Hacking the brain: Psychological research reveals that you can train your brain to form good habits by repeating actions
05/18/2019 // Zoey Sky // Views

It can be difficult to exercise every day, especially if you have a busy work schedule and home life; but according to a remarkable study, you can "hack" your brain into having good habits by repeating actions until you get used to doing them.

The study, which was published in the journal Psychological Review, was conducted by researchers from Brown UniversityPrinceton University, and the University of Warwick in England.

Hack your brain to make healthy habits stick

Findings from the study suggest that there's a way to hack your brain to form good habits, such as working out daily and sleeping early. This is by repeating these actions until they stick.

Dr. Elliot Ludvig from Warwick's Department of Psychology and his fellow researchers used a digital model to show how forming habits, both good and bad, depends more on how often you perform certain actions than on how much satisfaction you get from them.

For the study, the researchers created a computer simulation where digital rodents were given a choice of two levers. One lever was associated with the chance of getting a reward. This lever was considered the "correct" choice while the lever without a reward was the "wrong" choice.

The researchers switched the chance of getting a reward between the two levers and trained the simulated rodents to choose the "correct" lever.

The researchers reported that after a short time, the rodents were able to choose the new, "correct" lever even when the chance of reward was swapped. But when the digital rats were trained extensively on one lever, they kept choosing the ''wrong" lever despite it not giving them a chance to receive a reward.


The research team found that the digital rodents preferred to stick to the repeated action that they were accustomed to instead of getting rewarded.

Dr. Ludvig explained that most of what humans do are driven by habits. However, there is much to understand about how habits are learned and formed.

He said that the study reveals new information about this by building a mathematical model of how simple repetition can result in the various habits people and other animals have.

Dr. Amitai Shenhav, coauthor of the study, noted that for more than a century, psychologists have tried to understand what drives the habits of humans. One of the recurring questions is how much habits are influenced by what people want compared to what they do.

The experiment with digital rats helped answer this question by suggesting that habits themselves are a product of previous actions. However, in some situations, those habits can be overruled by the desire to get the best outcome.

The researchers believe that this study can help experts learn more about certain conditions associated with repetitive behavior, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and tic disorder.

Their next study will involve similar experiments in a real-world scenario, where they will observe human behavior in action-based versus reward-based tests.

Tips for developing healthy habits

If you want to take advantage of this brain "hacking" discovery, here are some healthy habits to start practicing daily:

  • Eat your meals at the same time every day. Following a routine daily can help lower your stress levels. In fact, eating lunch one hour later than usual may spike levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and disrupt your body’s ideal state. Try to eat, sleep, and exercise at the same time every daily. (Related: Fun, feel-good ways to make exercise a part of your life as you age.)
  • Eat less meat. The ideal meat portion is three ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards. Eating less meat can significantly lower your risk of developing conditions linked to the over-consumption of fatty meats, like heart problems or being overweight.
  • Steep your tea bag for two to five minutes. Studies suggest that drinking tea regularly helps lower the risks of certain cancers, heart attack, Parkinson’s disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Steeping tea bags for about five minutes instead of just one or two minutes releases more antioxidants in your beverage.
  • Stand up. If you sit for several hours, your good cholesterol drops, your triglycerides increase, and your body becomes inflamed. These factors increase your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. To prevent this, take breaks every 30 minutes, stand up, and stretch your muscles.

If you want your brain to learn and stick to good habits, be more disciplined and make healthier choices whenever you can.

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