Habits

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Chapter 1 - Worldview


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Welcome to the Habits page

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What are habits for?

In the brain

From a neural perspective, habits are patterns of synaptic activation that repeat, when connections among rapidly firing neurons fall into the same pattern over different occasions repeatedly. When a person thinks familiar thoughts or performs familiar actions, a vast number of synapses become activated in predictable – ie, habitual – configurations. Patterns of neural firing in one region become synchronised with patterns of firing in other regions, and that helps the participating synapses form these habitual configurations. Whether you call something a skill or a habit, it can become learned and entrenched only by virtue of repeating patterns of synaptic activation.

We often think of learning in terms of skill-learning. Language, self-control, bike-riding, algebra, table manners and playing the piccolo are such skills. But we also learn habits such as nail-biting, TV-watching and folding our napkins a certain way. A focus on habits is distinct from a focus on skills: loosely speaking, habits are acquired without intention; skills are acquired deliberately.

With each repetition, activated synapses become reinforced or strengthened (due to modifications in the structure of each participating neuron), and alternative (less used) synapses become weakened or pruned. Meanwhile, active synapses give rise to the activation of other synapses with which they’re connected, and because synaptic connections between brain cells are almost always reciprocal, the reinforcing activation is returned. Thus, repeated patterns of neural activation are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing: they form circuits or pathways with an increasing probability of ‘lighting up’ whenever certain cues or stimuli (or thoughts or memories) are encountered.

In neuroplasticity researcher Siegrid Löwel’s summation of neuropsychologist Donald Hebb’s rule: ‘Cells that fire together, wire together.’

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