This Is Why You Haven't Broken That Bad Habit, No Matter How Bad You Want To

Is it really mind over matter?

Just three weeks into the New Year, it's not uncommon to be struggling with that New Year's resolution, if it is still even under consideration at all. It's curious that the fail rate of these resolutions is so high, given how sincere the motivation to change actually was. Whether it was to stop smoking, cut back on the junk food, or stop chewing fingernails, it is extremely difficult to overcome those bad habits even when it's obviously the right thing to do.

Researchers at Duke University published a study in Neuron that explores why it is so difficult to let go of bad habits. Through understanding what is happening neurologically, scientists could come up with new treatments for conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, where unwanted habits overtake the lives of some individuals.

To understand what was happening, the researchers first created varying degrees of sugar addictions in mice and studied the brain activity. They found that the addiction actually rewired the brain, making the impulse telling them to seek out the sugar had become much stronger. Curiously, so did the pathway that signals to stop the activity. 

The main difference between pathways enhanced by addiction and those that aren't, they found, is when the signal to engage in the behavior was activated. Non-addicts begin the stop signal before the start, while those that are addicted are driven to start, with the signal to stop coming later. There is still much to learn about where the start signal comes from, which could identify the source of cravings.

Once they understood what was happening in the brains of mice with bad habits, the researchers tried to break them of the addiction. The mice were rewarded when they stopped actively seeking out the sugar. Unsurprisingly, the mice with the strongest habits and the most enhanced pathways had the hardest time letting go of the behavior of trying to get sugar, even though they'd ultimately get what they wanted if they'd stop. 

"One day, we may be able to target these circuits in people to help promote habits that we want and kick out those that we don't want," senior author Nicole Calakos said in a news release.

There is still considerable research that needs to be done, and it will be quite some time before these pathways can possibly be manipulated in order to heal those suffering from OCD, drug addiction, and otherwise gripped by vices. However, it's an interesting look at why breaking habits, no matter how much we want to, can be really, really hard.