Habits and Memories – What leads to What

photo of man running during daytime

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Akshay begins his early morning run and return to his place after an hour, a daily routine he has been following for the past 5 years.  He is in a job, which does not involve much travel, however, one day his boss asks him to visit a branch office in a different city.  Although, he likes traveling, he is concerned about missing on his daily run.  His boss, however, recommends going to a park close to where he will be staying, so he won’t miss it.

When he gets up in the morning to go outside and complete, his run in the park he feels different from his usual experience of running in a familiar terrain.  The mind is very active and closely observing things around him, he observes himself taking a mental note of things happening around him, the path taken to reach the park and the topography of the entire jogging track, where it is smooth and where it is broken and to be avoided.

Most of us would have felt the same.  Whenever we go to a new place, our senses become very active and absorb every information to identify any possible threats.  However, as we get used to performing an activity repeatedly that part of our brain somehow loosens its grip and lets some other part to handle the routine.

The Strange Case of Eugene Pauly

Eugene Pauly (EP) diagnosed with viral encephalitis at the age of 70, lost his ability to form new memories. A doctor who visited him after he and his wife moved to a new house asked him if he remembers where they are and if he know where the kitchen is.  He would give evasive replies because of his inability to answer them.  However, just at that moment, he got up and went to the kitchen, got a glass of water and came back.  However, when asked where he went just now and how he got water, would lead to confusing answers. Although he was able to retrieve a glass of water, the way to the kitchen was still lost in his memory.  This was the first revelation for these doctors.

As they were living in the new neighborhood, the doctors also advised his wife Beverly to take him on regular walk, which would be good for his health.  One day, however Beverly found her husband missing and was concerned, she was about to call the police when he returned with a pinecone.  When she told doctors about this incident they were startled and excited to find out what was happening in his brain.

Upon extensive research and questioning, the doctors were able to identify the key reasons as to how EP, who does not even remember a person after a few seconds and keep on reintroducing himself, remembers the path to the kitchen and the way back home after a morning walk.

person holding string lights photo

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Discovery of Basal Ganglia

The generally accepted idea of memory was that it is stored in the hippocampus.  However, what the doctors found out was that when an activity is performed repeatedly, the patterns are imprinted in a different part of our brain called – ‘Basal Ganglia’.

So, just as Hippocampus is the memory center of our brain, basal ganglia holds all our repeated patterns or ‘Habits’.  The patterns become autonomic to such an extent that they can be performed on an autopilot with little or no interference from the conscious brain.

 

Significance of this Discovery

So, basal ganglia was at work when Akshay was going for his regular run at home, while amygdala, hippocampus and thalamus were on the overdrive as he went out for his first run in a new city.  As the activity moved from an automatic response to the one requiring focus and attention, basal ganglia handed over control to the conscious part of the brain.

However, if Akshay stays in that place for a month and keeps up with the daily routine, soon, he would be on an autopilot there as well.

We just need to keep repeating an activity until the time the neural connections become so strong that they work on an autopilot and move their centre of control to basal ganglia.  Once that happens, you are rewarded with a new habit.

Just remember to keep up with the new routine, no matter what, the more repetitions you do the more are the chances of gaining an unconscious competence and automaticity in that activity.

 

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