How to BEST Create New Habits Using Neuroscience Approaches

It takes 60+ days to create a new habit NOT 21 days

“The 21-day habit myth began when a plastic surgeon in the 1950s, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, noticed that his patients seemed to acclimatize to their new faces after a minimum period of 21 days.”

“This observation was reported in his famous book, Psycho-Cybernetics, and promptly adopted by self-help guru’s who forgot to inform their followers that the word ‘minimum’ was meaningful.”

“This short time frame made the idea of habit-creation seem more achievable, inspiring and enticing.”

“Yes, you do gain traction over the first few days of starting a new habit, partly from the excitement that creating a new habit provides, as the brain naturally craves novelty. However, and it can take more than 60 days for a new neural pathway to become entrenched and become part of your daily life without expending a lot of effort.”

There are a few reasons why the ’21-days’ habit myth doesn’t hold up to neuroscience.

In creating a new neural pathway you don’t simply ‘over-write’ the previous pathway. Instead:

  • You’re creating a new one from scratch, while also using conscious effort not to use the habit you’re trying to leave in the past.
  • The old neural pathway still exists and may still ‘entice’ and derail your efforts.
  • You’re likely to find yourself in similar situations where you engaged in the habit you’re trying to replace with a new one, which makes creating a new habit more challenging.

(“Ask anyone who hasn’t smoked a cigarette for years what if feels like when they’re exposed to a similar situation where they once enjoyed this bad habit. They’ll tell you that it’s as if they stepped back in time to when they used to light up. Why? That neural pathway still exists and is activated in similar situations or contexts.”)

It’s therefore critical to avoid situations where the neural pathway of an old habit can easily be activated to succumb to that old habit.

It’s easier to create new bad habits versus new good habits

“Most bad habits, like overeating, sleeping in and drinking too much coffee support the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Most good habits don’t do so initially as they naturally produce less of a brain ‘high.’”

“Dopamine is known as the pleasure neurotransmitter and it’s released when we do anything that increases our chances of survival, which include eating and having sex. However, it’s also involved in our brains reward and motivation pathways. It’s therefore a very powerful neural messenger and needs to be harnessed to support habit change, formation and reinforcement and maintenance.”

“Serotonin is also a powerful messenger as its release leads to feelings of safety and security, which are also powerful and support our survival. Recent research suggests it also has an important role to play in habit creation.”

Some research suggests that eating carbohydrate rich and fatty foods stimulate the release of endogenous opioids (made internally), which lead to a feeling of calmness. This mechanism underpins why we reach for such foods when stressed.  Breaking the habit of eating these foods when we’re stressed is extra hard making it important to reduce stress when we’re trying to make good habits ‘stick.’

While you’re establishing your new habit reward yourself with something that also releases dopamine and/or serotonin, albeit in lesser amounts, in conjunction with a new habit. For example:

  • Treat yourself to a massage every week, which releases both neurotransmitters.
  • Learn to make a delicious and healthy meal quickly at the end of every day.
  • Treat yourself to some organic, dark chocolate.
  • Record your progress at the end of the day for a visual reinforcement.
  • Established routines help habits ‘stick’ and it’s easier to create a habit when you engage in the new activity daily.
  • Pair a new habit with an already established, positive behavior.  Some research suggests that coupling a new habit to an already established behavior or habit increases the odds of the new habit becoming entrenched. 

Well nourished brains are better able to create new habits versus  brains that are not well nourished

It is likely that four dietary-related factors act in combination to support habit creation and maintenance.

  1. A well nourished brain has the energy and nutrients necessary for the best cognitive functioning. This underlies decision-making, self-discipline and memory formation, all of which help you to  create and keep new habits.
  2. If your brain is well nourished, as the day wears on it can continue to be efficient at making good decisions, instead of developing ‘decision-fatigue.’ Decision fatigue is especially troublesome when starting  a new way of eating. If you don’t  feed your brain well, it is likely you will eat  comforting, habitual foods at the end of the day, because your brain is tired and hungry brain and less able to make good decisions, so it goes back to old habits. 
  3. A stable supply of  blood glucose results in good decision-making . If blood glucose gets low,  the brain will try to gain glucose quickly and so  craves foods that give a quick supply. It can’t think well with low blood glucose, so it is hard to stay disciplined. High blood glucose often leads to a drop to low blood glucose, so maintaining  a level amount is best.
  4. To make new habits the brain needs nutrients, especially omega 3s, flavonoids and vitamin E. There can be found in nuts (walnuts, almonds), leafy greens, berries(especially blueberries)  and salmon among other foods.

These ways of making habits stick lead to the creation of a ‘habit loop’ which includes creating a new cue, a new routine and adding a reward.

In summary:

  • Stay disciplined for 60+ days.
  • Use new cues AND contexts in relation to new habits to create a new routine.
  • Stimulate dopamine and serotonin release with healthy rewards for staying disciplined.
  • Support new habits with brain nourishment.
  • Couple a new habit with an already established positive behavior


How to Harness your ‘Wild Horses’ Of Emotion

Where once emotions were thought of as wild horses pulling our minds (the metaphorical cart they are attached to) this way and that, we now understand we have far more control over them than was previously supposed.

Horse being wild

Neuroscience demonstrates that such acuity and responsiveness is not an ‘intrinsic’ personality trait, but more of a skill that develops over time and can be worked at. In recent years, fMRI brain scans have shown us what emotional responses look like, how emotions are triggered in the brain and that they can be consciously moderated.

“Emotions arise in the limbic brain’s amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain. Once registered by the amygdala, the brain connects your emotional responses to the current situation to your existing memories, which are stored in the hippocampus. It is then the job of the prefrontal cortex to decide which of these memories are relevant to recall, and what sense to make of your emotions once they have been filtered through the pattern-recognition of your past experience. Based on this, your brain uses a combination of knowledge, and intuitive, emotional wisdom to formulate an interpretation and, when required, devise a course of action and behavior in response to what has happened and been felt.”

The emotional center of our brain can be harnessed by the thinking part.  

Here’s one way to tame your emotional horses:

  1. Restrain – Don’t act on your initial emotion. The first and hardest step is NOT ACTING on the emotion you are experiencing.  We try to teach this to children – don’t hit someone because you’re “angry”, don’t act on “lust”, don’t steal because you “crave” . . . . “think before you act” . . . “count to 10” . . .
  2. Reframe – Learn new point of view.  Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, “What would Jesus say?”, How would _________(someone you admire/respect) respond?
  3. Review – Share new view with others.  When you explain out loud you hear/see more objectively.  Asking for feedback engages the thinking part of your brain.

“Working to develop greater emotional awareness and emotional regulation is hard work. But modern neuroscience proves there is plenty that you can do to get better at emotional regulation.  Approach your aspiration for improvement as a long-term project, akin to learning a new language. This is because emotional intelligence has so many different aspects to it. It’s perfectly possible, with focused effort, to change your ‘internal landscape’ for the better, using the full spectrum of emotions available to you to enhance your experience of life.”

Calmer but still wild horse

“The end result is that rather than feeling overwhelmed by some emotions, and shut off from others, you can learn to tap into an emotional ‘palate’ in a way that is more helpful and within your control. This will take effort and practice to achieve as although the ‘wild horses’ theory of emotions is somewhat outdated, the idea that emotions ‘come upon us’ contains some truth.”

These Breakthroughs Made the 2010s the Decade of the Brain

By Shelly Fan

(We are offering this article in it’s entirety but for those of you who want just the gist read the colored areas we’ve highlighted.)

“I rarely use the words transformative or breakthrough for neuroscience findings. The brain is complex, noisy, chaotic, and often unpredictable. One intriguing result under one condition may soon fail for a majority of others. What’s more, paradigm-shifting research trends often require revolutionary tools. When we’re lucky, those come once a decade.”

“But I can unabashedly say that the 2010s saw a boom in neuroscience breakthroughs that transformed the field and will resonate long into the upcoming decade.”

“In 2010, the idea that we’d be able to read minds, help paralyzed people walk again, incept memories, or have multi-layered brain atlases was near incomprehensible. Few predicted that deep learning, an AI model loosely inspired by neural processing in the brain, would gain prominence and feed back into decoding the brain. Around 2011, I asked a now-prominent AI researcher if we could automatically detect dying neurons in a microscope image using deep neural nets; we couldn’t get it to work. Today, AI is readily helping read, write, and map the brain.”

“As we cross into the next decade, it pays to reflect on the paradigm shifts that made the 2010s the decade of the brain. Even as a bah humbug skeptic I’m optimistic about the next decade for solving the brain’s mysteries: from genetics and epigenetics to chemical and electrical communications, networks, and cognition, we’ll only get better at understanding and tactfully controlling the supercomputer inside our heads.”

1. Linking Brains to Machines Goes From Fiction to Science

“We’ve covered brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) so many times even my eyes start glazing over. Yet I still remember my jaw dropping as I watched a paralyzed man kick off the 2014 World Cup in a bulky mind-controlled exosuit straight out of Edge of Tomorrow.”

“Flash forward a few years, and scientists have already ditched the exosuit for an implanted neural prosthesis that replaces severed nerves to re-establish communication between the brain’s motor centers and lower limbs.”

“The rise in BCIs owes much to the BrainGate project, which worked tirelessly to decode movement from electrical signals in the motor cortex, allowing paralyzed patients to use a tablet with their minds or operate robotic limbs. Today, prosthetic limbs coated with sensors can feed back into the brain, giving patients mind-controlled movement, sense of touch, and an awareness of where the limb is in space. Similarly, by decoding electrical signals in the auditory or visual cortex, neural implants can synthesize a person’s speech by reconstructing what they’re hearing or re-create images of what they’re seeing—or even of what they’re dreaming.”

“For now, most BCIs—especially those that require surgical implants—are mainly used to give speech or movement back to those with disabilities or decode visual signals. The brain regions that support all these functions are on the surface, making them relatively more accessible and easier to decode.”

“But there’s plenty of interest in using the same technology to target less tangible brain issues, such as depression, OCD, addiction, and other psychiatric disorders that stem from circuits deep within the brain. Several trials using implanted electrodes, for example, have shown dramatic improvement in people suffering from depression that don’t respond to pharmaceutical drugs, but the results vary significantly between individuals.”

“The next decade may see non-invasive ways to manipulate brain activity, such as focused ultrasound, transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation (TMS/tDCS), and variants of optogenetics. Along with increased understanding of brain networks and dynamics, we may be able to play select neural networks like a piano and realize the dream of treating psychiatric disorders at their root.”

2. The Rise of Massive National Research Programs

“Rarely does one biological research field get such tremendous support from multiple governments. Yet the 2010s saw an explosion in government-backed neuroscience initiatives from the US, EU, and Japan, with China, South Korea, Canada, and Australia in the process of finalizing their plans. These multi-year, multi-million-dollar projects focus on developing new tools to suss out the brain’s inner workings, such as how it learns, how it controls behavior, and how it goes wrong. For some, the final goal is to simulate a working human brain inside a supercomputer, forming an invaluable model for researchers to test out their hypotheses—and maybe act as a blueprint for one day reconstructing all of a person’s neural connections, called the connectome.”

“Even as initial announcements were met with skepticism—what exactly is the project trying to achieve?—the projects allowed something previously unthinkable. The infusion of funding provided a safety blanket to develop new microscopy tools to ever-more-rapidly map the brain, resulting in a toolkit of new fluorescent indicators that track neural activation and map neural circuits. Even rudimentary simulations have generated “virtual epilepsy patients” to help more precisely pinpoint sources of seizures. A visual prosthesis to restore sight, a memory prosthesis to help those with faltering recall, and a push for non-invasive ways to manipulate human brains all stemmed from these megaprojects.”

“Non-profit institutions such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science have also joined the effort, producing map after map at different resolutions of various animal brains. The upcoming years will see individual brain maps pieced together into comprehensive atlases that cover everything from genetics to cognition, transforming our understanding of brain function from paper-based 2D maps into multi-layered Google Maps.”

“In a way, these national programs ushered in the golden age of brain science, bringing talent from other disciplines—engineers, statisticians, physicists, computer scientists—into neuroscience. Early successes will likely drive even more investment in the next decade, especially as findings begin translating into actual therapies for people who don’t respond to traditional mind-targeting drugs. The next decade will likely see innovative new tools that manipulate neural activity more precisely and less-invasively than optogenetics. The rapid rise in the amount of data will also mean that neuroscientists will quickly embrace cloud-storage options for collaborative research and GPUs and more powerful computing cores to process the data.”

3. The Brain-AI-Brain Virtuous Cycle

“First, brain to AI. The physical structure and information flow in the cortex inspired deep learning, the most prominent AI model today. Ideas such as hippocampal replay—the brain’s memory center replays critical events in fast forward during sleep to help consolidate memory—also benefit AI models.”

“In addition, the activation patterns of individual neurons merged with materials science to build “neuromorphic chips,” or processors that function more like the brain, rather than today’s silicon-based chips. Although neuromorphic chips remain mainly an academic curiosity, they have the potential to perform complicated, parallel computations at a fraction of the energy used by processors today. As deep neural nets get ever-more power hungry, neuromorphic chips may present a welcome alternative.”

“In return, AI algorithms that closely model the brain are helping solve long-time mysteries of the brain, such as how the visual cortex processes input. In a way, the complexity and unpredictability of neurobiology is shriveling thanks to these computational advancements.”

“Although crossovers between biomedical research and digital software have long existed—think programs that help with drug design—the match between neuroscience and AI is far stronger and more intimate. As AI becomes more powerful and neuroscientists collaborate outside their field, computational tools will only unveil more intricacies of neural processing, including more intangible aspects such as memory, decision-making, or emotions.”

4. A Mind-Boggling Array of Research Tools

“I talk a bunch about the brain’s electrical activity, but supporting that activity are genes and proteins. Neurons also aren’t a uniform bunch; multiple research groups are piecing together a who’s who of the brain’s neural parts and their individual characteristics.”

“Although invented in the late 2000s, technologies such as optogenetics and single-cell RNA sequencing were widely adopted by the neuroscience community in the 2010s. Optogenetics allows researchers to control neurons with light, even in freely moving animals going about their lives. Add to that a whole list of rainbow-colored proteins to tag active cells, and it’s possible to implant memories. Single-cell RNA sequencing is the queen bee of deciphering a cell’s identity, allowing scientists to understand the genetic expression profile of any given neuron. This tech is instrumental in figuring out the neuron populations that make up a brain at any point in time—infancy, youth, aging.”

“But perhaps the crown in new tools goes to brain organoids, or mini-brains, that remarkably resemble those of preterm babies, making them excellent models of the developing brain. Organoids may be our best chance of figuring out the neurobiology of autism, schizophrenia, and other developmental brain issues that are difficult to model with mice. This decade is when scientists established a cookbook for organoids of different types; the next will see far more studies that tap into their potential for modeling a growing brain. With hard work and luck, we may finally be able to tease out the root causes of these developmental issues.”

MInd-boggling indeed!!!!!

Scientists locate brain circuit that curbs overeating – Neuroscience of overindulging

I admit to hedonic, glutonous eating .  Peggy, on the other hand, is a homeostatic eater and that’s why she weighs within 8 pounds of her teen-age years and I don’t.  Put a plate, a bag, a carton of anything that I find tasty and it’s polished off.

  • Homeostatic feeding occurs when an “animal” eats until it has satiated its hunger and restored its energy levels.
  • Hedonic feeding describes an “animal’s” drive to eat more than it needs if the food source is particularly nutrient-dense and delicious.

Humans are not the only mammal with a drive to overeat high-calorie foods.

In evolutionary terms, when an animal finds a food source high in nutrients, it makes sense to eat as much as possible; in the wild, starvation is an ever-present danger.  ( I’m  alert to the ever-present danger of starvation 

My doctors told me to stop eating sugar and gluten (that’s another story) It’s REALLY challenging to find foods that are not packed with sugar and/or fat . . . that I “crave”.  Energy-dense foods are every where I look and I (along with other mammals) have evolved to find these types of food delicious — and food companies know it.

Researchers find a brain circuit in mice that plays a role in overindulging in high-calorie foods.

As new study co-author Prof. Thomas Kash, Ph.D., points out, “There’s just so much calorically dense food available all the time now, and we haven’t yet lost this wiring that influences us to eat as much food as possible.”

Recently, researchers from the University of North Carolina Health Care in Chapel Hill  looked at this phenomenon in rodents’ brains. Researchers investigated the mechanisms involved in homeostatic feeding, but did not find successful interventions. More recently scientists have looked to hedonic feeding for answers.

Nociceptin and overeating

Research has demonstrated that nociceptin receptors (nociceptin is a peptide with 17 amino acids) make little difference to homeostatic feeding, but that they may influence hedonic feeding.

Prof. Kash and team engineered mice to produce  fluorescent nociceptin. This made it easier to see the cells involved in nociceptin circuits.

Many circuits in the brain utilize nociceptin, but the researchers identified one particular circuit in the amygdala that lit up when the mice binged on energy-dense foods. This circuit has projections to other parts of the brain that help regulate feeding. It originates in the central nucleus of the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a vital role in an animal’s response to emotional stimuli.

Scientists have studied the amygdala for a long time, and they’ve linked it to pain and anxiety and fear, but our findings here highlight that it does other things too, like regulate pathological eating.

The authors believe that “this is the first study to ascribe specific hedonic feeding actions to a subpopulation of [central amygdala] neurons.”

Removing the overeating circuit

In follow-up experiments, the scientists deleted around half of the neurons that produce nociceptin in the circuit. They found that this reduced levels of binge eating.

They gave the mice access to standard chow and high-calorie food, alternatively. With these neurons silenced, the mice significantly reduced their intake of high-calorie food and resisted diet-induced obesity. Their consumption of standard chow remained consistent.

“Our study is one of the first to describe how the brain’s emotional center contributes to eating for pleasure,” explains first study author J. Andrew Hardaway, Ph.D.

“It adds support to the idea that everything mammals eat is being dynamically categorized along a spectrum of good/tasty to bad/disgusting, and this may be physically represented in subsets of neurons in the amygdala.”

The next step for me is to instruct my amygdala to love vegetables.  (jw)


Bad Karaoke Experiment Explains How Embarrassment Keeps You Up at Night

Shame lives on in the brain.
“Hearing a recording of one’s own voice can be a cringe-worthy experience. Scientists took advantage of that uncomfortable truth, turning up the notch with a karaoke experiment. The goal was to ignite feelings of embarrassment and shame — all in the good name of helpful sleep science.”

People with insomnia have a hard time shedding the distress caused by bad emotional experiences.

That suffering can last weeks — even years — and the researchers wanted to find out exactly why. They had two major questions: What is it about sleep that underlies the problem, and what brain circuits are involved?

So the researchers set out to cause some embarrassment. “To do this, 29 people performed karaoke sessions that were recorded. The catch was that they had to wear headphones that muffled out the sound of their own voice — that way, the scientists could impede pitch correction and promote out-of-tune singing. The participants were not diagnosed with any psychiatric disorders, and they covered a wide range of experiences with insomnia; some had never experienced it, while others were very familiar.”

“Scientists used karaoke to create distressing memories for study participants.
The participants later heard the recordings of their singing while an fMRI machine scanned their brains. They were also exposed to a scent intended to boost their memory of listening to the recordings the next time they smelled it.”

“When asked to choose which emotions they felt after hearing the recording, the most frequent and intense feelings reported were embarrassment and shame. The initial fMRIs confirmed those emotions: As they listened to their out-of-tune singing, the participants’ amygdalae lit up with higher than normal activity. This almond-shaped structure in the brain is involved in processing emotions and is known to activate during emotionally distressing experiences.”

Subsequently, the participants spent the night in the lab hooked up to electroencephalogram monitors. While they slept, the scientists wafted in their trigger smell, curious to see whether it would disrupt their sleep.

“When the participants were brain scanned and exposed to the same song recordings the next morning, a trend emerged: The amygdalae of people who experienced fewer interruptions during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep reacted less strongly than they did the first time around. They felt less embarrassed than they did before. Meanwhile, the people who had fragmented REM sleep ended up feeling more embarrassed than they did on the first go.”

“As for the smells, when compared to the good REM sleepers and control subjects (people in the experiment who were not exposed to a smell), the embarrassment felt by the poor REM sleepers was exacerbated by experiencing the scent.”

“The research team believes that the continuation of embarrassment stems back to the fact that fragmented REM sleep harms the amygdala’s ability to process emotional memories overnight.”

“Processing emotional memories requires synaptic connections to change — some have to be weakened, others strengthened. A chemical called noradrenaline strongly affects the balance between this weakening and strengthening. REM, van Someren explains, is a “very special state” because it is the “only state we have that provides a ‘time-out’ from noradrenaline.”

“People with very restless REM sleep may never enjoy this state anymore. “It is likely that this has repercussions for the balance between weakening and strengthening of synapses, and thus affects overnight emotion regulation.

“In other words, for the majority of people, a night of good REM sleep helps alleviate whatever shame or distress was felt the day before. That doesn’t happen as efficiently when REM sleep is fragmented, and it can become a perpetuating issue. If distress doesn’t dissolve overnight, that can lead to another night of bad sleep, creating a cycle of poor sleep and feeling bad.”

“That state of existence describes the profile of people with insomnia, which van Someren hopes his research can help. He says that instead of focusing on examining sleep-regulating systems in the brain that have been derailed, his team’s study suggests that the better way to help insomniacs is to look for mechanisms in circuits that regulate emotional memory.”

“We also hope that people start to realize that sleep is not always ‘the more the better,’ but that a maladaptive kind of sleep [one with bad REM] can exist,” he explains.

“Restoring REM sleep through novel treatments could be one way of helping to halt this maladaptive sleep. Healthy sleep is central to overall health — and some distressing memories need help being scooted away from the foremost of your thoughts.”