Habits: gone but not forgotten?

A recent LA Times article discusses the phenomenon of habit formation. Neuroscience researchers talk about the fact that once a habit is formed, it never completely disappears from the brain. But breaking a habit IS possible, if you have a very strong motivation to do so (because it is hard, hard work).

One model of habit formation is that it starts out as a “goal-directed behavior,” an action that we perform because we expect to achieve a certain goal. If we repeat that same behavior in the same situation, regardless of whether the goal is there, the behavior eventually becomes a habit – something we do just because we are in that situation, not because we are trying to achieve a goal.

Interesting to think about this in terms of violin practice. Many of the technical problems I see in my students arise because the goal, in their minds, is the sound. The student develops a variety of adaptive mechanisms with their body in order to produce that sound, without using the correct technique. While it may work in one situation – that particular song – the students don’t realize that this habit they’ve developed will not work for them in the future. They will have to go through a long and arduous process of “untraining” if they want to free themselves to play more challenging works someday. A lot of the practice strategies that I suggest involve taking a technique out of the situation of the song in order to train it – in essence, creating an etude or study within a particular song. This is equivalent to taking a habit out of the normal situation, and creating a new goal-directed behavior. It’s an effort to decouple the “sound of the song” from the mechanics of  “how to make the sound”. Practice is such hard work because we are constantly trying to train new habits, and retrain old habits. Keeping tabs on all the habits we have developed is a difficult process!

But the resistance to doing the hard work is also hard-wired in the primitive regions of our brains.

Our brains are built to overvalue the rewards we can get right away and undervalue those we might only receive later. Similarly, we tend to avoid any small unpleasantness we’d have to face now even if we know it may mean bigger difficulties down the road.

Luckily, we also have more evolved parts of our brains that can help us generate the motivation to curb the bad habits we choose to. It’s up to us to become aware of the habits we want to develop, and the ones that may be unconsciously driving us toward the quickest reward (at any cost).

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