Your Brain’s Autopilot Function

Habit Science


Your brain is lazy. Yep, it’s true. Your brain wants to do the least amount of work possible. That’s why it creates habits.

Habits are behaviors you perform throughout your day without much thought. If the first thing you do in the morning is to brush your teeth, it’s not because you are making the conscious decision to rid your mouth of bacteria that grew there overnight. It’s because over the years, you’ve made brushing your teeth a habit.

So, how did your brain know it was time to brush your teeth? Behaviors become habits through a series of cues. First, your alarm went off. Then, you set your feet on the floor. Next, you walked to the bathroom where you saw your sink. Each of the events in this series were cues to brush your teeth. Your brain wants to create habits like this one to reserve other energy for more important tasks.

Habits are technically called stimulus-response behavioral tasks. The basal ganglia, a group of structures found deep within your brain, is activated when you perform habits. Because habits run on autopilot, they don’t interact much with motivation. That’s why changing a habit can be so challenging, even if you feel motivated.

Whether you’re trying to add a good habit or drop a bad one, you can help your brain get out of autopilot by making changes to your environment. If you’re trying to get rid of a habit, you’ll first need to identify what cues you to perform it and replace or remove them. If you want to go to the gym instead of happy hour after work, change into your gym clothes before you leave the office. If you want to read more books and watch less television, place a book on top of the remote, so in order to turn on the TV, you have to bypass another cue. If you want to get out of the house more, put on shoes (not slippers) as soon as you wake up.

Habit change isn’t easy. Your brain is wired to continue to perform the same habits that have been serving you in one way or another for your lifetime. You will need to be persistent and change won’t happen overnight, but it can happen with repeated effort.

References

  • ScienceDaily. “How We Form Habits, Change Existing Ones.” Accessed January 10, 2020. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140808111931.htm
  • Neal, David T., Wendy Wood, Jennifer S. Labrecque, and Phillippa Lally. “How Do Habits Guide Behavior? Perceived and Actual Triggers of Habits in Daily Life.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48, no. 2 (March 1, 2012): 492–98. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.10.011.
  • Neal, David T., Wendy Wood, Mengju Wu, and David Kurlander. “The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, August 22, 2011. doi: 10.1177/0146167211419863.