Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bad habits wired into your brain, undermine resolutions

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WASHINGTON -- Uh-oh, the new year's just begun and already you're finding it hard to keep those resolutions to junk the junk food, get off the couch or kick smoking. There's a biological reason a lot of our bad habits are so hard to break -- they get wired into our brains.

That's not an excuse to give up. Understanding how unhealthy behaviours become ingrained has scientists learning some tricks that may help good habits replace the bad.

"Why are bad habits stronger? You're fighting against the power of an immediate reward," says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain's pleasure pathway.

It's the fudge vs. broccoli choice: Chocolate's yum factor tends to beat out the knowledge that sticking with veggies brings an eventual reward of lost pounds.

"We all as creatures are hard-wired that way, to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that's delayed," Volkow says.

Just how that bit of happiness turns into a habit involves a pleasure-sensing chemical named dopamine. It conditions the brain to want that reward again and again -- reinforcing the connection each time -- especially when it gets the right cue from your environment. Always snack in front of your favourite TV show? A dopamine-rich part of the brain named the striatum memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward, explains NIDA's Volkow. Eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviours almost automatic.

Even scientists who recognize it can fall prey.

"I don't like popcorn. But every time I go to the cinema, I have to eat it," Volkow says. "It's fascinating."

Much of what scientists know about dopamine's role in habit formation comes from the study of alcohol and drug addiction, but it's a key player in more common habits, too, especially overeating.

In fact, for anything that links an action and a reward, "dopamine is indispensable for the formation of these habits," Volkow says.

Researchers say there are some steps that may help counter your brain's hold on bad habits:

-- Repeat, repeat, repeat the new behaviour -- the same routine at the same time of day. Resolved to exercise? Doing it at the same time of the morning, rather than fitting it in haphazardly, makes the striatum recognize the habit so eventually, "if you don't do it, you feel awful," says Volkow the neuroscientist, who's also a passionate runner.

-- Exercise itself raises dopamine levels, so eventually your brain will get a feel-good hit even if your muscles protest.

-- Reward yourself with something you really desire, Volkow stresses.

-- Stress can reactivate the bad-habit circuitry.

-- And cut out the rituals linked to your bad habits. No eating in front of the TV, ever.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2011 C1

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