Have you ever caught yourself thinking about the steps involved in tying your shoelaces? Or about the various maneuvers you perform when you mount and ride a bicycle? I hope not. If you had to think about the former, it’s a sign you are losing it, and if you were thinking about the latter -you are going to fall off the bike. But watch a child learning how to tie her shoelaces and you’ll see trying and fumbling and frustration. And a child learning how to ride a bike? I collapsed from exhaustion holding the back of the seat of my childrens’ bikes while they were doing their best, so it seemed, to lose their balance and fall. Now, most of us haven’t ridden a bike for many years. So how is it that we can mount a bike and start riding without the slightest, well almost, sign of awkwardness?

Soon, he’ll “chunk” it

Chunking

What on earth possessed me to think about this arcane subject in the first place? I routinely spread seeds in the backyard to feed the multitude of birds who come to feast on it. It gives them nourishment, and it gives me immense pleasure to watch their Joie de vivre and hear their happy chatter.  It then occurred to me that If I spread a few seeds closer to the office glass door, where I am writing this post, the birds would come closer and I could enjoy them almost within touching range. So I tried it. At first they seemed totally oblivious to the new seed depot. They would just hop around at random, without even getting close to discovering it. But then one day one of the dark-eyed Juncos hopped onto the new cache. It flew off, but came back with some of its flock mates, landing again at the original seed site, but this time hopping tentatively, but purposefullly toward the new location. Within a couple of days I had the Juncos landing right at the closer site, not even bothering going through the ritual of first landing at the far seed location and hopping their way to the office door.

Everything is recorded and analyzed

Charles Duhigg, a staff writer for the NYT, wrote a fascinating article in the Sunday NYT Magazine, titled “How Companies Learn Your Secrets”, in which he describes how Proctor and Gamble or Target are tracking not only our shopping habits, but even our most intimate personal secrets. A wonderful example: using shopping data Target discovered that a high school student was pregnant before even her father found out. But I am not going to rant about invasion of privacy, or whatever is left of it in the era of baring your body and soul on line. Duhigg relates some fascinating research on how the brain deals with habits, which is what we are interested in today.

“An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel  and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t figure out how to find it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.

And all this for a lousy piece of chocolate?

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.

This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.” In fact, about 45% of our actions are not the product of free will, whatever it is, but are pre-packaged chunks of behaviors that we execute automaton-like, without giving it a second thought.

Amazing, and alarming. It is amazing to realize how economical our brain is. Can you imagine the amount of brain energy we’d have to expend if we didn’t package the sequence of tying our shoelaces? We would have no energy or brain circuits left for storing the latest important information we need in order to survive, like where is the best sale of jewelery for my wife’s upcoming birthday. At the same time, it is quite alarming. With each and every detail of our shopping habits, reading habits, friends, acquaintances, hobbies, political beliefs, religious beliefs, everything about us -is “Big Brother” watching us? or, as Duhigg’s article and his Book “”The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” describe in fascinating detail, merchandisers are already doing. This is 2012, but it feels like we are already in “1984”. And realistically, there is nothing we can do about it.

 

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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