Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Habit formation appears to be an innate ability, fine-tuned by experience

Date:
October 27, 2010
Source:
McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Summary:
Most people have habits that guide them through daily life -- for example, their path to work in the morning, or their bedtime routine. The brain patterns that drive this behavior are not well-understood, but a new study shows that habit formation appears to be an innate ability that is fine-tuned by experience -- specifically, the costs and rewards of certain choices.

Pathways that monkeys used to look at a grid of dots. They received a reward when their gaze landed on one of the dots.
Credit: Theresa Desrochers and Daniel Gibson, Image courtesy of McGovern Institute for Brain Research, MIT

Most people have habits that guide them through daily life -- for example, their path to work in the morning, or their bedtime routine. The brain patterns that drive this behavior are not well-understood, but a new study from MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research shows that habit formation appears to be an innate ability that is fine-tuned by experience -- specifically, the costs and rewards of certain choices.

Neuroscientists led by Institute Professor Ann Graybiel found that untrained monkeys performing a simple visual scanning task gradually developed efficient patterns that allowed them to minimize the time it took to receive their reward.

The task was designed to mimic natural scenarios -- a nearly infinite number of choices for the monkeys to make and an unpredictable reward structure. "We wanted to create an environment that would be similar to the world we walk around in every day -- an environment where there are lots of choices the animal can make," says Theresa Desrochers, an MIT graduate student and lead author of a paper describing the work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of Oct. 25.

The findings not only help reveal how the brain forms habits, but also could shed light on neurological disorders where amplified habit-formation results in highly repetitive behavior, such as Tourette's syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, says Graybiel.

Graybiel and Desrochers took an unusual approach to their study. In most behavioral studies of monkeys, the researchers first train the animals to perform a task, then begin experiments. In this case, Graybiel and Desrochers wanted to see if the monkeys could learn a simple visual free-scanning task with no training at all.

The researchers measured the monkeys' eye movements and brain activity as they looked at a grid of either four or nine dots. In each trial, after a period of time when the monkey just looked around, a different dot was randomly chosen to be "baited," meaning that the monkey succeeded in the trial when its gaze landed on that dot. After a successful trial ended, the monkey received a food reward.

While the task itself is simple, it is capable of generating a rich variety of behavior, due to the number of choices available to the animals. The monkeys performed such trials about 1,000 times a day, and over several months, they developed ways to look at all of the different dots in sequences that were more and more cost-effective -- meaning that they reached the target dot faster.

The changes were gradual: The animals would use one pattern for five to 10 days, then shift to a slightly different pattern. When looking at the entire mass of data, the researchers couldn't tell what was driving these changes. However, a trial-by-trial analysis revealed that very small variations in the scanning patterns could reduce the overall time to receive the reward, which would then reinforce that behavior and lead the monkey to adopt the new pattern.

"The upshot was that tiny little changes in cost -- how far they moved the eyes -- seemed to be driving these shifts until they did it as optimally as they could, despite the fact that they had never been instructed," says Graybiel.

This suggests that primates have an "inborn tendency to maximize reward and minimize cost," says Graybiel. She and Desrochers believe the same kind of phenomenon, known as reinforcement learning, may also guide human habit formation.

"When you drive to work, it's never going to take exactly the same amount of time. You might try one different street to avoid a stoplight, or some other subtle variation. At some point, you may completely shift," says Desrochers.

Desrochers and Graybiel plan to design studies that will test whether humans show the same kind of habit-forming behavior in an eye-scanning task similar to the one the monkeys learned. They also hope to discover which parts of the brain control habit formation. They believe that the basal ganglia, which play a role in learning, and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning, are likely candidates.

Funding: National Eye Institute Grant, the Office of Naval Research Grant, National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, Friends of the McGovern Fellowship and a Sloan Research Fellowship.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The original article was written by Anne Trafton. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. T. M. Desrochers, D. Z. Jin, N. D. Goodman, A. M. Graybiel. Optimal habits can develop spontaneously through sensitivity to local cost. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1013470107

Cite This Page:

McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "Habit formation appears to be an innate ability, fine-tuned by experience." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 October 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101027152609.htm>.
McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). (2010, October 27). Habit formation appears to be an innate ability, fine-tuned by experience. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101027152609.htm
McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "Habit formation appears to be an innate ability, fine-tuned by experience." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101027152609.htm (accessed July 25, 2014).

Share This




More Health & Medicine News

Friday, July 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

AFP (July 24, 2014) A so-called drugs rehab 'clinic' is closed down in Pakistan after police find scores of ‘patients’ chained up alleging serial abuse. Duration 03:05 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Too Few Teens Receiving HPV Vaccination, CDC Says

Too Few Teens Receiving HPV Vaccination, CDC Says

Newsy (July 24, 2014) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is blaming doctors for the low number of children being vaccinated for HPV. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) The FDA approved Targiniq ER on Wednesday, a painkiller designed to keep users from abusing it. Like any new medication, however, it has doubters. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Doctor At Forefront Of Fighting Ebola Outbreak Gets Ebola

Doctor At Forefront Of Fighting Ebola Outbreak Gets Ebola

Newsy (July 24, 2014) Sheik Umar Khan has treated many of the people infected in the Ebola outbreak, and now he's become one of them. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

    Health News

      Environment News

        Technology News



          Save/Print:
          Share:

          Free Subscriptions


          Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

          Get Social & Mobile


          Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

          Have Feedback?


          Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
          Mobile: iPhone Android Web
          Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
          Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
          Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins