In the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. We've learned how habits work—and how to create good habits and change bad ones.
At the core of every habit is a neurological loop with three parts: A cue, which is a trigger for an automatic behavior to start unfolding; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward, which is how your neurology determines whether to remember a habit for the future.
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When it comes to relationships, the habit loop plays a huge role. How do you automatically communicate with your spouse, or your kids, or your co-workers, for instance? When you're on a date, what cues do you react to? What subconscious rewards does the person across the table crave?
A few years ago, researchers at Yale began examining an aspect of this question—in particular, they were curious how habits differ between men and women. For the last 30 years, everyone assumed that habit worked the same way in both genders. But as we learn more about how the brain works, we're understanding that, when it comes to habits, there are differences between genders.
At Yale, researchers began by examining people with profound habit dysfunctions. Many addictions, we know, are caused by habits that have gone awry, so the Yale scientists conducted brain scans of 30 cocaine addicts and 36 people who had the occasional glass of wine or beer. While inside an fMRI—a machine that can take pictures of the blood flow through brains as people think—subjects were shown photos of scenes that, in previous interviews, they had said were very stressful, or photos that researchers knew would trigger cocaine or alcohol habits.
The researchers' initial findings weren't surprising: as anticipated, the cocaine addicts showed greater brain activity in areas linked to addiction (which makes sense) and motivation (in other words, they were more motivated to use cocaine and alcohol). What was interesting, however, was how much the reactions differed between genders.
For women, exposure to stress-related cues triggered bad habit impulses. Seeing a photo of a child in potential danger, for instance, caused female addicts to crave a glass of wine or cocaine. Emotional cues seemed to be enormously powerful. Men, on the other hand, were much less affected by stress. Read more...
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