What part of the brain controls habits?

In this post we are going to answer the question ‘’What part of the brain controls habits?’’ We will explain how habits are formed, in how long and what are the brain structures in charge of controlling them.

What part of the brain controls habits?

All customs, as well as repetitive acts and discipline, are controlled by the basal ganglia, a nervous structure that is characterized by being more connected to the rest of the brain than any other.

According to scientists, habits arise in the brain, the brain wants to be optimal and save efforts, therefore, it creates mechanisms to convert them into habits and thus not have to think.

Habits are installed without realizing it, many times when you get home from work you sit on the sofa and turn on the TV, that gives you a feeling of relaxation, you do it continuously without realizing it.

There are also habits that are induced like brushing.

A desire will generate a habit, there we produce a signal and if the reward is worth it, then the habit is generated. They are installed without realizing it.

Habits are not destiny, they can be ignored, changed, replaced. The most important thing is that when the habit appears, the brain stops participating in decision making, it becomes automatic. For example, we do not think I have to brush my teeth but immediately eat and go to brush our teeth.

There are habits that are not good, among those habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol, overeating, but the simple fact that you know how they are created, that there is a signal, a routine and a reward, helps to control them more, when you know how it works. is easier to handle.

Many people encounter the problem that I cannot control myself, it can be controlled as long as you work for it. For example, when we are addicted to chocolate, that is the action, but now you have to evaluate what is causing it (the signal).

Find out what the signal is. When you understand this three-step process, it is much easier for you to understand what is the signal? What is the reward?

Another point is that habits are not going to disappear. For example, when you learn to drive, it becomes automatic, when you learn to ride a bicycle, that habit is no longer forgotten, but it is difficult for us to change habits. The brain does not understand good habits or bad habits.

How are habits formed?

Habits arise to save effort and energy. They allow us to stop constantly thinking about basic behaviors, such as walking or deciding what to eat; so we can dedicate our mental energy to other behaviors. But how do you form a habit? There is a three-step loop:

  1. The signal: it is the trigger that informs our brain that it can put the automatic pilot and the habit that it has to use.
  2. The habit, which can be physical, mental or emotional.
  3. The reward, which helps our brains decide if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.

The signals can be of almost any type, from a visual trigger like candy like a television commercial, to a place, a time, a day, an emotion or a sequence of thoughts or being in the company of certain people.

Routines can be complex or simple and the rewards can range from food or drugs, which cause the main sensations, to emotional rewards. Over time, this loop, as it repeats itself, becomes more and more automatic. The signal and the reward overlap until a strong feeling of expectation and desire arises.

Some experiments on habits

Habits most ingrained in our actions are never completely eliminated, according to a study by MIT. That would explain, for example, that former smokers cannot, after years of quitting tobacco, go back to smoking even one cigarette, because they would quickly regain the old habit.

Habits help us in everyday life because they allow us not to have to continually decide each of our actions. Constant routines are delimited that way even before we get down to work, which saves us time.

Bad habits, however, also exist and condition our behavior and our mind. The difficulty in getting rid of them is capital. In addition, once they are lost, they remain latent within our brain, as the authors of this research explain in an article published in the journal Nature.

According to this study, led by Ann Graybiel, a researcher at MIT, there is a specific brain region that changes when we acquire a certain habit, that changes again when this habit is abandoned, but that is quickly reactivated when something reminds us of the old habit abandoned.

Acquiring a routine involves a considerable effort for the brain, which is why it stores the habit “template” in its memory, to reactivate it at the slightest signal. Ann Graybiel is researching basal ganglion-related behaviors as well as the regulation of dopamine secretion in the brain for MIT.

Desrochers, Graybiel and Amemori, for their part, point out that in the acquisition of a habit the benefits that can be obtained by carrying out a certain behavior are involved, but also the costs that it produces. In their studies with monkeys, they confirmed that reinforcement learning establishes patterns of behavior that minimize the cost of obtaining a reward.

They recorded the activity of 1,600 neurons while the animals freely created the habit to get a reward. It was revealed that there are signals that mark the beginning and end of habitual activity, that is, changes in behavior imply changes in neuronal activity.

Something similar was found by researchers from Duke University, pointing out that the “go-no go” circuits are produced in the basal ganglia.

The basal ganglia as an essential structure in the formation of habits

Both investigations indicate the basal ganglia as a crucial area in the formation and maintenance of habits. The basal ganglia are formed by the neostriatum (caudate nucleus and putamen), the globus pallidus and the subthalamic nucleus and the substantia nigra.

They have been traditionally considered as a motor control system but they work in conjunction with the frontal lobes to help select the most appropriate motor response and also influence the acquisition, retention and expression of cognitive behavior. Likewise, they have also been involved in emotions and compulsive behaviors.

For Desrochers, their connections to and from the cortex, as well as their relationship with areas linked to reward, are also important. It would be a zone of alternation between taking actions and making decisions and evaluating those actions and decisions.

Likewise, investigations with gamblers under MRI have shown that viewing slot machines activated the areas of emotion and reward only in the group of gamblers compared to occasional gamblers.

As early as the early 1990s, when MIT researchers began investigating the role of the basal ganglia in habits, they observed that animals with lesions on them suddenly had problems with tasks such as learning to navigate mazes or remembering how to open feeders.

After several repetitions of these experiments, they observed how the brain activity of each rat changed when it traversed the same route over and over again; thus, when the rats learned to move through the maze, their brain activity decreased. 

The more automatic the route became, the less they thought. This assimilation of the route depended on the basal ganglia, so they turned out to be essential for remembering the patterns and acting on them.

The role of the infralimbic cortex

Once the habit has been stored as a unit of behavior, the infralimbic cortex appears to assist the striatum by further fixing it in the form of semi-permanent brain activity.

Through dopamine, this area of ​​the cortex also appears to control when to allow the activation of a habit; by inhibiting this region, deeply ingrained routines can be suppressed.

Thus, repetitive behaviors become a habit and are permanently registered in the brain. The problem is that the brain does not differentiate between good and bad habits.

In the latter there is also a certain amount of cost and reward and it could be that the reward exceeds the costs, although one knows that something is bad for oneself, one does it because the reward is enormous for the brain circuit.

For example, we know that consuming sugar is harmful to our body but we continue to do so because it gives us pleasure.

For this reason, it is so difficult for us to change our habits, because they are integrated into our brain like a trace under a process in which multiple brain circuits are involved and a small signal is enough to start them up and forget about our goal to implement.

But this fact is also an advantage since learning to observe the signals and rewards can change routines and not carry out the habit.

Yet another ingredient is also important: the conviction that you can change your habit. An alternative routine has to be found in the face of the same signals that we receive and that they also offer us a reward.


So we do not have to wait for a certain date or for our body to give us an alarm signal to be able to change those unhealthy habits. Change may not be quick or easy, but with time and effort almost all habits can be changed.

Recent research has shown what Hebb already stated in his work “Organization of behavior” (1949) about the plastic changes in the brain; These are associated with learning and memory, the acquisition of skills and even the establishment of addictions.

Neural plasticity allows the inscription of experience, which permanently modifies the connections between neurons, causing changes of both structural and functional order.

FAQS: What part of the brain controls habits?

How does the brain make and break habits?

According to scientists, habits appear because our brain is always looking for ways to save effort. When you do something routine, the brain does not make decisions, it relaxes and rests. This is good because we forget about basic behaviors, like brushing our teeth.

What habits can damage your brain?

Here are 10 brain-damaging habits: 

Too much of sugar consumption. …

Not getting enough sleep. …

Playing loud music with earphones or headphones. …

Missing breakfast and inadequate water intake. …

Smoking. …

Too much food. …

Sleeping by covering your head.

What is the habit loop?

  1. The signal: it is the trigger that informs our brain that it can put the automatic pilot and the habit that it has to use.
  2. The habit, which can be physical, mental or emotional.
  3. The reward, which helps our brains decide if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.

How does the brain control behavior?

Thus, our brain switch is nothing but the habenula, which works by selecting certain sensory information and then sending it to the posterior areas of the brain stem, thus regulating our behavior.

How habits are formed in the brain?

Study identifies neurons that fire at the beginning and end of a behavior as it becomes a habit.

In this post we answered the question ‘’What part of the brain controls habits?’’ We explained how habits are formed, in how long and what are the brain structures in charge of controlling them.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009.

Matthias J. Gruber, Bernard D. Gelman, and Charan Ranganath. States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron, Published online October 2 2014.

O’Hare J., Ade, K., Sukharnikova, T., Van Hooser, S., Palmeri, M., Yin, H., Calakos, N. (2016). Pathway- specific striatal substrates for habitual behavior. Neuron, vol 89 (3), 472-479.