PRACTICALLY ACTIVE: Forming a healthier habit is a matter of training your brain

My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.

— Orson Welles

I've heard it said that confession is good for the soul, and maybe that's true. I do know that through writing this column I have admitted things and told stories about myself that, while they could be a bit embarrassing or give too much information, were cleansing.

Well, guys, it's time for a little more confession.

Since about October I have lost just about every ounce of motivation I had to exercise. I still eat somewhat healthfully, but I have good days and bad. And judging from discussions with friends and a few readers, I am not alone here.

As a diabetic, I understand that I need to get back up on the horse. I'm almost 56 and have heard too many horror stories of diabetics dying in their late 50s, or having diabetes-related problems. I honestly do not want that to be me — or any of you, either.

A couple of weeks ago I found an article on the website of Diabetes Forecast magazine. It's titled "Train Your Brain for Better Habits." It's about working to break bad habits and develop healthy ones.

We all have habits, like waking in the morning and going through the get-ready-for-work routine. Or we reach for something that we always put in the same spot, out of force of habit.

I have found that when I get out of my morning routine, I forget something, like brushing my hair, or putting in earrings or grabbing my coffee. Then I seem off the whole day.

There are good and bad habits, and oftentimes they develop without our even noticing. But there are proven steps we can take based on research and scientific facts.

Deep inside the brain are a group of structures collectively known as the basal ganglia. It's like a command center that is constantly receiving data, processing it and sending it back out. According to Theresa Desrochers, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuroscience, psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, the ganglia "gets information from just about everywhere else in the brain, including the visual and motor cortex that are on the surface of the brain."

The information going in and out of the basal ganglia runs along pathways, or loops. It is believed that when thoughts and actions happen repeatedly and at the same time, the ganglia tries to keep them together for the sake of efficiency, so they start to travel along the same or linked loops. Over time this creates a situation in which a trigger, or cue, prompts a default action — in other words, a habit.

For example, your doctor wants you to check your feet regularly for blisters or wounds, but you only do it randomly. If you start doing it every time you take off your socks, after a while your brain will associate taking off the socks with inspecting your feet.

As you continue to put the two together, the loops in the brain that connect all related thoughts and actions will become stronger and stronger. And at that time something changes in the basal ganglia, in a part called the striatum.

The striatum is divided into two sections, ventral and dorsal. The ventral section is most active when you are getting used to doing something new. It's loaded with receptors for dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical. When you do something new or that's pleasurable, you get a spike of dopamine that makes you want to do it again.

After a while, the dorsal half of the striatum takes over, and at that point you should no longer need the dopamine reward because the habit has become solidified in your brain.

In one of Desrocher's studies, published in the journal Neuron, she and her colleagues took a group of monkeys and waited for them to look behind a grid of dots to find a reward, which was a squirt of juice. In the beginning, the monkeys did this randomly, but over time that changed.

Desrocher says, "The monkeys made their own habits and started to look around the same way each time." As they did, the researchers monitored their brain activity to see how much effort they put into finding the reward. "As the monkeys' method of searching got more habitual, neural activity became more efficient."

Well, that explains a lot. But there is so much more, and I'll continue this topic in my next column.

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Style on 02/25/2019

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