Habits – Your brain vs. your mind

We often talk about habits in the fitness world, and most reading this are already bought in to the idea that the alteration or elimination of negative habits and/or the creation of more positive habits is one of the cornerstones of true, lasting change for our clients and ourselves. In order to really change or create something, however, first we must understand it – and to understand what a habit ‘is’ we must look to some basic principles surrounding the brain and how it relates to our daily activities.

Neuropsychology is, loosely, the study of the various structures of the brain as they pertain to specific psychological processes and behaviours. This likely conjures thoughts of phrenology, which is the historic (thankfully, forgotten) idea that a practitioner could determine your character and mental abilities by looking at the shape of your head, but it’s very different.

Over the past few decades scientists have used brain imaging techniques, instruments which ‘turn off’ or ‘turn on’ various areas of the brain and some unfortunate individuals with brain injuries to come to understand the basic structure of the brain and, crucially, what each area correlates to in terms of behaviour, cognition, memory, the senses and just about everything else you do and experience consciously or unconsciously. This area controls conscious thought, this area memory, this area processes information sent upwards from your nose…

Two absolutely critical areas of the brain relevant to this topic are:

  • The cerebral cortex which is the outer layer, responsible for conscious thought, language, reasoning, memory and perception. This is the ‘newest’ part of the brain evolutionarily speaking
  • The basal ganglia, which is one of the most primitive areas of the brain. This area is responsible for some of our more ‘basic’ cognitive functions including voluntary motor movements and emotion

Note: The cerebral cortex can be divided into a bunch of areas and it does a ton of cool stuff, but that’s not all important for this piece – grab a neuroscience book if you’re interested because it’s all really interesting.)

When you realise that certain areas of the brain ‘do’ certain things, and that one part of the brain houses ‘conscious thought’ it all gets interesting. These areas evolved over millions of years, and many of the structures (including the functions they perform and the way they perform them) have been largely preserved over that time.

For example, when you are tickled, you laugh. So does a rat. When you’re scared your sympathetic nervous system activates and you enter ‘fight or flight’. The same thing happens in your dog. When you are happy your brain releases dopamine, so does the nervous system of a fruit fly (even bananas secrete dopamine!).

What this could be taken to mean is quite profound. It would mean that ‘You’ is determined entirely by a biological mass of matter located in your skull that has been formed throughout your life and, perhaps more importantly, via millions of years of evolutionary adaptations. It would mean that ‘you’ is just a result of the ancient physical properties of your brain and if this was true it would mean that everything you do, say, feel and think is pre-determined. Taken to it’s logical conclusion, neuroscience would (at least superficially) suggest that you have no free will. That’s not what this field represents, though.

One key principle within this field is that you are NOT ‘just your brain’ although the fact remains that each brain has certain predictable traits which, when we are aware of them, make sense of a lot of strange things that we do. It is to the end of ‘being aware of them’ that this article hopefully provides the means.

The Brain and The Mind are separate concepts, one acts when you are paying attention and the other does the rest – and that’s where habits come in.

What are habits?

A habit is a bunch of actions which you do automatically. You probably have more than you even realise, too – think about it:

  • When you are walking towards your car, even if you’re totally distracted, you remember to unlock it, right?
  • How much do you think about it before you flush the toilet?
  • When’s the last time you made a conscious effort to put toothpaste on your toothbrush?

You don’t, do you? These are habits, and actions like these rule your entire life.

Every day you perform more actions than you could ever count – if you had to make choices and actively think about everything that you do, you would never get anything done. If you had to work out which way to get to the kitchen, where the fridge is and then remember how to work the oven every time you needed to, you would never eat – so your brain has some short cuts for you.

Your brain is made up of neurons, each of which connects to other neurons in specific ways – it is this interaction between individual neurons which creates your memories, your actions and everything else. When you learn something new, the plasticity of these neural connections allows you to physically change how your brain works, building new connections and forming new circuits. Over time with repeated performing of these behaviours, the neural connections become reinforced and you learn how to do new things.

This is coupled with a reward system mediated largely by the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter which is released when you hear a great song, eat a tasty something, finish a hard workout or play with your kids. This ancient system ‘knows’ what things are beneficial for our survival and propagation and therefore rewards us in order to get us to repeat the action until eventually these things become habitual. You don’t crave or enjoy anything, you crave or enjoy the dopamine ‘hit’ which doing that thing gives you. This is why positive reinforcement works so well for people who are doing something hard – you are giving them the dopamine hit needed to want to do the thing again.

This is the very basic overview of how learning a new action works. Do something which is rewarding, repeat it to get the reward, form new connections, repeat the action and reinforce them.

This takes us back to the basal ganglia. In the context of this article, this area effectively works like autopilot on a plane by allowing you to do complex actions without conscious thought. It uses the connections which have been created via learning to remember how to walk and in which direction while you actively pay attention to Instagram.

How are habits formed?

What happens as habits are formed is that you effectively ‘group together’ series of actions as one singular process. As this grouping happens within your brain you reach a point whereby you view an entire process as only one ‘routine’; a routine which is initiated by a decision or cue and then automatically played out.

For example: You might decide when you wake up to make a cup of hipster-coffee (like me every morning). You head to the kitchen, turn on the kettle, get the coffee from the freezer, grind it, add it to your aeropress, pour water on top (then put the kettle back), stir, plunge, throw the grounds away, clean the plunger, add milk, put the milk back in the fridge then drink to get the rewarding, delicious caffeine. The thing is you don’t have to decide to do all of that and you never forget a step – it’s all grouped together as ‘making a coffee’ and your brain thinks of it in the same way.

More than that, at some point ‘waking up’ gets added to the routine as a cue and you no longer decide to make the coffee – you just do it BECAUSE you woke up.

As such, habits can be considered to be the routines which we once performed due to conscious decisions to get rewards, but which are now performed when you are on autopilot and the cue presents itself. This is fine when you consider that here the routine isn’t something negative, but the exact same mechanism is what drives people to smoke, drink alcohol and often – to overeat.

To illustrate the cue-habit-reward principle of habit learning lets consider the person who has a pastry on the way to work each day:

At first they decide to try a new coffee shop which has just opened, and which has a bakery – they make a conscious decision to detour on their commute and walk through the door. It smells amazing (cue) so they decide to order a pastry (routine) which, when they eat it, tastes really good (reward).

The next day, the process repeats.

Soon, every time they get near the coffee shop they smell the cue, go in and get a pastry without even thinking. Soon after that the smell isn’t even needed – the cue is simply walking to work.

Their brain has grouped together the process of buying a pastry and tied it to the cue of walking by the shop. If the client isn’t really paying attention, they are drawn in.

So you just have to pay attention and avoid the routine, right? Well, this is the idea of ‘willpower’ and it’s not quite so simple as that because after a while you start to crave the reward. Once the cue happens, which could be anything, your brain starts to fire various signals in expectation of a reward response and if it doesn’t get it? Cravings attack which can be unbearable.

A famous study on this topic highlighted this perfectly. A monkey was trained to perform a task and get juice as a reward. Soon, researchers saw that upon initiating the trained task (cue) the pleasure centre in the monkey’s brain became active in anticipation of juice (the reward). If the monkey did not get his juice, he became agitated and his brain showed very similar patterns to the brain of someone with depression.

So if this pastry-loving client just walks straight past, they will crave their sweet treat – this can be resisted, for a while, but eventually they will almost always give in because the client cannot be mindful ALL of the time. Even if you try to, every time you exert mindfulness you need to make a conscious decision to deny yourself a reward, so guess what happens when you’re tired or stressed?

To top it all off these neural connections cannot be erased. Once you have a connection that says “When you walk this way, get a pastry”, it’s there for life.

If you don’t believe me, consider that after around 72 hours of your last cigarette you have resisted the worst of the physical symptoms of addiction and within 1-3 months you are no longer physically addicted at all - but the HABIT of smoking can cause severe cravings as soon as you, for example, taste alcohol even YEARS after you give up. How many people give up smoking then relapse 5 years later? They aren’t addicted anymore and they know how bad smoking is (that’s why they endured the giving up phase in the first place) but the engrained habit creates some psychological draw even still.

But there IS something you can do…

"Success simply becomes a habit".

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You are not your brain

The outlook appears grim, but you CAN do something about this. Your ‘mind’ is the conscious part of your brain which is able to apply logic and reason to the powerful urges which the more primitive areas of your brain present. That’s why it’s possible to avoid stealing, to maintain a monogamous relationship, and why your clients CAN stop mindlessly buying pastries.

That it’s doable, does NOT mean that it’s easy, however – in order to change a habit, you often need to identify the cue and the reward.

This may take time, but if you are able to identify the reward that will often lead to the cue. Once you have these, what you need to do is alter the routine which gets you from A to B. This effectively overwrites one habit with a new one, creating a more positive action and a greater ability to modulate your own behaviour – which removed the need for the ‘willpower’ which everyone always talks about lacking (how many times have you heard “I can’t lose weight, I don’t have the willpower”?).

For example, the lady with the pastry may be hungry, in which case a decent breakfast could solve it. She may want something sweet in which case a sugarfree syrup in a latte would suffice. It could even be more abstract - she might want to have something comforting before she heads in to work in which case some extra time with her partner or even pet might make all the difference, or she might like the interaction with a barista from a small independent place in which case she could pop in to have a cup of tea.

Our clients often complain that they have little willpower – that they struggle to resist the ‘naughty’ things that they enjoy, but this is not the way to look at it. The problem here is that the client has created a ‘habit loop’ of cue, routine, reward which results in a negative behaviour such as overeating, snacking, choosing poorly from various food choices etc. What we need to do is not to try to force our clients to put up with cravings, but find alternative routines to perform in order to get the reward that they (and their brain) want.

A client who often drinks to relax doesn’t crave wine, they crave relaxation. Is their cue stress, is it that a certain TV show is on, are in a certain chair? Once you identify the cue you can ask your client to be mindful of it, and work with them to then identify alternative means of getting the reward – would they enjoy taking a bath, talking to a loved one, spending time with their kids, reading a book, watching a junky 80’s action movie, creating something or even meditation?

A client may always have chocolate when they get the time-based cue that it is 14:30 at work. Do they crave something sweet, is this a way to talk to colleagues around the vending machine, do they just need a break and a change of scenery, are they actually hungry? Once you identify the cue you can advise mindfulness (in this case, a 14:25 alarm would work great). And once you know what the reward truly is, you can then suggest different tactics to get it which are more in line with the client’s goals.

By avoiding the simple answer of ‘suffer through cravings’ we can help a client rewrite their habits. We can eliminate the need for willpower, and we can improve our client adherence automatically.

Once you stop relying on willpower and forcing people to suffer in order to succeed it all gets a lot easier.

Success simply becomes a habit.

The BTN Academy for April 2017 is starting soon. One thing we really focus on throughout the course is the practical application of scientific principles to generate success for you or anyone you work with. It’s rare that people want to know about nutrition, they want to know how to use nutrition to meet a certain goal or improve their life in some way. While we do spend a huge amount of time covering the nuts and bolts, we also spend a lot of time discussing application, how to help people and how to really use the information in the real world.

This year we are introducing immersive support groups on Facebook to put ourselves right on your social media feed when you need us. In this group, we’ll be talking application, psychology, mindset and the different ways you can use your new-found knowledge to impact your own life and the lives around you.

If you’d like to learn more cool stuff like the above, or if you’d just like to learn more about the academy – head on over to the Academy page and check it out!).


  1. Hollerman JR, Tremblay L, Schultz W. “Involvement of basal ganglia and orbitofrontal cortex in goal-directed behavior.” Prog Brain Res. 2000;126:193-215.
  2. Schultz W, Tremblay L, Hollerman JR. “Reward processing in primate orbitofrontal cortex and basal ganglia.” Cereb Cortex. 2000 Mar;10(3):272-84.
  3. http://www.addictionsandrecovery.org/quit-smoking-plan.htm