Neuroscience Insight: How to Break Bad Habits

Habits are behaviors or thoughts so strongly wired into your brain that you can perform them without thinking. Why, if the brain is plastic and able to change, are bad habits so hard to break? Here you can learn about the neuroscience of how habits form—and how to use that knowledge to replace bad habits with positive ones. 

The Defining Features of Habits 

Your brain is fundamentally lazy. When it can, the brain wires thoughts, emotions, or behaviors into circuits deep below the surface where they become automated. Habits allow your brain to work on autopilot.   

During the course of a day, hundreds of habits—automated chunks of thought, emotion, or behavior—come online and offline, usually with little conscious awareness. Some habits you might think of as good, such as washing your hands after you visit the bathroom, brushing your teeth, or meditating daily. Others you may consider bad, such as negative self-talk or snacking on junk food. But in reality, most of your habits are neutral—by habit, you steer along the same roads to work, position yourself in the same spot in a gym class, fill your shopping cart with the same food at the same supermarket, and tune your ears into the same music. 

Good, bad, or neutral, neuroscientists have found that all habits have a few defining features:

  1. Habits are triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event.
  2. Habits are learned over time by being repeated over and over.
  3. Habits are performed automatically, often with little conscious awareness.
  4. Habits are persistent—once formed, they are very hard to break. 

Where Habits Are Stored in the Brain 

Your brain’s coordination center for habits is called the striatum, which is located deep beneath the cortex where it forms part of the basal ganglia. The striatum is richly connected to the prefrontal cortex (involved in higher-order thinking, feeling, and sensing) and to the midbrain. The midbrain provides input from dopamine-containing neurons (brain cells). Dopamine is a brain chemical strongly associated with creating positive feelings related to reward and events of emotional significance. A malfunctioning striatum is seen when habits become disordered, such as obsessive-compulsive behaviors and addiction. 

How Habits Form 

Consider how negative self-talk, a common and damaging bad habit, forms. Negative self-talk is the inner voice in your mind that repeats a subtle yet demeaning running commentary. Examples include: 

  • “I’m useless; I’ll never succeed.”
  • “I never look good in any outfit.”
  • “I’m a bad parent; my children will grow up and hate me. They deserve so much better.” 

As you repeat a negative statement over and over to yourself, neurons in the prefrontal-striatal-midbrain circuit fire together over and over. The connections between neurons become strengthened, and eventually the circuit wires together, storing the thought as a habit. This is where the mantra "Neurons that fire together wire together” comes into play. Turning a thought into an enduring habit is brain plasticity in action. 

Once the negative self-talk habit is stored, another brain region—the infralimbic cortex—causes you to carry out the habit when you are triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event. 

Use Neuroscience to Break Bad Habits 

So how do you break a bad habit? Neuroscience research provides two clues: 

  • Habits are triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event.
  • Habits are persistent—once formed, they are very hard to break. 

Therefore, to break the habit: 

  • Learn to recognize the trigger for your bad habit. 
  • Wire a new healthy or positive habit to override the bad-habit trigger. 

Breaking your bad habit could be achieved by carefully paying attention to what, where, when, and why your habit is triggered. Once you recognize the trigger, the trick is to consciously and mindfully repeat your new desired behavior, action, or thought instead. Similar to forming the old habit, you must repeat this process over and over until the new habit is wired to the old trigger—eventually masking the old habit.    

For example, in the first few years after having my children, my negative inner voice was automatically triggered when loading or emptying the dishwasher. I’d habitually tell myself, “Your children deserve a better mother … you can’t even empty a dishwasher without crying.” I learned to recognize that opening the dishwasher door was my ‘trigger’. I now use the opening of the dishwasher door to practice mindful and careful loading and unloading of crockery and cutlery. Over time, I replaced negative self-talk with a mindfulness practice. 

Of course, the process of breaking bad habits is not always easy. But choosing a new habit that is enjoyable and rewarding will engage the dopaminergic neurons in your prefrontal cortex-striatal-midbrain circuit, and make the process of wiring in the new habits quicker and easier. 

Also, understand that old habits never die; instead, they become masked by new habits, and you may sometimes experience a momentary relapse. If you do fall back into your old ways, don’t be too hard on yourself. Mindfully pick yourself up. Treat yourself with compassion. As Artistole once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” 

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About the Author

Sarah McKay

Neuroscientist and Author
Dr. Sarah McKay is a neuroscientist who specialises in translating science into simple, actionable strategies for health and well-being. Sarah is the director of The Neuroscience Academy , which offers online learning and in-person training focused on the practical application of neuroscience, positive psychology, and mind-body medicine. Sarah completed her MSc. and PhD. in neuroscience at the University Oxford. She sums her PhD. thesis up in four words: ‘Nature, Nurture, or Neuroplasticity?’ She now lives on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, Australia with her husband, and together they are raising two little surfer dudes. Sarah combines a wry...Read more