March 10, 2020

Habit Shift: Habits and our Prehistoric Programming

by Dr. Brian Hollett

It’s March and by now, most likely many of you have abandoned your New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you were too ambitious or didn’t have the necessary support in place to achieve your goals. At SHIFT, we work with each Member to break down individual goals into smaller action steps and identify clear pathways to measurable results. Before diving into the tools that will help you enhance your ability to create and maintain positive habits that will allow you to achieve your goals, we’re sharing a bit of the science behind human behavior and the changes our brains go through when anticipating reward. In the paragraphs below, SHIFT physician Dr. Brian Hollett offers insights into why forming (and sustaining) new habits can at times seem so difficult and how you can train your brain to overcome these habit-forming challenges.

Core drives of modern human beings differ very little from those of our pre-historic ancestors. The primary drive of our body is simply to survive. Some of the things we do to survive include conserving energy, obtaining food and water, reducing uncertainty, and achieving social status and prestige. The problem with our prehistoric programming is not the goal of survival, but the time frame that humans historically had to achieve the goal.

Essentially, humans are not equipped to live a long time and our biology hasn’t yet caught up.

Our prehistoric programming had the goal of keeping us alive to reproduce in our teenage years and then survive another decade or so to prepare our offspring for survival. As recently as the 18th century, average human lifespan was only about 20-35 years, and it was not until after 1950 that the average lifespan worldwide first rose above 50 years.

Our habits are modern-day responses to this prehistoric programming – essentially, patterns of behavior that have been rewarded. Ancient programming naturally craves immediate reward to ensure near-term survival and is not naturally concerned about delayed gratification through marginal gains. Consequently, we do not instinctively engage in habits that are necessarily aligned with a longer life.

Our impulse for immediate rewards that promote our survival starts in the brain. We are not best suited to have to think about instinctual habits. The pleasure-seeking and motivation-inducing neurochemical, dopamine, is secreted by a few select locations in our brain acting via a complex neural circuit on the nucleus accumbens – or the “reward center” of our brain.  A surge of dopamine is received by the synapses of the nucleus accumbens not only when we experience a reward, but also when we anticipate it. When dopamine rises, so too does your motivation to act. This is why simply anticipating a desirable event brings excitement even prior to the actual experience of the event (e.g. the excitement of a young child merely approaching a theme park).

When a new habit is established, there is not often the same dopamine surge as when engaging in an old habit. Our brain is not yet able to fully anticipate that a reward will be obtained with the new habit, and anticipatory dopamine surge is thus smaller (or nonexistent). Through deliberate practice of a habit and repetition, dopamine soon begins to be released with anticipation of the habit, leading to a feeling of desire and motivation to take action whenever the cue for the habit is encountered.

It is important to note that not everything that causes a dopamine surge is beneficial for our health and longevity—dopamine is simply the motivation-inducing neurochemical of the brain. The real magic happens when we slowly align our neurochemical reactions toward habits that will make us healthier individuals and in turn, live longer lives.

Flossing your teeth is a good example of this. While flossing is recommended by dentists, many people struggle to incorporate it into a daily routine. It can be painful at first and feel like a time-consuming task, despite its long-term positive effects. However, through commitment and repetition, it can soon feel as necessary as brushing your teeth before bed. As you experience positive results (e.g. praise from the dentist), the habit will become more and more ingrained in behavior and the physiologic dopamine surge approaches the level associated with your other established daily habits and more closely aligned with a longer lifespan.

Creating longer lifespan appropriate habits can be difficult. Seek support. Be persistent. Train your brain.

Over the next several weeks, Dr. Hollett will share tools to enhance your ability to build new and positive habits successfully. Maybe you faltered on your New Years’ resolutions this year, but you still have the opportunity to create new habits to have a successful year and our team at SHIFT is here to help you succeed.



habits, health, prehistoric programming

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