Neural Pathways to Habit

TheLast week I attended the Hx Refactored conference in Boston, which was amazing. One of the speakers who I saw was Dr. Kyra Bobinet of engagedIN. As an MD with a degree in public health and a focus on behavior change, Dr. Bobinet puts a neurological spin on how we understand habit formation.

Dr. Bobinet talked about a small brain structure called the habenula that seems to play an important role in learning. Specifically, when a behavior results in failure, the habenula appears to encode that information. The habenula is essentially the brain’s black box for failure recording.

-The habenula plays an important role inThe interesting twist Dr. Bobinet made was to talk about the habenula’s learning as “scar tissue.” Our understanding of neuroplasticity does suggest that experience may lead to physiological changes in neural structures, so this analogy is not far off. Basically, any time you try a behavior and fail, the habenula takes note of it and remembers, so it can protect you from future failure. This helped our ancestors stop eating poisonous berries and approaching vicious predators.

But what if you want to stop smoking?

What if you want to start exercising?

What if you’re giving up sweets?

Our own experience as well as research show us that new health-related behaviors may take some time to stick. Consider that the average smoker tries to quit upwards of five times before finally succeeding. If each time the smoker tries to quit and fails, the habenula is encoding that smoking cessation doesn’t work, then what does that mean for the likelihood of another quit attempt?

We have to overcome our natural tendency to discontinue unsuccessful behaviors if we want to change habits. 

This is hard. It’s hard because we’re wired to learn from mistakes. It’s hard because our brain physically encodes information to stop us from repeating failed behaviors.

This neurological perspective on habit formation hammers home why building self-efficacy is so important in behavior change. Self-efficacy is the result of small wins that build over time and create a sense of confidence in the ability to reach goals. I’m not sure what successes do to the landscape of the brain, but they clearly help people overcome the changes made to the habenula by failure.