Habits are a powerful product of our evolution, designed to protect us and help us make decisions quickly. Often times bypassing the hippocampus (the memory part of the brain), all together, habits allow us to act quickly based on a trigger that has warranted action in the past.
The development of a habit is not without its hitches, however. What might be viewed as an evolutionary strong-point (defending one’s self at the first sign of distress), could be very detrimental in reality (broken down interpersonal relationships).
That is because, unlike facts that are stored in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for short- and long-term memory, habits are stored in the basal ganglia, or the part of the brain responsible for caution, action and impulse. An event that triggers a habit may therefore be more difficult to control because the signals to act often bypass cognition. This is one reason breaking a habit is so difficult; to do so requires a person to acknowledge their triggers, then have enough willpower to over come them again, and again, and again. With time and persistence, however, even the most ingrained habits can be broken or replaced both new habits.
The evolutionary benefit of habits are that they allow us to streamline action by programming our brains to react a certain way when a particular stimulus is experienced. Someone who has given up smoking, for example, may then be prone to “bum a smoke” during a party or social gathering; the party has triggered the compulsion to smoke a cigarette and the desire can be overwhelming.
But, nonetheless, the human brain craves efficiency. It wants to get the most accomplished with the least amount of effort. In fact, the brain is designed to pick up habits in order to increase productivity, and will act on habits with only a minor trigger.
While this may have evolutionary significance — a person reacting to a loud noise by ducking for cover, for example — some habits can be less than appealing in the long run. Habits like overeating when depressed, smoking when bored or acting aggressively in uncomfortable situations are all examples of times when a habit can cause more harm than good. Fortunately, with a little practice, even the worst of habits can be deprogrammed or transformed into something much better.