Of Habits and Hobbits

In a hole in the brain, there lives a habit. Not a nasty, dirty, turbid one filled with the pull of obsessions (although there are those, too); but a very comfortable, secure habit. There are lots of them actually; like hobbits living in their comfortable holes.

Our lives are a stream of habits put together like a band of hobbits off to a merry chase. What we think of habitually becomes what we speak of which becomes what we do with our time which becomes what we are. Without even knowing it, we can become stuck in a rut; comfortable and secure, whistling our lives away.

Habits are a choice of action we made at one point, and then stop thinking about that choice and keep continuing to do the action on a daily basis. It is an automatic behavior and allows for our brain to ‘conserve’ energy and work more ‘efficiently.’

A huge part of our brain activity is unconscious; estimated to be up to 95%, and forty percent of the actions we perform each day aren’t actual decisions but habits. Addictions and obsessive-compulsive behaviors can result from our inability to switch from acting habitually to acting in a consciously deliberate way.

There is a constant competition in the brain between the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) where executive functioning and goal-directed actions come from; and the Basal Ganglia (BG) which houses those habit holes. Habit formation is centered at the BG (think “Staying Alive” or “How Deep is Your Love”) while decisions happen at the PFC. When habits take over, that decision-making part of the brain falls asleep. Conversely, when you put the PFC to sleep like how they do experimentally with rats using optogenetics or like how humans do with drugs and alcohol, then habits will take over. Literally, if you go through life asleep at the pre-frontal wheel, you will be a creature of habit. We like to think of ourselves as conscious, free-willed beings; but a good 90% of what most people do in any day are routines so completely followed that their behavior can be predicted with just a few mathematical equations.

Habits, from parallel parking to brushing your teeth or people watching, all follow the same behavioral and neurological pattern: there is a cue or trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, which is followed by a routine behavior, and then the sense of a ‘reward’ that the brain likes and remembers. The brain ‘chunks’ this process together and stores it in the Basal Ganglia. The brain does this to save effort and to allow our minds to chill. All the brain needs now is the cue, and the rest is history.

The brain doesn’t distinguish between good and bad habits; and so if you have a bad one stored, it is always lurking there waiting for the right trigger. But we don’t have to be a prisoner of ‘habits of our own device;’ they can be ignored, changed, or replaced. This is how Rumi, the Persian poet, describes how a human being can change: “There is a worm addicted to eating grape leaves. Suddenly, he wakes up. Call it grace, whatever, something wakes him and he is no longer a worm. He is the entire vineyard, and the orchard, too, the fruit, the trunks, a growing wisdom and joy that does not need to devour.”

Yes, ‘waking up’ or being Self-Aware at all times so you know what is going on in your body and brain is the key to getting rid of bad or non-useful habits and instilling new healthy, productive ones. The trick to change a habit is to keep the old cue, deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine or behavior. Any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same. It is what underlies the success of Alcoholics Anonymous: the cue (distress) and the reward (relief) are the same; but instead of drinking, you go to a meeting and reinforce the belief that each time things will get better with each second of sobriety.

The belief that you can change a habit and the ability to exert willpower to effect that change takes advantage of the neuroplasticity of the brain to create new and better behaviors. Change is not easy, and humans are notoriously slow to do so especially if the consequences are not immediate or otherwise directly visible. We will change however when we believe in our bodies that doing so will preserve our self.

If your life is full of distractions, obsessions, and emotionality, then meditation is the method to get the rewards of peace, expansiveness, and happiness. With meditation, you develop the tool of self-awareness; and you will know each time when cue, routine, and reward come up. Each action becomes a choice in a state of relaxed awareness.

And in that state of wholeness, perhaps we can take in the lessons from the Hobbit: have courage, be hospitable, mercy is the strength, there is always hope; and my favorite one: “It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the dark at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” Be well; get rid of those bad habits, but don’t throw the hobbit out with the bathwater..!


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