Working in the educational sector (that’s me!) has its perks. The best one being that you are in touch every single day with various topics that triggers your curiosity and give you an opportunity to learn a whole more about them. A few month ago, I had to take this course on « the science of learning », or how neuroscience studied the way we human beings learn new behaviors, like learning… And I’ve been quite fascinated by this topic ever since! So I thought I would write something about it here and share a bit of my discoveries because making it through the millenium is about learning and adapting! And doing just that is a habit. So let’s catch up!
Do you remember the very first time you had to make yourself a cup of tea or some coffee?! Okay let’s look at something a bit more complex: when you’ve learnt how to ride a bike or how to swim… Do you remember how overwhelming this whole process was?! How you had to make each decision and memorize every moment or every action at the same time?! That really sounds like a nightmare, does it?! And that’s only how you felt. Imagine the resources that your brain has to mobilize in these situations…
The great things about habits is that, once they have been established, they are automatic. Neuroscientists have identified the prefrontal cortex as the part of the brain that gets mobilized in decision making process. On the other end, the basal ganglia has been identified as responsible for forming habits but it also handles emotions, memories and pattern of recognition. So, if decisions are automated, there are no decisions at all anymore… only memorized patterns. Habits, in other words. Then, once the potential that gets usually engaged in decision making has been freed, it can be reassigned to more meaningful tasks… Then you can do more things, learn more. Create more.
Through one of her studies, psychologist Wendy Wood from University of Southern California has demonstrated that 40 to 45% of our daily activities are habits. Think about walking and all the things that you can do while walking: texting… have a business discussion over the phone, review your schedule for the day or listen to a podcast… These would not be possible if you had to focus and make a decision about how to do every step you make. Although we all went through that! But indeed, take these routines that we’ve learnt in the early days of our lives and have been automated since then. And how much tasks we are able to operate with all that mental capacity left! Neurologically, that is made possible by the basal ganglia that takes a behavior and turns it into a habit for us. And we don’t even have to decide about that.