The Complexities of Forming Habits


For the last couple of weeks we have examined willpower and habit change in this column. It is important to understand how habits are formed so we can avoid establishing the harmful ones! 

All habits are laid down in nerve pathways in the brain.  Extending from each nerve cell are many little fibers called dendrites and one long fiber called the axon. The dendrites are like miniature receivers that pick up incoming electrochemical messages. The long axon is like a small transmitter that sends messages to neighboring cells.

Many years ago, Sir John Eccles of Australia was using a powerful microscope to examine the tiny space between the sending axon of one nerve cell and the receiving dendrites of another cell.  He noticed some tiny bumps on the end of the axon that looked to him like miniature buttons–and he called them boutons.

Today we know that those little buttons secrete various chemicals that bridge the gap between the cells and allow the transmission of a message from one nerve cell to another.

Dr. Eccles noticed that some axons had many boutons, while others had only a few. Those sending fibers with many boutons did not require as much stimulation as those with few in order to send the impulse on to the next cell.  He theorized that boutons might be formed when that particular sending fiber is repeatedly stimulated, thus making it increasingly easier for messages to flow along that particular pathway.  More recent research has confirmed this.  Under electron microscopes, neurophsiologists have found that repeated stimulation does indeed cause boutons to enlarge and multiply.

It is an awesome to realize that any thought or action that is repeated is actually building little boutons on the end of certain nerve fibers so that it becomes easier to repeat the same thought or action. This is the way habits are formed, to either to bless or curse us.

Do these boutons ever disappear if they are not used?  Evidence today indicates they do not.  If they are not erased, how can harmful habits be changed?  

The answer lies in recognizing that by laying down new habit pathways that are even stronger than the old ones this can be done?  Only by repeatedly choosing a new action under the specific set of circumstances can new habit pathways be developed that are even stronger that the old ones. The toughest part is consistently making the new choices.

Science leaves us alone to struggle with change. Yet, the Bible promises help!  “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds,…bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”  2 Cor. 10:4-5