The Habit Loop & Neuroplasticity
Harnessing the Habit Loop for Habit Formation
The Science of Habit Formation, Neuroplasticity and Meditation
To live our healthiest lives, we can’t rely on willpower alone. Though willpower is a limited cognitive resource, our brains have a natural capacity for habit formation that we can harness. By understanding the habit loop and approaching it with intention, we can turn desired behaviors into natural, automatic habits in our lives!
So, what is a habit anyway? We might think of working out as a habit, or we might think of nail biting as a habit. Some of our habits are intentional and desired, while others are unintentional or undesired. In either case, the definition of a habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
Basically, our habits are what we already do regularly. They’re our current patterns of life. Some habits may require physical work or action (like going to the gym), but typically we enact our habits without much thought, and with little mental effort. It’s “easy” to feel committed to these practices because they’re part of our routine; they’ve become our natural inclination.
These facts offer good and bad news for anyone interested in habit formation or trying to establish new habits. The bad news: because our habits are relatively automatic and natural, some of our undesired habits can be challenging to leave behind. The good news: we can use the science of the habit loop to outsmart our bad habits, and to build new healthy habits! And this is what today’s video & lesson are all about.
Conditioning & The Nature of the Brain
Everything we experience in life affects the actions we take and who we become. Since childhood, all of our experiences, interactions, and relationships have impacted how we now think and what we now do (i.e., our habits). This is conditioning: the process of training a person or animal to behave in a certain way. But, we don’t choose this conditioning—it just happens.
And this conditioning—this habit formation process—occurs due to the nature of our brains. Generally, the mechanism is fairly simple: The brain establishes connections between the new things that we come across and what we’ve encountered in the past.
In his book The Craving Mind, neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer traces this natural brain mechanism back to the sea slug—an organism with one of the most basic nervous systems on the planet. The sea slug utilizes the same binary approach to survival as single-celled organisms: go toward nutrient, move away from toxin. In other words, approach what’s good, avoid what’s bad.
And, as it turns out, this mechanism exists in the human brain, and it isn’t so different from sea slugs… This evolutionary trait to avoid what’s bad or uncomfortable creates what’s called a “negativity bias.” We become averse to discomfort—seeking to avoid it whenever possible—and we tend to cling to what’s comfortable and known. This is at the core of the habit loop and why we do what we do.
The Brain is Wired for Habit Formation
So, we grow up, experiencing a range of different things, and we become conditioned to go toward “good” and away from “bad.” Inevitably, what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ will be a bit different for all of us, based on every unique experience we’ve ever had. Ultimately, these cumulative experiences get wired into our brains and shape what we do (go toward) vs. what we avoid (move away).
This process continues on and on, molding us into who we are today—with all of our conditioning and habits essentially running our lives. These behaviors and tendencies become automatic and natural. And this is why a habit is SO hard to break! With repetition, the habit loop becomes wired into our brain and the behavior becomes our natural course of action.
Some behaviors or tendencies can feel like they’re just who we are. But, in reality, these are just habits—from brushing your teeth to biting your nails to stress eating. They’re all habits. And, thankfully, we’re NOT just stuck with what we’ve got!
Neuroplasticity & Habit Formation
Thankfully, modern neuroscience has revealed our brains’ inherent plasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s natural capacity to “re-wire” itself in response to learning or new experiences. Basically, we can change our brains, and we can do it at any age. This is why habit formation is possible in the first place—and this is why transformation is possible!
So, how do we get our brains to rewire? Right now, our habits are grooved into our brains as neural pathways. And, every time we perform the habit or behavior, it reinforces that groove.
To establish a new habit loop or pattern, we not only need to STOP reinforcing the previous neural pathway, but we also need to REPLACE it with another loop. Most importantly, we must intentionally repeat this new habit loop to deepen that pattern’s groove in our brain.
At first, habit formation is really difficult. We have to very intentionally practice the new habit loop over and over again. We have to essentially force our brains to stop reinforcing one neural pathway and choose another instead. But, eventually, as that new pathway deepens in our brain, it becomes more effortless and natural to perform this new pattern—which is when it becomes a “habit!”
Understanding The Habit Loop
Trigger, Behavior, Reward
We can break down the habit loop into 3 parts: Trigger, Behavior, and Reward (or Result).You may have also heard this outlined as Cue, Routine, Reward.
- The trigger is the stimulus that gets you to take some action.
- The behavior is what you do, the action or habit itself.
- And the reward or result is what you get out of the behavior, and why you keep doing it.
Now, it’s important to keep in mind that the ‘reward’ or result isn’t always “positive.” Some habits result in negative outcomes, too, yet we continue to repeat them because of what we think we’re getting out of them. Certainly, we’ve all experienced some kind of negative habit loop that doesn’t serve us—maybe snacking late at night, or even smoking or excessive drinking.
First, we can use this habit loop framework to better understand our current habits. We can map out the trigger, behavior, and reward to see our actions more clearly. Then, in doing so, we may find an opportunity to break the current cycle. And, this process can also help us to see more clearly what we’re really getting from undesired habits—which makes them easier to break.
Or, we can also use this framework in our habit formation efforts. To establish new habits, we intentionally determine a trigger (or multiple) for a desired behavior, and then reinforce that behavior with a motivating reward or result. Download this habit loop worksheet to explore some of your own habit loops!
Looking Deeper at the Triggers in a Habit Loop
When identifying your triggers for a behavior, keep in mind that there’s often a chain of triggers that interact with one another.
For instance, in college, biking past a Krispy Kreme was one trigger in a chain of triggers that led me to buy a bunch of donuts and eat them all. Yes, seeing the Krispy Kreme was a physical trigger. But, when I dig deeper and trace it back further, I recognize that I felt triggered going past the Krispy Kreme because of a deeper, unmet emotional need. I was particularly depressed in college, with no coping mechanisms or support.
Tracing it all back, my depression and mental anxiety were the root cause or trigger. THIS is the root we ultimately want to get to for deep and sustainable change. For me, changing my path home to avoid seeing the Krispy Kreme wouldn’t have solved the root of the problem. If the emotional need remains unmet, I will likely find another way to attempt to fill the void. The deeper trigger remains there, and so the habit loop continues,
Many people, for instance, believe “nighttime” is a trigger for stress eating. The time of day may be a reminder—but the deeper trigger of the habit loop is the stress. So, do your best to dig deeper into your triggers, without judgment. Examine the surface-level triggers, and then look beneath them at the thoughts and feelings potentially driving the behavior.
Examining Rewards Honestly to “Disillusion” the Brain
Similarly, in the realm of ‘rewards’ or results, it’s crucial to dig deeper and be honest with yourself about what you’re really getting from a behavior. This is particularly crucial when dealing with an undesired habit loop that you’re trying to break.
For instance, if I have a habit of eating ice cream every night before bed, the surface-level reward might be “It tastes good.” Or, “on-demand stress-relief.” But, when I dig deeper, I can also acknowledge other results of this behavior—like that I get a stomachache many nights, I feel guilty afterwards, and I seem to sleep worse.
In order to break bad habits, we have to get honest with ourselves: What am I really getting from this behavior? We often think a certain behavior brings us relief (like stress eating, or smoking). But, on a deeper level, these behaviors can actually add to our stress and anxiety in the long run.
By being mindful and seeing the results of a behavior clearly, we help our brains become disillusioned with the old habit. In other words, our brains start to realize “this actually isn’t as good as I thought”—and the old habit becomes easier to break!
Meditation and Neuroplasticity
Working with specific habits is important and helpful, but mindfulness and meditation can bolster our habit formation abilities because both foster neuroplasticity! A lot of people think meditation is used to relieve stress or anxiety. And certainly, it can be helpful to sit and breathe when we’re activated. But I prefer to think of meditation as a tool to work out your brain, similar to how you’d work out your body!
When you go to the gym, you do however many reps of each exercise. Let’s say you do some bicep curls—but your arms don’t necessarily look any bigger immediately you finish. You might feel good after your workout, or you might feel not-so-good. But how you feel immediately after isn’t the main point. (Although, endorphins are a great reason to exercise!). When we go to the gym and lift weights, we recognize that we are partaking in a long-term practice. We pick up the weights and then we go home, knowing if we do it again and again, eventually the muscles will grow.
In the same way, when we sit down to meditate, we may feel more relaxed afterward—but we also may not. The point is the long-term benefits that come with meditation. We can increase our neuroplasticity, we can shed our conditioning that does not serve us, and we can rewrite our neural pathways!
Remember, sitting down to meditate is an opportunity to practice responding, rather than reacting. Going through an old habit loop means we are reacting—we do it without knowing. So, to build a new habit, we want to choose to mindfully respond to an old trigger instead. Meditation fosters this ability!
I’ve included a guided meditation today, specifically to work out your brain and harness its neuroplastic abilities. I hope you’ll give it a try and keep an open mind! There’s nothing to lose, right?
Guided Mindfulness Meditation Apps
Today’s Journal Prompt:
Write about a good habit that you’ve built in your life, or a bad habit that you changed in the past.
How did you do it? What was the process like and what worked for you?