Think about something it took you a really long time to learn, like how to drive a car. At first, driving was difficult and you had to devote a lot of mental energy to it. But after you grew comfortable with driving, it became much easier — almost habitual, you could say. Now you do not have to be conscious of when to press the break, or when to press the accelerator or how much to press it. You automatically do that while driving.
Driving, gambling, exercising, brushing your teeth and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns, The new York times business writer Charles Duhigg explores the science behind why we do what we do — and how companies are now working to use our habit formations to sell and market products to us.
Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode and the habit is then controlled by the robotic brain.
"In fact, the brain starts working less and less," says Duhigg. "The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else. It actually helps one to exert the brain energy onto the more complex and sophisticated actions."You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all," he says. "And that's because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine."
Studies have shown that people will perform automated behaviors — like pulling out of a driveway or brushing teeth — the same way every single time, if they're in the same environment. But if they take a vacation, it's likely that the behavior will change. "You'll put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it," he says, "because once the cues change, patterns are broken up."That's one of the reasons why taking a vacation is so relaxing: It helps break certain habits.
Going on a vacation is also a great way to break and change habits and is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it," he says. "If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you're on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren't there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life."