To obey or not to obey: the science of habits

Whether you rub your nose in a particular way when it feels itchy, or walk down from your home to the nearest convenience store (you know you can get there blindfolded), or you’re once again buying exactly the same perfume you’ve been buying for the last twenty years (you might call it brand loyalty but I call it a habit, in the context of this blog post), these are all some of our trusty old habits that don’t die. Don’t die easily, at the very least.

A habit is a behavior that’s learned and repeated so often that you perform it unconsciously. Without thinking about it. And while you do them mechanically, let’s zero in on some basic neurobiology facts there.

When doing a habitual task, activity in particular brain regions is lessened by chemical messengers known as endocannabinoids. This happens as endocannabinoids dock into specific cell-membrane receptors generically known as cannabinoid (CB) receptors. Once bound to receptors, the endocannabinoids exercise inhibitory effects by reducing activity in relevant brain regions, making a person act out of habit. Therefore, endocannabinoids are vital in habit formation and execution.

 

Brain regions affected by endocannabinoids. Adapted from functionalanatomyblog/2014/03/27/excercise-manual-therapy-and-the-endocannabinoid-system-why-were-all-inherently-potheads/ 

 

The flip side is that not all habits are necessarily good, for example taking marijuana. Connect the two dots: smoking a joint and habit. Taking weed is a habit and habits are influenced by endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids have a natural- sometimes evil- twin: tetrahydrocannabinol, or more simply, THC. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana, also called Cannabis. It is this THC that causes Cannabis users to get “high”. Since THC is carved into the same shape as endocannabinoids, it fits into the same lock (endocannabinoid receptor) as the rightful key (endocannabinoids). With THC bound to the cannabinoid receptor, it mimics endocannabinoids and influences the same brain regions- those concerned with concentration, memory, stress, pleasure, sleep, among a couple other things. More on the relationship between, and effects of, marijuana and endocannabinoids may be read here.

 

NIDA10-INS2_THC-Brain-v1.jpg
Effects of THC on relevant brain structures and the spinal cord. Adapted from headsup.scholastic.com/students/endocannabinoid

 

A study on rodents showed that they were less probable to act out of habit if they could not process endocannabinoids. On the other hand, “chronic” or excessive use of THC directed the brain to hinge more on habits during problem-solving, instead of developing new strategies.

Practical implications of studies centered on the role of endocannabinoids on habits are directed towards people with disorders such as addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), where people find it hard to break (destructive/constructive) habits. Insights gained from such studies may be instrumental in developing treatments that work on the endocannabinoid system, such as halting the action of endocannabinoid receptors. However, I believe that even if medical treatments are developed for mental conditions, as far as the brain is concerned, psychological counselling has its own merits and significance and should never be replaced simply by drug administration. Bona fide psychological counselling, unlike medical treatments, never has adverse side-effects; yet, the importance of useful medicinal agents should not be underestimated. Therefore this precious organ, the brain, must always be cared for through multiple dimensions.

 

Below are the reference links:

http://www.popsci.com/experiment-sheds-light-on-when-we-obey-habits

http://www.cell.com/neuron/abstract/S0896-6273(16)30157-X?_returnURL=http%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS089662731630157X%3Fshowall%3Dtrue

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