• on March 1, 2016

How habits are made (and unmade) in the brain

I love my habits, they are a very neat way of freeing up brain space for other things. If I had to remind myself daily “now is the time to clean my teeth, wash my hands, feed the cat….” the list is endless, my poor brain would seize up.

So I chunk together my behaviours into habits and enjoy the automatic responses that I generate by repetition. As I walk in the door, I pass my banana tree and ooh, yes, there are some lovely bananas waiting for me. I might just have one, peeling it in an instant, and scoffing it down without pausing for breath. That hardly touches the sides, so I have another and yes, you know the rest. I have done this so often, for so long, I now have a banana habit. (Thankfully the 8pm bag of Kettle Chips, French stick on the way home from shopping, tea and cake at 3pm at work…. I could go on, are things of the past).

Yes, I know bananas are good for you (shame about all that potassium though, is my heart still beating?) and believe me, I can justify anything where food is concerned. But if we look at our habits, whilst some are wonderfully admirable, others are so self destructive and so at odds with our true nature that we can find strong motivation to tackle them.

This week in the group we discussed our habits, both supportive and downright unwanted. We looked at a great piece of research


that explains about a part of our brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (we will call it VPFC) that anticipates the value of an expected event. It works like this: we are hungry, a plate of food is brought to us, our VPFC lights up like a Christmas tree. Here comes the reward! Once we are full the VPFC ceases to fire, devaluing the experience of eating and discouraging us from continuing.

But guess what? Habitual eaters like us overeaters, binge eaters, compulsive eaters, addictive eaters, we have a problem. Rather than switching off, our VPFC carries on firing during habitual eating, positively rewarding eating without being hungry. Could this explain why we often feel that we have lost our “off” switch?

The development of habitual eating (e.g. my bananas as soon as I get in, hungry or not) has changed the act of eating from something dependent on the need for nourishment and transformed it into an automatic response. My habit system reigns supreme!

The good news is that all this can be changed. We might have to put up with some kicking and screaming and the odd tantrum from the primitive brain;

“don’t you know bananas are a health food, you need them to SURVIVE”!

But we are used to that.

Basically, how we change habitual behaviour is by NOTICING it. Yes, the very first step of The Process. Noticing, bringing conscious awareness to the habit, is the key to being free of it. So, as I arrive home, I acknowledge my bananas on my tree. I sometimes break one off and take it into the kitchen. Sometimes I just pass by. If I want to eat it, I sit down, peel it slowly and actually experience eating it, checking in with my belly that this is actually what I want to eat. Nine times out of ten, I choose to not eat a banana. It’s there, I can have one. No stress, tension or pull. Sounds silly? Not as silly as being home for five minutes surrounded by banana skins, feeling the beginnings of a “banana coma” coming on and asking “how did that happen then?”

So this week, as we move through Step Four of The Process, we are engaging with out behaviours kindly. No name calling, no hurtful, sniping asides to ourselves and our perceived weaknesses. Just shining a light on our habits because we are curious and interested to understand ourselves better. All we want to do is eat what we need.