If breaking a habit sometimes feels impossible, you’re not simply suffering with a lack of will power. Research suggests that goal-oriented behavior and habits are wired differently in the brain, and that in some cases the brain struggles to switch between the two. In a recent study conducted on mice, researchers were able to essentially turn off the brain’s ability to make habits. Although this research is still ongoing, it could eventually have major implications for the treatment of addiction and obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD).
Being able to make habits is important to one’s general well-being, but, of course, habits that become too ingrained, or negative behaviors that become compulsive, can become highly destructive. Studies like this one, published in Neuron, offer insight into the mechanisms in the brain that control how we make habits and how we turn them on and off.
According to a press statement, this study, led by Dr. Christina Gremel, a psychologist at the University of California San Diego, “provides the strongest evidence to date … that the brain's circuits for habitual and goal-directed action compete for control — in the orbitofrontal cortex, a decision-making area of the brain — and that neurochemicals called endocannabinoids allow for habit to take over, by acting as a sort of brake on the goal-directed circuit.”
In a previous study, Gremel and co-author Rui Costa were able to demonstrate that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is central to goal-directed action (aka, conscious, non-habitual action). They found that when they stimulated the neurons in the OFC of mice, they could boost goal-oriented actions, and that when they dampened neurons in the OFC, they could lessen the mice’s ability to make goal oriented actions. Without the ability to make goal-directed actions, the mice had to fall back on habit.
In this study, Gremel and colleagues focused on the role of the endocannabinoid system in habitual vs. goal-directed behaviors. This chemical system is involved in a spectrum of bodily functions, including mood, memory, appetite, and pain sensation. The researchers suspected that endocannabinoids could have a “quieting” effect on the OFC that would then, by the logic of the previous study, make it harder for mice to move from habitual behaviors into goal-directed action. They tested this out by removing an “endocannabinoid receptor, called cannabinoid type 1, or CB1, in the OFC-to-striatum pathway” in mice, according to the press release. Mice that lacked this endocannabinoid receptor proved to be unable to make habits, which demonstrates the importance of both endocannabinoids and this particular area of the brain to an animal’s ability to form habits.
“We need a balance between habitual and goal-directed action,” Gremel explained. “For everyday function, we need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose. 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.”
This research is still in its early days, but the researchers believe that it may lead to new methods for treating addictions and OCD, by helping people to move from their harmful, powerful habits to goal-directed actions.