The Neuroscience of Self-Control

Neurons that fire together wire together.  The more we do something the stronger the habit becomes.  Habit formation is partly engrained in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia get strengthened as habits get more engrained so that habits become easier and more automatic. A major component of the basal ganglia is the nucleus accumbens.  The nucleus accumbens releases dopamine which is central in 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.”[i]  Neurologically habits work in a loop that contains a cue, routine, and reward.[ii]  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.  If the reward of your routine is to feel connection, perhaps spending time with family is a better routine than watching the news for hours per day.

Perhaps more than any other, the habit of regular exercise is one of the best in forming new neural pathways.  It increases blood-flow to the brain.  Exercise improves cognition.  It reduces anxiety.  It boosts immune function.  It can increase the level of GABA which can suppress depression.  

The Habit of Habit Formation

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 30 minutes per day and then give up when it’s too hard, 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 more 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: 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 that shows that when habits are tracked, they are more successful.  This daily habit tracker from the Episcopal Church’s Way of Love initiative is an excellent tool to help you see the patterns of your life: Way of Love Habit Tracker

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

[ii]“How Habits Work,” Charles Duhigg, accessed August 7, 2019,