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  • Sandy Jolles

The Circuitry of Building Habits

Did you know that our habits are formed away from the control of the brain's conscious, decision-making frontal lobes?

Deep in the brain, habits are created in the "habit hub", the same place that our muscle memory forms. Your brain releases dopamine each time you complete a certain action, and after months or years of repetition, the neural connections in the reward centers and habit hub strengthens. As a result, the habit sticks (hopefully)! A habit becomes a problem when we feel that we no longer have control over it or it needs to be done in large amounts just to feel "normal." Anything that delivers a particularly powerful dopamine boost has the potential to become your main source of pleasure. Certain drugs lure people because they chemically deliver an unnaturally large dopamine release - up to 10 times the amount a natural reward does. The reward system is quickly hijacked, replacing the natural flow of dopamine so that we soon need the drug just to feel normal levels of pleasure. The genes that determine our dopamine circuitry make a difference on how quickly we can become hooked on a habit, and our environment may be equally important. We know that good connections with others and a sense of purpose and belonging makes dependency far less likely. The rule of thumb is that it takes 21 days to build a habit, but, this is unfortunately inaccurate. For daily habits such as doing 15 minutes of exercise a day, this can take an average of 66 days to stick, but others can take as few as 18 or as many as 254 days. How much the habits breaks your norm, your motivation to change, the satisfaction you feel, as well as the complexity of the habit, can all have an effect.

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