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Turn Off Bad Habits With the Flick of a Switch

Procrastinators, rejoice: Neuroscientists have discovered that by manipulating areas of the brain, they can turn bad habits on and off.
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Are you a master procrastinator? Maybe you work too much--unintentionally ostracizing yourself from friends and family. Or maybe you down too much coffee. Whatever your weakness, there may be hope: Scientists are investigating a way to effectively turn habit-forming behaviors off.

Researchers from MIT and Stanford released a study showing substantial progress in creating a habit "switch." 

Habits become so deeply embedded in the brain in order for people to expend less energy on certain familiar tasks and more energy on newer, more challenging tasks. According to the study, a small region in the brain called the prefrontal cortex (where most thought and planning occurs) is responsible for the moment-by-moment control of our habits.

The neuroscientists used rats as their test subjects, testing the way they formed habits while running in a maze. When the researchers blocked certain areas of the rats' prefrontal cortex, it blocked the habitual behavior as well--the rats took the other route through the maze. As soon as the scientists "flipped the switch" to unblock the prefrontal cortex, the rats went back to their initial habit.

So, maybe you want your workaholism turned on at the office, and then switched off at 6 p.m.? These scientists are working toward developing such a mechanism.

MIT professor Ann Graybiel told Forbes that the group is far from testing this idea on humans, but the knowledge that blocking parts of the prefrontal cortex causes the formulation of new habits is important and could be a viable treatment option for addictive behavior disorders in the future.

“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,” McGovern told Forbes“However, it doesn’t free up all of it. There’s some piece of your cortex that’s still devoted to that control.”

Last updated: Nov 1, 2012




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