How do I develop rational thinking
Why our brain loves routines
An organ on austerity
These automatisms take place in brain structures that are old in evolutionary history. That makes it so difficult for us to stop them.
Let's assume that one day we have to make all decisions consciously. Which sock do I put on first? Do I unscrew the toothpaste tube to the left or right? Which comes first: shifting, clutching or braking?
If our habits did not take over these decisions for us - our brain would be overwhelmed with all the thought processes.
"The brain uses habits to save energy," says Lars Schwabe, who conducts research as a cognitive psychologist at the University of Hamburg. He deals with the psychology of human perception and knowledge.
The energy saved is what the brain needs to make quick decisions in stressful situations and to minimize risks. And to master the really important tasks in life: planning, organizing, developing.
Developing habits means learning
At birth and in the first few years of life, our brain is still very malleable. It is our habits that shape the mind like a sculptor. But how do habits develop? And how does this process work in the brain?
Routines are created through a learning process and it works like a game: For example, when a child builds a tower out of wooden blocks for the first time, it needs full attention. The child has to carefully stack block by block, without the tower wobbling.
"The front part of the child's brain, which is responsible for consciousness and rational thinking, is active," says cognitive psychologist Schwabe. Scientists like Schwabe refer to this area of the brain as the "prefrontal cortex".
When the child has placed all the blocks on top of each other, they will be happy about the completed tower. It proudly shows him to his mother, who praises her child for it. "If there is a reward for the action, the child will repeat it," explains Schwabe.
Storage space for habits: the basal ganglia
If the child keeps building a tower out of wooden blocks, the action becomes routine. The child no longer needs full consciousness to stack the blocks on top of each other. This now works automatically.
Tower building was shifted from consciousness to deeper regions of the brain. Until it finally arrives at a certain association of nerve cells that is responsible for spontaneity and routine actions: the so-called "basal ganglia".
Here the brain saves the building of the tower as an automatic program. Whenever the program is activated and the child piles up the blocks, the brain is in relaxation mode.
The brain only saves energy while the tower is being built - not at the beginning and end of the action. At the beginning of the action, the brain has to recognize that it should activate the program. It searches the environment for the trigger: the loose wooden blocks on the floor. In the end, our brain checks to see if it got the expected reward - the mother's praise.
Especially in the first ten years of life, we acquire countless habits through this process. We do not only develop automatisms in childhood and adolescence: "People get used to new behavior patterns in every phase of life," says Schwabe.
Frontal cortex (conscious) versus basal ganglia (subconscious)
Routines make our lives easier: we effortlessly build turrets out of wooden blocks, learn to write and read, master driving and reverse parking.
However, we also have numerous bad habits that work on the same principle. Reaching into the bag of chips, biting your nail or harmful thought patterns such as "I can't do it" - these are all routines that are stuck in the basal ganglia as automatic programs.
For example, if we want to stop eating chips every night, we have to question our actions. We use the front part of the brain again, which was also responsible for the first tower made of wooden blocks from the previous example: the frontal cortex - responsible for consciousness, intellect and rational thinking.
It should be a piece of cake to use our minds to stop the bad habits. But why do so many people fail because of their good intentions? Why do we keep reaching into the chip bag? There are two reasons:
1. The basal ganglia, in which, for example, the chip meal is stored, are evolutionarily very old parts of the brain. The dinosaurs already had them. After all, routine and repetition were important to survival in prehistoric times.
The frontal cortex came in much later in evolutionary history. Only the highly developed mammals like us humans have it.
Habits like reaching into the bag of chips are stuck in the old brain areas. Our minds in the new brain area have no influence on this.
2. The processes in the basal ganglia take place at lightning speed. The processes for conscious action in the frontal cortex, on the other hand, need more time. We ate the chips long before our consciousness sets in.
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