What is a habit? Simply put, it is a person’s customary way of thinking or behaving. Habitual behaviour is natural or automatic and does not demand self-analysis. For better or for worse, habits become a part of who we are and constitute an intrinsic aspect of our personality. For example, those who are habituated to drinking bed-tea find it difficult to get out of bed without their morning cup. Those who are accustomed to a game of tennis after office feel uneasy on rainy days when they cannot play.
Those who have the habit of drinking wine with their meal cannot swallow their dinner without it. And those who are used to uplifting their mind through daily sadhana, or spiritual practice, feel uncomfortable if they miss it even a single day.
The Power of Conditioning
In India’s Gajapati district of Southern Odisha, is an area at the base of Mahendragiri Hills, where elephants are trained. I once visited Mahendragiri and found a row of elephants roped to wooden stakes dug into the earth. I asked the mahout (elephant caretaker) about the secret of the elephants’ docility.
The mahout explained, ‘Swami-ji, when the elephant is a baby, it is tied with ropes to a stake. Initially, it is not used to being secured, so it pulls and pulls. Since it is weak and the rope is strong, it keeps tugging in vain till a day comes when it realises that no tugging will help. Then, it stops and stands still. Now it is “conditioned”. Later, when it becomes a huge and mighty adult tusker, it is still tied with the rope to the stake. With one tug, it could walk away to freedom, but it goes nowhere because it has been “conditioned”.’
We humans too tend to behave according to our habitual conditioning. We act through the force of habit as our mind is conditioned. As humans we are free to choose differently, but rarely do we consider the available alternatives. Our everyday attitudes also come from mental conditioning.
If we have habituated our mind to see the positive side of things, we are likely to remain cheerful and optimistic even when difficult situations arise. If we have accustomed our mind to doubt or to see the worst in others, we will habitually suspect even their best-intentioned actions. Similarly, thoughts of generosity, empathy, fear, and envy also come to us from habitual thought patterns. First, we mould our habits, and later, our habits mould us.
Why do habits grip us so powerfully? This is because of the way in which the brain has been hardwired. Let us understand how.
The Neuroplastic Nature of the Brain
The science of neurology says the human brain is endowed with a hundred billion neurons. These combine with each other to form trillions of neural circuits. Every thought pattern we generate within our mind uses neural connections.
When we repeatedly harbour a pattern of thoughts, their neural circuit becomes etched in the brain. This phenomenon called ‘neuroplasticity’ is the ability of the mind to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections in response to situations or changes in the environment.
The consequence of neuroplasticity is that when a neural circuit becomes intensely engraved in the brain, the corresponding thought pattern comes more easily to the mind, thereby conditioning it. The first to postulate the impact of habituation on human and animal behaviour was Ivan Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1904.
You may have heard of his famous experiments with dogs. Pavlov’s research paved the way for the ‘classical conditioning’ theory. He initially began his study to gather information on the digestive system of dogs. With the help of his laboratory assistants, he documented the amount dogs would salivate (since mammals produce saliva in the mouth that helps break down food).
The lab assistants who fed the dogs would wear white coats. However, Pavlov soon noticed that even without being presented with food, the dogs began drooling simply on seeing the white-coat assistants. He then conducted a study in which he rang a bell every time he fed the dogs. Soon, just ringing of the bell made the dogs salivate. The dogs had learned to associate the bell with the food, and as a result, ringing the bell evoked the same response as the food itself.
This led to the theory of ‘classical conditioning’ which shed new light on human behaviour. Psychologists now understood how thought patterns get etched in neural pathways in the brain. How can we leverage this nature of neuroplasticity to our benefit? This requires us to first understand the process of habit formation.
The Physiology of Habit Formation
In Indian language Hindi physiology know as manovigyan which mean whenever we decide to do any physical or mental work, our brain fires neurons in different regions including the sensory motor region, the neocortex, and the prefrontal lobes. But the beauty is that the brain has a self-programming ability.
When it sees some activity being repeated, it creates shortcuts of the neural sequences and stores them in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain responsible for learning, habits, and emotions.
This enables the brain to engage in those activities with greater ease in the future. Habit formation is thus the brain’s way of simplifying its work and making it more efficient. For example, the first time we began typing, our brain had to exert itself to the maximum to identify and press the required keys.
Consequently, it took us a few minutes to type a handful of words. However, as we continued typing, the brain began programming itself. The moment we thought of a letter, our finger would fly on the keyboard to press the corresponding key.
The brain had created programmes for the neural sequences to be fired for the task. With repeated practice, the brain began forming programmes for entire words, enabling the keys to be pressed in multiple sequences.
As a result, after a year of training, we were typing at speeds of fifty words a minute and above. Without such a self-programming ability, typing would have been as laborious as it was on the first day. Then we would be unable to think of anything else while typing. Fortunately, the power of habits simplifies the brain’s work, and along with typing, we are also able to think, imagine, and plan.
Similarly, we multitask while we drive. We speak to passengers, listen to audio talks, and plan the rest of our day. However, on the first day of driving, the tasks of simultaneously controlling the steering, accelerator, and brakes are so formidable that they take up all our attention. With continued practice, the brain keeps programming itself, creating habits out of these tasks.
Finally, the day comes when we can simultaneously drive and engage in a spirited conversation without risk. By creating habitual programmes, the brain gets its work done while expending much less energy. A study was conducted to observe cerebral activity in rats.
The rats were left in a maze, at a distance from a chunk of cheese. They slowly sniffed their way to it. As the experiment was repeated, their brain began learning the pathways and they progressed more quickly to the cheese. After a month, on being left in the maze they could run towards the cheese. The instruments on their head showed that brain activity progressively reduced as the learning occurred.
The Habit Loop
A habit has three parts to it:
The stimulus works like a trigger for the brain which then responds with the conditioned behaviour. That behaviour generates a reward which further reinforces the pattern for the future. For example, if for a month, while watching TV, you drank tea regularly, it would grow into a habit. Now, whenever you sit before the TV, it acts as a trigger.
The brain responds by creating the desire for tea. And when you drink the tea, the sensual gratification is the reward that reinforces the habit loop. The brain is so smart that it does not need an external reward for reinforcement. It generates the feel-good chemicals—serotonin, endorphin, and dopamine—and sends them to the part of the brain that was engaged in the activity.
These chemicals create the ‘feel-good’ sensation which is the reward. Consider another example. Suppose that working on your assignment is drudgery for the brain, which seeks some diversion. When you hear the chime of a new email, you go to your inbox and check it. This provides a welcome distraction from work.
The brain gets relief from the present drudgery and a slight pleasure from the content of the email. Plus, the feel-good chemicals created by the brain reinforce the habit loop. Now every time the email bell chimes, the mind generates an irresistible desire for reading it, which is hard to overcome. It has become a habit.
The patterns of habits become so strong that people find themselves helpless in changing them. Studies have shown that habits remain even after surgery is done on the brains of alcoholics. On the appearance of old cues, the cravings for rewards manifest again, waiting to exert their power on the mind.
Cues for habitual behaviour can be of infinite variety—a picture of ice cream, a certain place, a certain time of the day, or the company of a particular person. The routines they trigger can be a mere emotion that comes for milliseconds or a complex sequence of behaviours. The rewards vary—emotional payoff, chemical gratification, sensual pleasure, mental stimulation, or any combination of these.
Habits often enter our lives without our conscious permission. But they grow so strong that they shape our destiny far more than we realise. They cause our brain to latch onto them, to the exclusion of all else, including common sense. In this way, habits can be compared to a cable.
Each day, we weave a thread of the cable. The singular thread seems too weak to hold us, however, when woven together, the cable is almost unbreakable. But the good news is that habits can be changed. Social researchers conducted studies to understand why families increased their fast food consumption when a fast food outlet moved into their neighbourhood.
They found that advertisements, picturesque billboards, and other allurements successfully created cues for triggering the habit loop for eating French fries. The pleasurable taste of fat, salt, and crispy fries provided the natural reward. Inadvertently, customer behaviour was influenced to the extent that some of the families began taking their dinner daily at the fast food joint. When the outlet moved out of the neighbourhood, the family habit slowly began changing.
They started having food at home more often. Within a year, the habit had fully subsided. The conclusion was that habits are changeable. The brain’s quality of neuroplasticity works like a two-edged sword. On the negative side, it programmes and shackles our thinking in deleterious thought patterns. On the positive side, it provides an opportunity to reshape the brain, disband old habits, and install new ones. Thus, habits can be learned and unlearned. The potential is immense!
Good and Bad Habits
Habits can be compared to macros in an Excel sheet. If we have tasks we wish to repeat in multiple cells, we can record a macro to automate them and quickly apply the set of actions to selected cells. Habits are like macros in the brain. On receiving the given cue, the brain automatically performs the actions of its programming.
However, there is a catch to it. The created macro does not care whether it was correctly designed or not. If correct, it saves time through automated processes. But if the macro itself is wrong, we end up with a messed up excel sheet. Likewise, habits too programme the brain for our benefit or harm. Here is an anecdotal tale about habits. In the early twentieth century, a British explorer came across a group of cannibals.
They sat around a feast of human flesh and were about to eat. The explorer was surprised to learn that the tribal chief had studied at Cambridge University. ‘You have received good education and you still eat human flesh?’ the traveller asked. ‘Yes,’ replied the cannibal chief. ‘The only difference is that earlier I used to eat with my fingers, and now I eat with a knife and fork.’ As the vintage saying goes, ‘Old habits die hard.’ Unfortunately, good habits require effort for their creation, while bad habits develop all too easily.
You indulge in something that gives pleasure in the moment. While the habit is forming, you do not realise the serious long-term harm it is causing, and you carelessly repeat the pleasurable indulgence. In a few weeks, the habit grips you, and you find yourself bound by the habit loop: stimulus—response—reward. Good habits are hard to come by and easy to live with.
Conversely, bad habits develop easily and are hard to live with. Given the fact that bad habits harm us, we need to be more aware of the repeated choices we make. Very often, people unconsciously make choices in their lives.
It is like the horse rider, who, when asked where he was going, replied, ‘I don’t know, ask the horse.’ The horse rider’s response was comical because he should have set the direction, not the horse. Similarly, our unconscious choices create bad habits we later live to regret.
The reason bad habits get a grip on us is that the first few times we repeat a harmful behaviour, it does not seem to do much damage. The first few puffs of a cigarette do not forebode that cigarettes are addictive.
The initial pegs of alcohol do not warn us of the obsessive compulsion that lies ahead. Take the example of a giant Sequoia tree that lives for over 2,000 years and grows up to a height of 300 feet, the height of a 20-storey building. Yet, as you travel the Yosemite forest in California, you find a huge Sequoia lying on the ground. What happened to it? It was born two millennia in the past and was thriving until a few decades ago. Then, a beetle came to live on it.
The huge tree seemed to be in no danger from the little creature. But within a year, there were hundreds of beetles crawling on the tree. In four years, the beetles had made gigantic colonies on the tree. They now had the upper hand and were invincible. During the fifth year, the giant tree, one of the biggest in the world, had been felled by the tiny beetles. Similarly, when a person first takes bhāng (marijuana), the changes in the body and mind seem so minute that the user is almost unaware of them. But the habit loop has been set in motion.
Every indulgence thereafter acts like a thread in the cable until the cable is so strong that it becomes an addiction. Even visits to the rehabilitation centre are of no use in breaking it. The same is the case with good habits. In the short run, their benefits may seem imperceptible. Going for one session of yoga on Sunday may not make any noticeable difference to your health.
However, if you consistently do yoga five to six days a week, and continue week after week, then in the space of a few years, you will definitely become a healthier person. Taking a glass of water upon waking up one day may be of no significance. But if you habitually drink water first thing every morning, your digestive system will undoubtedly become better in a few years. Thus, the benefit of a good habit is the cumulative impact it has in the long run.
Use the Power of Habits to Build a Noble Character
Over time, our habits form or build our character. A virtuous character is the consequence of morally upright habits. For example, if we are truthful day after day, week after week, and year after year, it becomes installed within us as a habit. In this way, honesty does not come by itself; it is a habit we ingrain within ourselves.
Once installed, the habit of honesty prevents us from wandering off course morally or ethically in our day-to-day behaviour. Building a noble character requires the elimination of detrimental habits and installation of beneficial ones. Without success in this, we will remain fettered slaves of our mind and senses. Like a rudderless ship in a stormy ocean, we will continually be tossed around by the waves of maya that come in the form of anger, greed, desire, envy, and illusion.
Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed this well when he said: Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. We must thus apply ourselves to the task of breaking our dysfunctional habits and developing beneficial ones. If this seems an arduous task, let us take encouragement from the fact that even animals change painful habits, as the story here illustrates.
India has many popular tales of the seventeenth century Mughal emperor, Akbar, and his wise and intelligent minister, Birbal. It is said that Akbar once asked Birbal if there was anyone in his kingdom who could train goats to resist green grass. Birbal replied that it was a small matter, and he needed just a month to get it done. Birbal then took a goat to his home. Everyday he would place fresh green grass before the goat, but the moment it would try to eat the grass, he would whack the goat severely on the mouth with a stick.
Finally, even the goat’s tiny intellect learned that eating the grass was too painful and the reward was not worth its while. After a month’s training, Birbal brought the goat to Akbar’s court. He announced to the king, ‘Your Majesty, this goat is trained. It will not eat even the most succulent grass.’ Akbar asked his servants to bring fresh grass.
He put the grass before the goat’s nose. In the meantime, Birbal twirled the stick in his hand. The goat looked at the grass, then looked at the stick, and turned its head away. It had learned to resist eating grass by grasping the dreadful penalty. This story reveals the basic nature of all creatures including humans.
We all wish to avoid pain. On becoming aware of the painful consequences, even the unintelligent goat learned to break away from its natural tendency of eating grass. Likewise, we too must become aware of the miserable long-term consequences of bad habits. If we can convince ourselves of the harm they cause us and the pain they inflict upon us, we will be able to break their gravitational pull.