Friday, 24 January 2014

How do we change if we’re hard-wired for habits?

“The brain is a habit machine” one of the founders of Do Something Different, Professor Ben Fletcher, often tells us, before going on to remind us how recent scientific discoveries have changed views about the adult brain.
 
Professor Ben Fletcher says 'the brain is a habit machine'
but says doing something different is the antidote.
For many years it was thought the brain was fixed and immutable, that it was incapable of restructuring itself. Then, in the early twentieth century, evidence emerged showing that the brain is more malleable than ever thought possible. It can and does change.

Novel stimuli cause the brain to create new neural pathways or reorganize existing ones.


We’re talking here about the principle of neuroplasticity. It is now recognised that the brain is constantly changing in response to new experiences, new behaviors and different environments. Novel stimuli cause the brain to create new neural pathways or reorganize existing ones, fundamentally altering how behaviour is created and how information is processed.

A ground-breaking study into neuroplasticity involved scanning the brains of London taxi drivers (Maguire et al., 2000). Typically, a London taxi driver spends around two years studying the complex layout of the city and its myriad of streets. This long, rigorous period of training causes structural changes in the taxi drivers’ brains. When their brains were exposed to fMRI scanning, the taxi drivers’  hippocampuses were found to be significantly larger than those of a control group of 50 healthy men. The hippocampus is the brain area involved in memory and navigation. And the longer the time spent as a taxi driver the larger it was.

Repetition of an activity (in other words, habits) results in the brain falling back on the same set of existing neural pathways.

Further examples of brain neuroplasticity are less dramatic, but they demonstrate the same principle. They have shown that some activities impact the brain more than others (Mechelli et al., 2004; Gaser and Schlaug, 2003; Draganski et al., 2006) and that repetition of an activity (in other words, habits) results in the brain falling back on the same set of existing neural pathways. Therefore, to continue changing, the brain must be challenged to work in new ways. It must be exposed to novel experiences and new behaviours.

To continue changing, the brain must be challenged to work in new ways. It must be exposed to novel experiences and new behaviours.

DoSomething Different draws on this idea, by helping everyone on our programmes to create experiences that challenge their existing habits. Because brain science also tells us that experiences change the brain, not thoughts. It’s about acting, not thinking.

The Do’s we create tackle the individual’s habitual ways of behaving and responding. Doing something different exposes the person to regular, novel experiences. This reduces the likelihood of the brain falling back on old neural pathways. Not only does this mean that life gets better, it also means old maladaptive behaviours – overeating, excessive drinking, bias, stress - are less likely to get repeated. This is behaviour change in action, one Do at a time.

This is a copy of a blog I (Karen) wrote for the Do Something Different website over at http://dsd.me. Many of the principles discussed here apply to people's money habits too!




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