We all have habits — some good, some bad and some we don’t notice at all. Whether you are a grandparent or a teenager, many of daily actions are habitual. Showering every day is a habit… but so is chewing your nails. However, research suggests that those of us who can’t switch from acting habitually to acting in a deliberately may be at greater risk of addiction and obsessive compulsive disorders.
A new study by an international team of researchers was led by Christina Gremel of the University of California San Diego. According to Gremel, habits can act as a brake on goal-directed action, essentially hijacking behaviour — and all of this can be seen in the brain.
All humans — and mammals — naturally produce endocannabinoids. These are neurochemicals, and we have receptors for these throughout the body and brain. Endocannabinoids reduce the activity of neurons. The team wanted to see whether or not endocannabinoids reduces activity in the orbitofrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex, or OFC, is the decision-making area of the brain.
The team used mice trained to press a lever to get food. However they deleted a articular endocannabinoid receptor, called cannabinoid type 1, or CB1, in some of the mice. These mice did not develop habits. This means that neurochemicals are crucial in the formation of habits.
Of course, we all need habits. If you had to spend a huge amount of mental energy figuring out how to do everyday tasks, such as brushing your teeth or catching a train, it would be an inefficient use of your time and brainpower. We need habits — but we also need to be able to switch them off.
"We need a balance between habitual and goal-directed actions. For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose," explains Gremel. "However, we also encounter changing circumstances, and need the capacity to 'break habits' and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information. When we can't, there can be devastating consequences.”
Gremel and the team of researchers believe that although further research is needed, their work may suggest new ways of treating people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or addictions. It may be possible to help people stop relying on habits and shift to deliberate behaviour by treating brain's endocannabinoid system.