Basal Ganglia

The habit center of the brain.  The basal ganglia is central to your automatic habitual actions and ways of thinking.  Two of its major structures are the caudate and the patumen.[i]  Another important component of the basal ganglia is the nucleus accumbens which plays a critical part of our reward system.

According to some neuroscientists “about 80 percent of the neural instructions for behavior are recorded in implicit memory, outside our conscious awareness.”[ii] Neurologically habits work in a loop that contains a cue, routine, and reward.  What makes up our habits is often outside of our conscious awareness.  Isolating the cue, routine and reward of a habit can help us see why we do the things we do.  Often there is a trigger that sends our minds into automatic mode.  Imagine a commercial of an ice-cold beverage or a mouth-watering sandwich.  Those are powerful cues that impel us to act.  Our routines can be emotional, physical or psychological.  It could be a thought pattern or something like going to the refrigerator late at night.  The reward is something that your brain uses to remember this pattern even without thinking.  Our memories are encoded with emotional content that will produce real feelings of euphoria or disgust.  When you isolate the reward, it can help to change the routine.  The fruit of the spirit produces treasures of love, joy, and peace within us.  If we take the time to cultivate and reward ourselves through God’s goodness, our habit center will help us more automatically choose God’s will for our lives, rather than destructive habits and behaviors.

The striatum groups together several other parts of the basal ganglia and is its largest structure. The striatum includes the nucleus accumbens, putamen, and caudate. It inhibits the activity of the amygdala.  It also allows you to feel safe in the presence of God.[iii]

Forming or breaking habits can be extremely hard. There are some excellent tools that can make it easier. Below are five that I’ve found to be very helpful:

  1. Start Small: Many people give up on forming habits because they get discouraged. If you want to meditate every day, try meditating for just three minutes. If you tell yourself you want to meditate for thirty minutes per day and then give up when it’s too hard, you’ve accomplished nothing. It’s much better to start small. Then you can build your way up to your goal.
  2. Isolate the Reward: Neurologically, habits work in a loop structure containing a cue, routine, and reward. If you are watching traumatic news, it can help to take a step back and ask why. If the reward is a sense of connection, you can find that reward better with friends, family, and community than watching the news. If you can label the reward, you can change your routine to better reward what you are really looking for rather than something damaging. If you take a break to smoke a cigarette, perhaps the reward is more truly to connect with friends and have time away from stress. Isolate the reward and you can change the routine.
  3. Delay: If your goal is to eat healthier or stop smoking, intentionally delaying your bad habit can help. If you can delay having a cigarette for five minutes or delay eating a bag of chips, then you can probably delay it ten minutes. You can build up to not doing the habit at all.
  4. Cues: Cues are a way of helping you remember to do your habit. If you want to go to the gym in the morning, you can cue yourself by having your gym clothes all packed and ready the night before. Any small thing that can make doing the habit just a little easier might make the difference to help the habit stick.
  5. Track: There is quite a bit of research showing that when habits are tracked, they are more successful. Taking the time to look at what you do throughout the day or week can be very

[i] Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding, You are Not Your Brain, (New York: Avery, 2011), 76-77.

 [ii] Linda Graham, Bouncing Back, (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2013), 36.

[iii]  Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert WaldmanHow God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist,(New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 43.

Chick here for an excellent 3D tour of the Basal Ganglia

Learn more on the basal ganglia from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit