Your habits: from narrow forrest path to expressway

Stig-motorvägHave you ever thought about your habits and everything that you do automatically with your autopilot turned on without even being aware of it? We, as humans are biologically hard-wired to save energy by automating all processes we routinely perform daily. In this way, we do not need to use valuable thought power on how we are moving or how we implement all the hundreds of everyday routines we have. In front of a new problem, the brain always begins to review similar experiences and how we handle them earlier. Attacking a new problem in the same way that we previously solved similar problems is often a sensible strategy, but at the same time, the power of habit prevents us from finding new solutions and exploring new ways that can make our lives richer and more meaningful.

The brain is designed to make our thinking as effective as possible by automating all the processes that need not be managed by our conscious mind. Our thoughts, memories and habits are consolidated and reinforced by the repeated activation of some of the billions of neural networks in our brains that are gradually becoming increasingly comprehensive and effective. This happens in a self-organising system that constantly reinforces our past behaviors. Each time a specific neural network is activated, the signals on that network become faster and stronger both by increasing the number of nerve cells and for each individual nerve cell to develop more contacts with surrounding nerve cells – one-off event develops into a habit. Such self-reinforcing systems are the basis for all learning (eg juggling or learning a new language) and all our habits. If the first thought is an impenetrable forest path, then the recurring signal will soon make them into a six-lane expressway.

The little child who is learning to walk or the little older child who is learning to ride her bicycle needs to put all the focused attention to the task. But after a while, it goes completely automatically and soon without any conscious thought at all – the autopilot is switched on. You can easily see this phenomenon also by yourself. These skills have then became patterns in an implicit memory in your brain’s sunbconscious association areas, which work without volume restrictions or difficulties to pick them up whenever needed.

If you are like the vast majority of people then you have regular morning rituals. You get dressed, wash, eat breakfast, and brush your teeth the same way every morning (at least the days you go to work). When you dress, you are likely to always put on the shoes in the same order (right or left first). Probably, your breakfast does not vary much from day to day. And when you clasp your hands, it’s always the same thumb that ends up on top (try to change and you notice how awkward it feels).

With the brain in autopilot mode, we can perform many everyday actions without conscious effort. But as for everything else in the world, we also pay a price for this ability. As we go through life with the autopilot turned on and the filters to our consciousness at maximal mode, we simultaneously deprive us from many experiences that could otherwise enrich our daily lives and increase our creativity. Instead, this void is filled up with an endless noise of thoughts that control us as much as we control them. Sometimes this may be good for creativity, but as often unwelcome thoughts focus on problems and negative things or pure banalities.


Tip: A great way to enrich your life is to make conscious your entrenched habits, and then try to do the opposite. Not because the way you do them is wrong, but to get new experiences and enrich your life. Vary your breakfast, take a new way home from work, vary your wardrobe, try a new lunch restaurant, change a newspaper, buy a cookbook and work through the recipes, find new walkways, take a bath instead of a shower, listen to a new radio channel… By consistently trying to challenge your habits you get both new impulses and eventually a way of life where you have easier to see new opportunities.


Det här blogginlägget på svenska

Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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