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Monique Keiran: Habits help the brain be more efficient

When he was younger and had more hair, Nature Boy often marked this time of year by resolving to break annoying habits.

When he was younger and had more hair, Nature Boy often marked this time of year by resolving to break annoying habits. These included snacking between meals, spending too much time onscreen, sleeping until the last possible minute before getting up and getting ready for work, and so on.

Year after year, he resolved to get smarter, fitter, faster or just get up.

You could say he was beginning to develop a habit of making resolutions to break bad habits.

Alas, as with so many resolutions made by so many people, a resolution-making habit does little to squelch the habits prompting the resolutions.

The thing with habits is that we usually aren’t aware of them forming. Oh, we consciously try out behaviours to suit specific situations. This takes time, energy and the brain’s version of random access memory. We reject some behaviours and repeat those that seem helpful or rewarding, and not too costly.

Over time, these become routines. The more we practise routines, the better we become at them.

Bit by bit, we disengage from their details. We stop monitoring what we do, and the routine switches over to autopilot.

Neuroscientists call this “chunking.” What our brains perceive at the outset as a series of small, discrete actions becomes a single behaviour package.

The researchers have watched this packaging happen in real time within the brain. They wired the heads of rats, monkeys and people and tracked how different parts of the brain light up as deliberate actions become habits.

While animals learn behaviours, neurons in a primitive part of the brain called the striatum fire constantly through the activity. But as behaviour becomes habit, activity in the animals’ striata bookends the routines, marking the start and the end, with only a few cells firing between.

The brain cells help package the habit, and the neuron-bookends mark the package’s boundaries. Trigger the cells representing the habit’s start, and the sequence unfolds automatically.

Your alarm goes off, you reach out and hit the snooze button — without waking. Your boss blows in with another emergency, you reach for your chocolate stash, break off a piece and eat it — without thinking.

While this can lead to habits such as repeatedly being late for work, eating too much chocolate (is it possible?), mindless snacking, compulsive email checking, distracted driving, gambling and so on, a good side to behaviour-chunking exists.

It frees up brain space for other pursuits. Thanks to chunking, we can read our emails (compulsively) while eating lunch (without noticing what we’re eating). We can think about last night’s pizza while driving. We can converse while hiking. Yes, it allows us to talk and walk AND chew gum, all at the same time.

Learning and memory formation also occur through chunking. We learn to play a piece of music well by combining individual finger activity and placement into single super-packages of actions. After a while, once we play the opening phrases of, say, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Pharrell Williams’ Happy, our fingers take over — even if we’re thinking about last night’s pizza.

We come to speak a language at an advanced level by chunking vocabulary and grammar. Start a sentence, and we automatically conjugate verbs appropriate to our sentences’ subjects while we focus on debating the merits of chicken-and-pesto pizza versus pepperoni-and-cheese. We learn to walk by packaging the movements of leaning forward, bending our knees, swinging our legs, and snapping our feet while constantly falling forward, so that we can hike while talking about pizza — while chewing gum.

Chunking also means habits are persistent and difficult to break. How do you break a single unit into pieces, when all it takes is your environment to trigger a few brain cells for your brain to roll out the entire, performed action package — your awareness and approval not required.

I’m happy to report Nature Boy has managed to arrest the formation of his resolution-making habit. He also snacks less and gets up earlier.

However, he now goes online until the last possible minute before getting ready for work.

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