hour of Netflix) to something with no inherent value (e.g. positive feedback, smile, attention). A small smile someone gives you when you hold a door open for them is like an affirmation that serves as positive reinforcement and may make it more likely you will hold the door open for people again in the future.
Understanding habits from development POV
The chains of habits are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. Johnson
This tasteful definition of habits by Joe Dispenza, “A habit is a redundant set of automatic, unconscious thoughts, behaviors and emotions that are acquired through repetition. A habit is when you’ve done something so many times that your body now knows how to do it better than your mind, is the most accurate definition I have found. We know now that 95 % of what makes us who we are by the age of 35is a memorized set of behaviors, emotional reactions, hard wired attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and habits that function like a computer program. 
According to the research center for developing children at Harvard University,from birth until around a 2-year-old age the human brain functions mostly in the subconscious mind. There is very little correcting, judging, filtering and their ‘thinking brain’ is very low. From ages of 2 to 7 or 8, children begin to manifest slightly higher engagement with their thinking brain but are still more connected to their inner world than the outside world. They live in the world of the abstract and imagination. Their critical and rational thinking is still not fully developed. For this same reason, young children tend to believe everything they are told (like believing in Santa Claus, for example).
At this age, saying things like, “good girls don’t speak up, boys don’t cry, you can’t sing, playing sports is only for those who are good at them, life is tough, you are bad, money doesn’t grow on trees,” will have a great impact on them. These types of statements could condition children directly in their subconscious. Everything a child sees and hears comes together in the form of beliefs and those beliefs are what will determine their behavior and their way of interpreting reality during adulthood. Some of the habits we have from a very young age are the hardest to break.
Cognitive neuroscientists have conducted studies that have revealed that only 5% of our cognitive activities (decisions, emotions, actions, behavior) are conscious whereas the remaining 95% is generated in a non-conscious manner.So with 5% of their mind, people can say: “I want to be healthy, happy, and free” but the subconscious is on a whole different program.
Switching between habitual behavior and deliberate decision making.
In 2016, a neuroscience study from the University of California in San Diego , identified specific brain chemicals and neural pathways involved in switching between habitual behavior and deliberate decision making. The study claims to provide the strongest evidence to date, that the brain circuits for habitual and goal-orientated action compete for control in the orbitofrontal cortex, decision-making area of the brain. It also provides evidence that neurochemicals called endocannabinoids to allow for habits to take over, by acting as a moderator on the goal-directed circuit. “Habit takes over when the OFC is quieted,” lead scientist, Dr.Gremel said. We can switch the autopilot and shift to goal-directed behavior when we need to prioritize something important and worth engaging in our frontal cortex. In the case of a good habit, such as brushing one’s teeth, it’s simple; if the habitual action wins over, for example, not wanting to have chocolate just after brushing my teeth, it’s a win. However, having, for example, one too many drinks while driving a car can have devastating consequences.
Another study from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made.“Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without the involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our minds from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. It supports Joe Dispenza’sdefinition of habits in that many processes in the brain occur automatically without a great active awareness. For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose,” Dr. 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.
‘So What?’ Key learnings & coaching applications
Would you be surprised if I told you that alcohol is not a great source of vitamin C? Or that watching hours of Netflix TV shows will not dramatically raise your IQ? Probably not. Similarly, we all know that we should exercise, sleep eight hours, eat healthier, meditate and be kind to ourselves and others. But does this common knowledge make doing these things any easier? Of course not. In life, knowledge is only part of the battle. Without action, knowledge is often meaningless. As Aristotle put it, “to be excellent we cannot simply think or feel excellent, we must act excellently.”
We need to accept that we need a balance between habitual and goal-directed actions. The moment you or your client decides to make a different choice or create a new habit, it is going to feel uncomfortable and/or unfamiliar. Our brain will always try to take the path of least resistance.Based on everything I have learned, it is evident that breaking a habit isn’t a simple matter.
Understanding this from a coaching perspective provides an opportunity for more compassion, non-judgment, and support towards our clients and ourselves. It has given me the knowledge that the brain is much more like a clay; a flexible organ that can be molded in different ways based on the type of work put into molding it, and that the chemistry of our brain is constantly changing and evolving with repeated daily activities. Coaching is the perfect practice to facilitate this positive change.
Creating a New habit and coach facilitation
There are lots of recourses about how to create a new habit and break old ones. It is up to our client and ourselves to find the one which resonates with us the most. Starting this journey from a coaching perspective is to remember what coaching process is; coaching is a partnership with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.If we believe that each person holds so much power within them and we, as coaches, are collaborating with them to facilitate a positive change, then coaching is the perfect support process to creating this change.
Our thoughts and beliefs drive our actions and create the results we receive. By changing our conscious thoughts, and even more importantly, our subconscious beliefs, we facilitate changes in our behavior and consequently in the results we experience. As a coach we:
- Trust the client to find the answers to their questions
- Believe that change is possible and hold the client accountable for their actions
- Offer clarity and insight into current circumstances and the desired outcome
- Provide powerful assessments, questions, and tools that facilitate awareness and a sense of direction.
We are mindful of some key practices and tools to break and create new habits:
- Meditation &Mindfulness practice: In order to relieve stress, calm your mind, reduce anxiety, etc. Promoting habit change through self-awareness of unhealthy behaviors and increased awareness of surroundings, helps one to appreciate the simple things, and be more present.
- Acceptance of limitations: Limitations can act as guardrails, ensuring we don’t get too far off the motivational path, and remind us that we have a destination we need to reach. By accepting these we accept ourselves which can be a very powerful tool
- Understanding of the Habit Loop: Once you become aware of the habit loop it makes it easier to change your habits and start new habits. Utilizing the book, Atomic Habits, by James Clear can help us go into further details about the understanding of the habit loop.
- True commitment to change (Motivation): Understanding the reason for one’s action and enthusiasm for doing it. The psychological forces or energies that impels us towards a specific goal and their significance/priority in our life. Being fully honest and confident about it. Remembering the inner conflict behind the conscious and subconscious drivers. Is our motivation driven by external factors or is it truly our inner voice?
- Support, tools (easy and tangible): These could be people, places or tools such as apps. Whatever clients or we find useful and helpful in this journey.
- Reflection: Writing down your feelings as to “brain-dump” our anxieties, frustrations, and pains in a journal. It helps us to self-reflect on gratitude or what we did well today and understands further our own triggers, and habit loop. Taking us from our default subconscious to raised awareness
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Aristotle
Creating a new habit or replacing an old one is not a quick and easy process. We have to have a strong reason for making the change, we need to accept that it will take time and effort and we need to be compassionate to ourselves if we stumble along the way. However, by understanding how habits are created, using the tools available above and employing the support of a coach, we can make meaningful changes in our lives.
Hopkins Claude, My Life in Advertising, (1927)http://www.wallyconger.com/Claude-Hopkins-My-Life-in-Advertising.pdf
Duhigg Charles, “The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg” (2012). Random House Trade Paperbacks Financial Times.
Graybiel of MIT’s McGovern Institute, Oct. 20 issue of Nature https://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/the-neuroscience-of-changing-your-behavior/
Lanciego J, Luqiun N., Obeso J, Functional Neuroanatomy of the Basal Ganglia, (2012) TrendsNeurosci 12
Hebb Donald, The Organization of Behaviour (1949), Hebbian Theory
Doidge Norman, The Brain that changes itself, Penguin Books; 1 edition (March 15, 2007)
Wadman, Bill (2008-11-13). “Outliers: Malcolm Gladwell’s Success Story”. Time. Retrieved 2009-01-12.
Gremelm Ch., How the brain makes and breaks the habit, (2016), Science DailyUniversity of California San Diego