Stuck in a rut

Many of our New Year’s resolutions have dwindled by the end of the month. Why are our habits so hard to change?

According to Cynthia Fekken, a professor in the department of psychology, it can be hard to change habits when the benefits won’t be seen right away.
According to Cynthia Fekken, a professor in the department of psychology, it can be hard to change habits when the benefits won’t be seen right away.
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As January comes to an end, many of our promises of attending 8:30 a.m. lectures, quitting smoking and eating healthy have slowly dwindled from our steadfast vows of new behavior at the beginning of the month. Early January sees the ARC filled with what seems to be almost double its usual number of students breaking a sweat and determined to start fresh. The decrease in students by February, however, is noticeable.

“January is annoying for sure,” said Jessica Whiting, ArtsSci ’11 and an avid exerciser. “You wait 25 minutes for a treadmill knowing that the guy on it probably won’t be back in a week. Old habits die hard.”

We’re undeniably creatures of habit. Yet in today’s society, the word itself carries a negative connotation.

“[A habit is] a routine response to a particular situation or set of stimuli,” said Cynthia Fekken, a professor in the psychology department. “In psychology, habits are viewed as a simple form of learning and in that sense, they are good. People don’t need to engage in serious deliberation each time they’re in the same situation,” she said, adding that this includes things like brushing your teeth before bed every night.

Although we know habits are a natural part of our everyday activities, what exactly makes a habit “bad”?

“We explicitly refer to habits as being bad if they are associated with negative consequences, such as eating junk food every evening while watching TV for five hours,” Fekken said. Bad habits are often confused with addictions; although there are certain differences between the two, there are evident correlations and the line dividing them can easily become blurry. For example, when does binge drinking turn into a case of alcoholism? In psychology, an addiction is always negative.

“The addiction is characterized by a lack of control on the part of the person, that she/ he cannot resist engaging in the behavior even though consequences are normally dire,” she said.

It’s this notion of addictions that the TLC show My Strange Addiction is based on. The documentary series follows people and their compulsions that range from gross, such as someone who’s addicted to eating chalk, to just plain weird, such as a woman who almost exclusively communicates through her puppets.

So why is it so hard to break a bad habit? Why does it take such a short amount of time for a person to fall right back into their old ways? Habits tend to be learned, conditioned, reinforced and modeled.

“One distinction between a good habit and a bad habit is that good habits are associated with a reward that lies in the future, whereas a bad habit is immediately rewarded,” Fekken said.

This can be seen in students who go to the gym in January: they will need to wait weeks, if not months, to see significant improvements in their health, whereas those sitting at home eating snacks on the couch will feel good in the short term.

“The addiction is characterized by the reliance on a short-term reward as well as a physical dependence on the substance,” she said.

Andrea Jones, ArtSci ’11, is working on research with Eric Dumont, a professor in the department of biology.

Their research involves understanding the biological processes that occur through the voluntary administration of a substance.

The research is conducted on rats that are trained to voluntarily self-administer cocaine. The experiments are set up so that the rats have to press a lever a certain number of times to get a dose of cocaine.

There is also another group of rats that passively receive cocaine—they don’t have to do any work.

Each time the self-administering group receives a dosage, the number of times they have to press the lever increases. (For example, for the first dosage, they press the lever once and for the second, they press the lever twice and so on).

“What’s interesting is that rats that passively receive cocaine don’t exhibit the same behavior of compulsive binging or cellular changes,” Jones said. “These cellular changes are similar in how humans learn—the connections in our brains change every time we learn something new.

“So when the rats are trained to perform a task to receive cocaine, it makes the decision to work harder for the drug,” she said, adding that rats have even been shown to put themselves in harm’s way for cocaine.

“It’s important to understand that when someone begins to voluntarily take addictive drugs, smoke or gamble, there are long-standing changes in the brain,” she said, such as changes in how people think, act and perceive the world.

“They enter a cycle of binge-withdrawal-craving and that becomes a major focus in their lives, more important than natural necessities like food or even physical pain.”

Rats have been used in the study of habitual learning and addictive behavior for quite some time. Important neural activity patterns in a specific region of the brain change when habits are formed, change again when habits are broken and re-emerge when that extinguished habit is rekindled. These habitual patterns occur in the basal ganglia, a brain region that is critical to habits, addiction and procedural learning.

Malfunctions in the ganglia are common in patients with Parkinson’s disease, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and many other neuropsychiatric disorders. In 2005 Ann Graybiel, a professor of neurosciences at MIT’s McGovern Institute, conducted a study regarding habitual learning with rats.

In Graybiel’s experiments, the rats learned there was a chocolate reward at the end of a maze. As they were learning the maze, their neurons were active throughout the entire maze.

As the rats learned the exact location of the chocolate, their neurons fired up only at the beginning and end of the task; the rats were relatively uninterested through the rest of the maze.

Once the researchers removed the reward, the rats slowly stopped going through the maze, and the learned habit of expecting the chocolate reward and its accompanying neural pattern disappeared.

As soon as the reward was returned, however, the learned pattern appeared again, accompanied by spikes in neural activity at the beginning and end of the race.

The researchers were attempting to stimulate the learning and forgetting of a habit. “If a learned pattern remains in the brain after the behavior is extinguished, maybe that’s why it is so difficult to change a habit,” Graybiel said.

One way to break a bad habit is through the repetition of a new behavior, such as working out at the same time every day.

However, it’s important to note how easy it can be to fall back into an old habit, no matter how long ago it was broken.

“It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back,” Graybiel said.

“This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions.” Chris Mitchell, ArtSci ’11, smoked for four years and just quit cold turkey two weeks ago. “It’s probably the first time I’ve seriously tried quitting,” he said, adding that his dependence on smoking was physical and mental.

“To a larger extent it’s a mental addiction. You start to think, ‘I don’t think I can study for exams without it.’” Mitchell said an important trigger to restarting the habit would be his environment. “It’s difficult to be around people so involved in the habit,” he said.

Another obstacle to quitting is drinking.

“You sometimes justify having a cigarette,” he said. “Drinking’s notorious for lowering people’s drive.”

Breaking habits can be difficult when it’s become part of daily life, he said.

“People become adjusted to it. They develop a routine around the habit,” he said, adding that with smoking, it’s common to develop a routine of smoking during certain times throughout the day, such as after class or a meal.

“It starts to become almost unconscious,” he said. “People are worried about changing their routine.”

With files from Kelly Loeper

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