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The Neurology of Where Habits Come From

I first got interested in habits about a decade ago when I was a reporter in Iraq.  I had gone to Iraq as a reporter for the LA Times and I worked for the New York Times and thought that being in battlefields would be super cool and it turns out that being in battlefields is actually terrifying. 

So I was looking for stories that I could write that would not put me into places where people could shoot at me.  

I heard about this Army Major down in a city named Kufa, which is about an hour south of Baghdad.  And I flew down to meet him.  He had stopped riots from happening by taking kabob sellers out of the plazas.  And I thought this was totally fascinating. What would happen is people would get hungry, the crowds would develop and there were no kabob sellers there, so they’d all go home and the riot would never happen. 

And I asked him how he knew this because the riots had been a problem in Kufa for a year.  And he said that the military is like this giant habit formation experiment.  Everyone learns how to work in the military by learning how to manipulate their own habits and other people’s habits.  

That got me super interested.  So when I got back to the U.S., I wanted to learn about habit formation and I wanted to learn how to change my habits. I wanted to lose weight and I wanted to be able to exercise easier. I felt like I was a successful person and yet I was powerless over changing these patterns in my life. 

And so, the more I researched it, the more people told me, this is really a neurology issue and a neurobiology problem.  And the more I did research the more I learned that we are living through a huge evolution in our understanding of habits.  And it’s being driven primarily by understanding the neurology of where habits come from. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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