Why Change Is So Hard: The Power of Habit in the Human Brain

Woman On The BridgeHave you ever tried to shed an old, troublesome habit? Ever made a New Year’s resolution you couldn’t keep? If so, welcome to the human race. And welcome to your brain.

We Are Creatures of Habit

A few weeks ago, I made a mixture of nuts and dried fruit and settled in for a few minutes of television in the evening. The next night, I did the same. By the third night, I was craving the nuts as I contemplated watching a show I had recorded. I was astonished how quickly I had developed the nutty TV habit. I felt like Pavlov’s dog, salivating when the bell rang. Or, in my case, salivating as I thought of TV, now associated with my new favorite snack.

While on the first night I was genuinely hungry, by the third I was eating out of habit, mindlessly heading to the nuts even though I was still pretty full from dinner. Neuroscience gives us insight into the power of habit in our lives—and why we can become victims of our own habitual behaviors.

The Anatomy of Habit

Everything we do, feel, or think is reflected in circuits of neurons in our brains. Neurons, or brain cells, communicate with each other at a gap, called the synapse. One neuron releases chemicals—neurotransmitters—into the synaptic space, where it is picked up by the receptors of the next neuron. There are billions of neurons in the human brain; each neuron connects with up to 10,000 other neurons, resulting in trillions of synaptic connections. These interconnected neurons become circuits that underlie our habits.

The more we do something—eat nuts while watching TV, ride a bike, play an instrument, study a new language—the stronger the neuronal circuit becomes that supports that habit. Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuroscientist in the 1940s, noted that once a circuit of neurons is formed, when one neuron fires, the others fire as well—strengthening the whole circuit. This has come to be known as Hebbian theory: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Circuits of neurons maintain our habits, and our habits strengthen those neuronal circuits. The bio-behavioral influence goes both ways.

You Are What You Do

Scientists have shown that experience changes the connection between neurons. Everything you do changes your brain. If I continue my nightly TV-with-nuts ritual, that habit will become “wired” into my neuronal circuits. My behavior will change the structure of my brain. This is a rather sobering thought. From this perspective, you are what you do … so be careful what you do!

The more you do something, the more likely you are to do it in the future. The habit-driven brain doesn’t distinguish between good and problematic behaviors; it just builds repeated behaviors, thoughts, and feelings into stronger and stronger neuronal circuits. So what’s a person to do? Are we doomed to live on automatic pilot, driven by our lower brain and our habits?

While my nuts-and-TV behavior affects only me, other habits can cause damage to relationships. If I repetitively treat my husband with disrespect, that behavior becomes a part of who I am in the relationship. And it may evoke a less-than-ideal response in him, creating a negative relational dance that can erode our bond. We then become victims of our own relationship behaviors.

Prisoners of Our Habits?

We do have a choice: We can mindlessly play out problematic behaviors over and over again, becoming essentially prisoners of our own habits. Or we can step back, use our higher brains, and reflect on our actions. After three nights of my new TV-nuts habit, I realized I was acting like an automaton, and I didn’t like it. So I made a choice, using my prefrontal cortex, the part of my brain that allows me to think about what I do. I thought about the extra calories and, more importantly, the fact I didn’t want to engage in mindless eating. I stopped my habit in its tracks. Now if I decide to eat nuts, it’s when I’m actually hungry, not because I’m Pavlov’s salivating dog.

In my marriage, I work hard not to act mindlessly or to get caught up in habits of emotional reactivity. I try to think about my higher goals and to behave in accordance with my values. I don’t have to be a prisoner of my automatic response. I have learned to pause, take a breath, and think about how I want to be in my relationship. I have the power to choose, and the ability to change when I fall into thoughtless relational habits.

We Are Creatures of Change and Adaptation

It turns out that although we are creatures of habit, humans are also creatures of change and adaptation. Our brains are constantly changing in response to our changing environment. Our adaptability is the secret to our success as a species. The challenge is to harness our adaptability and use it toward positive ends, to make choices about who we want to be in our world.

You don’t have complete freedom to create yourself; you do come with genetic gifts and limitations, or temperament. But you have a lot more power to become the person you want to be than you might think. You are not predetermined by your genes. The secret is neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change.

Until a decade or so ago, neuroscientists thought that neuroplasticity was possible only in children’s brains. Indeed, the young brain is highly adaptable and shaped by experience, changing and growing with the nurturance (or lack of it) a child receives from parents and other caregivers. Everything is new to a young child; he or she absorbs it all, and is molded by the world around. (This is the nurture part of nature-and-nurture that makes us who we are.)

In recent years, scientists have made the amazing discovery that the adult brain is also plastic (changeable); we can learn and grow—changing our brains in the process—throughout life. And, it turns out, experience not only changes the connections between neurons, it affects the expression of genes. Genes are turned on or off by experience and environment (this is called epigenetics).

This remarkable new perspective on the adult brain’s capacity for change is heartening to those of us who want to keep growing and learning as we age. It is empowering to know that we can change bad habits and learn new skills throughout life; we don’t have to be victims of our past or of our genes. But it’s much harder for the adult brain to change than the child’s brain. With all of our wired-in habits, we have to work at what comes naturally to the young child.

Neuroplasticity Is a Double-Edged Sword

Neuroplasticity is responsible for both habits and change. Since everything you do changes your brain, you can get trapped in habits by doing them over and over—or you can make a decision to change those habits, choose a new path, and create new habits that are more in keeping with your values. You can live mindlessly, on automatic pilot. Or you can choose a different path and live in a more mindful way. The choice is yours.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mona D. Fishbane, PhD, Interpersonal Neurobiology Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Eva

    March 17th, 2015 at 10:17 AM

    I hear this all the time at my job, that people have just been there too long to ever want to implement any kind of positive change. They like things just the way they are, and that feels safe for them. I am all for that because i know how hard change can be for any of us, but at the same time this could really be the one thing that could help all of us learn and grow so isn’t it at least worth the effort to try something new if indeed something so good can come out of it?

  • Charlotte

    March 17th, 2015 at 11:58 AM

    sots definitely true that it is really hard to teach an old dog new tricks

  • Carlee

    March 18th, 2015 at 7:43 AM

    It’s like anything that you do. You have to do it for so long of a period of time before that becomes the habit. Not always an easy thing to do, but if you want to make a lasting change in your life, then you have to be willing to commit to the hard work that is probably going to be involved.

  • blake

    March 18th, 2015 at 10:58 AM

    I am the person that no one wants to hear about, the person who never wants to change because it is too hard. I will admit that this is me. But the way that I always try to explain that is why change what works? If something works just fine then why is there ever any reason that you should need to change it?
    I think that it can be a good way to grow as a person and on a personal level. but I also think that this needs to be an individual decision and that this is not something that has to be mandated by someone else.
    When you are ready to do it then it is a pretty good likelihood that you will.

  • vick

    March 19th, 2015 at 3:48 AM

    So evident in someone like me who wnats to lose weight but who sits around with a bag of chips watching TV every night and wondering why I can’t ever make that happen

    that is my habit and it is a hard one to think of giving that one up to establish a new one, even though I know that if I did it would be for something much healthier for me.

  • Carney

    March 21st, 2015 at 6:02 AM

    I am a victim of the habit of eating while watching television too. It’s not usually that I am really hungry when I sit down to unwind but this is what I have always done, sit down with a snack so not it feels like such a deprivation to not have anything beside me even when I am really not all that hungry.

  • Joanna

    July 27th, 2015 at 2:11 PM

    This is so interesting and fascinating article I really like the idea of neuroplasticity.

  • Travis

    July 27th, 2015 at 7:19 PM

    Does this mean people with personality disorders can be fully cured?

  • Think CBT

    August 1st, 2015 at 7:28 AM

    When we are experiencing distress, the brain reverts to a pattern replicating machine. As human beings however, we have the ability to transcend negative patterns of thinking and behaving. CBT and mindfulness practice can help to break these negative cycles and help us to behave in accordance with our goals. Read more at thinkcbt.com

  • levi

    October 2nd, 2021 at 8:26 PM

    I agree, it can be hard to change old habits, however sometimes we need to in order to better ourselves.

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