Trick Your Brain, Kick Your Habit
Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have identified a brain region that can switch between new and old habits. A release from MIT notes that habits are behaviors wired so deeply in our brains that we perform them automatically. Even so, the brain’s "executive command center" does not completely relinquish control of habitual behavior. The MIT study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, located a portion of the prefrontal cortex "is responsible for moment-by-moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time."
The release quotes Professor Ann Graybiel as saying, “We’ve always thought — and I still do — that the value of a habit is you don’t have to think about it. It frees up your brain to do other things. However, it doesn’t free up all of it. There’s some piece of your cortex that’s still devoted to that control.”
According to Graybiel, her team's study offers hope for those trying to kick bad habits because it shows that though habits may be deeply ingrained, the brain’s planning centers can shut them off. The scientists also proved that when habits are broken, they are not forgotten but are replaced with new ones. The key to breaking a bad habit appears to be the conscious effort to getting into a different routine until that one takes precedence. This may explain why the classic advice to chew gum when you're trying to give up smoking does help!