“What a piece of work is a man!” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!” Then he goes on to say that we’re the meaningless “quintessence of dust.” But that’s the depression talking. Neuroscience has revealed the human brain as the final frontier – an endless expanse of neural networks and complex electrical activity as vast in its own way as outer space.
At the same time, it has revealed some of the brain’s less lofty characteristics, among them, our reliance on habit loops to automate much of our thought and behavior. Habit loops are an evolutionary triumph in that they free our attention to focus on other, more important things than, say, ordering lunch. But they also lock us into mindless and not always useful ways of being. Since we can’t uproot our habits entirely, the trick is to understand how they work, so we can rewire them when necessary.