Have you ever wondered why habits are so hard to break, especially the bad ones?

The habits that human beings follow might have a positive impact on behaviours, but they can have a negative effect on social relations. Human habits are complex, and the significance of habits has been demonstrated in various behaviours across all domains; for example, our work or exercise routine, our morning walks, our route to work, our eating habits, our favourite restaurants and how we interact in our environment. Changing habits to retrain the brain can be challenging since our behaviours are not only hardwired in our physical activity. The repetition of these behaviours has a significant effect on our brains.

The Brain

As neuroscience is discovering, the brain’s ability is greater than the best computer invented by man. The brain is a complex piece of machinery, and the approximately eighty-six billion neurons in the brain are eager little individuals that create their little habits based on our repeated thoughts, feelings, and actions. The brain operates using chemicals, and different behaviours result in the production of the various chemicals that are released into the brain. The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is well known, but dopamine is also a neurotransmitter involved in reinforcement and plays a part in developing and reinforcing our habits. How we feel is a result of the chemicals in our brain. Antidepressants work through balancing neurotransmitters, the chemicals that affect mood and emotions. An individual with depression has a lower level of the serotonin neurotransmitter. Serotonin is a multifaceted and complex neurotransmitter that is known to affect mood and cognition. Our actions and environment can impact our mood because of these brain chemicals and the neurons and their synaptic connections. The synapses connect the eighty-six billion neurons in the brain throughout the nervous system to other neurons in the body.

Repeat Behaviours

The more we repeat a behaviour, the more synaptic connections we associate with that behaviour, and this affects specific parts of the brain. The repeated behaviour results in stronger synaptic connections, which gives the neurons enough ‘juice’ to create an action potential. The release of an action potential plays a crucial role in carrying messages from the brain to other parts of the body. The voltage of the action potential allows the neuron to fire from the neurons’ pre-synapse membrane to the post-synapse, with neurotransmitters being released in the space between. The neural networks become more substantial when we repeat a behaviour or thought. The behaviour or thinking develops into a habit, providing a strong stimulus to cause the cells to work together, becoming bigger and better. This explains why with repetition, new information eventually becomes memorised and long-lasting, resulting in the brain having more synaptic connections in the relevant area.

The Synapse

Four Major Brain Lobes

And just to refresh your memory, the four major lobes of the brain are:

The Frontal Lobe – includes the neocortex and controls voluntary movement, expressive language, and higher-level executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive skills that include planning, organising, self-monitoring and managing responses to achieve a goal.

The Parietal Lobe – is essential for sensory perception, including taste, hearing, sight, touch, and smell. It is an area that interprets input from other regions of the body.

The Occipital Lobe is for visual processing, including visuospatial processing, distance, and depth perception, determining colours, object and face recognition and memory formation.

The Temporal Lobe processes auditory information, memory encoding (learning from previous experiences) and the processing of affect/emotions, language, and some visual perceptions.

Brain Lobes retrain brain

Brain Associations – Shape our Thinking

The input of sensory impressions affects many areas of the brain, and their associations affect the neural network of our experiences. And it is not as if one experience is isolated; when we think, we often associate multiple inputs, which can affect our mood. For example, a mother may enjoy the scenery and fantastic weather walking in a park. She feels good, but then she hears a mother shouting at a child, and this causes her to remember the time she was depressed after a baby was born and how she used to yell at the older sibling. The child in the park starts crying and holding onto his mother’s skirt, apologising and looking distressed. The mother remembers a blue dress she wore one day and how her son made it dirty by holding onto it whilst sobbing and saying sorry for upsetting her. She can see her 2-year-old son’s large blue eyes staring at her with tears streaming down his cheeks. She gets angry with herself for being such a horrible mother, and she regrets her son’s upbringing and knows it is why she is estranged from him now. She feels miserable and, looking at the present scene of the mother and child, she believes she is the worst mother in the world and deserves to be lonely and alone; this is her life now.

How did this mother go from having a lovely walk in the park to feeling sad, unloved, alone and wanting to cry?

Neural Networks

We can thank our habits, episodic memory, and brain associations for this change in mood. The brain responds to input by activating a neural net to the sensory organs and triggers thoughts associated with that memory. The mind is activated and reconnects to that memory. Any event or people related to that neural net of the experience will trigger the part of the brain where those old circuits are lurking, waiting to be woken up by our episodic memory. As we remember, our consciousness will activate the cluster of neurons associated with the memory. The brain’s neurons will fire in a particular sequence and chemical combinations, and we are consciously reminded of a memory hiding in the unconscious, and our mood is affected.

How the Past affects the Present

How we respond to daily stimuli is affected by past interactions. We navigate our environment using a combination of semantic (language or logic) knowledge. The more often we use the same information, the more solid that data is hardwired into the brain. As we repeat the same thoughts daily, the same neural networks will become more potent, automatic, unconscious, familiar and habitual. We start to automatically think of ourselves in a certain habitual way. The neural networks result in an unconscious response caused by the environment and the memories it awakens. We start to operate unconsciously on an autopilot created by the chronic neural networks we have developed. Once a thought activates a particular neural circuit, it causes an automatic sequence of thought forms, and we are no longer living in the present but instead are feeling and thinking from past events. And the more we live from past habitual thinking, the more those associative neural networks will be strengthened. The power of these neural networks is why it is so hard to change behaviours or negative thoughts. We have spent a lifetime developing and maintaining these neural networks, and they are hardwired into our thought processes. When we decide to attempt change, we are strongly resisted by billions of neurons and their associated neural pathways.

How can the mother stop thinking she is the worst mother in the world?

She must change her thinking by retraining her brain to create positive networks and associations, which takes time and a lot of effort. She must also be willing to develop a different personality which may require her to change her behaviour, values, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions of her environment. Some of the genetic predispositions from her parents and upbringing may need to be challenged as she chooses to form a new identity and image of herself. She may focus instead on the positive memories, even using photographs that show happier times with her son. She may repeat and use a daily strategy to focus on these positive memories, so they take precedence over the negative ones. She may decide to contact her son and ask if she may see him as she wants to apologise or discuss the past. There are many possibilities. But, it is up to her to make that change while accepting that the habits and the associated brain networks created over a lifetime will take some time to transform.

To Sum Up

Associations and repeat behaviours form neural networks that create habits of thought and behaviour. But we could retrain the brain if we introduced new and more positive neural networks and their associated memories into the brain. Our synapse may be formed by genetics and what we have learned over a lifetime, but that is not the end of development. Neuroscience has shown the brain can change; the brain and the mind are not static; they are forever changing. An individual can decide on which type of circuits they want to be in action. Suppose we repeat positive behaviours and are vigilant and control negative thoughts and even transfigure them into positive thoughts and associations. The new neural networks thus created will be associated with positivity and empowerment. The more we develop these types of networks, the more these positive patterns will become our habitual way of thinking and living.

Liz McCaughey

MC, MSc

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