HM works from his iPAD. This is the print title of an article by Anil Ananthaswamy in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist. The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind. This and the following blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.
An enormous part of our day-to-day lives, driving, making coffee, or touch typing, happens without conscious thoughts. Unlike many of the brain’s other unconscious habits, these skills had to be learned before the brain can automate them. How it does this could potentially provide a method for us to think our way out of bad habits.
Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her colleagues have shown that a region deep inside the brain called the striatum is key to habit formation. When we undertake an action, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning complex tasks, communicates with the striatum, which sends the necessary signals to enact the movement, Over time, input from the prefrontal cortex fades, to be replaced by loops linking the striatum to the sensorimotor cortex. The loops, together with the memory circuits, allow us to carry out the behavior without having to think about it. Practice makes perfect and no thinking is required. The obvious upside is that we no longer need to focus our attention on a frequent task, the spare processing power can be used for other things. Unfortunately, similar circuitry is involved in turning all kinds of behavior into habits, including thought patterns, and once any kind of behavior becomes a habit, it become less flexible and harder to interrupt. This is fine for good habits, but when bad habits are ingrained, its equally hard to get rid of it. You lose the moment of choice when we can decide not to do something.
Fortunately, even with the most ingrained habits, a small area of the prefrontal is kept online, in case we need to take alternative action. This offers hope to any of us looking to break a bad habit and to those suffering from habit-related problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome — both of which are associated with abnormal activity in the striatum and its connections to other parts of the brain. These circuits are potential targets for future drug treatments. However, for now the best way to get a handle on bad habits is to become aware of them. Then, focus all your attention on them and hope that it’s enough to help the frontal regions resist the call of the autopilot. An alternative approach is to teach ourselves a new habit that counters the bad one.