The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is known for its advances in the field of computer science, but researchers at MIT are doing a lot more than building robots and improving cryptography. They’re also studying the human brain.

In fact, the best place to go if you want to learn how the brain remembers patterns is the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. In 2005, researchers at the institute published a study that revealed the complex nature of how the brain creates habits. As with many experiments in cognitive science, this one involved rats in a maze. What made this experiment unique was that the rats had sensors surgically placed deep within their brains (almost at the center).

The procedure used a T-shaped maze with chocolate on the left side of the crossbar, as shown in the following figure. The rats were placed at the bottom behind a partition. The experiment began with an audible click, which was followed by the raising of the partition.


Figure 1. T-shaped maze from the MIT experiment

Once the partition was up, the rats could smell the chocolate and their brains worked ferociously as they moved through the maze looking for it. The rats were sniffing the air, looking at the walls, and generally studying this new environment. When they reached the top of the maze, some rats would turn left and others would turn right, but eventually they all found the chocolate.

The same rats repeated the procedure hundreds of times. After a while the sensors started to detect a change in those tiny little brains. The rats developed a habit.

When the rats were initially placed behind the partition, their brain activity was normal. But as soon as the click was played, the rats that were already familiar with the experiment had a sharp decrease in overall brain activity. As they followed the maze directly to the chocolate (always turning left now), their brains seemed to be fairly idle—except for one part, deep within the center of the brain, called the basal ganglia. This is an area of the brain that scientists originally thought was related only to movement and so-called muscle memory.

When the experiment was new to the rats, their entire brains worked to process the environment. After repeating the procedure dozens of times, the rats stored this routine in the basal ganglia and thus reduced the amount of work the brain had to do the next time it went through the maze.

In some ways, the rats’ brains were functioning like a computer’s CPU, which might store the result of some repeated computation in its cache. The cache mechanism saves clock cycles, just as the basal ganglia reduces brain activity.

The MIT experiment shed a great deal of light on the structure of the brain, but it also revealed something new about the structure of habits. For the rats to make this activity a habit, it needed to follow a certain format. It’s now accepted among psychologists that every habit has at least these three components:

  • A cue

  • A routine

  • A reward

The cue for the rats was the click sound. It signaled their brains to fetch the routine from the basal ganglia. The routine was the path through the maze that led to the chocolate on the left. The chocolate, of course, was the reward.

The science behind these elements is new, but advertising agencies have known about them for a century. McDonald’s uses its golden arches as a cue, the drive-thru for routine, and a big greasy hamburger as a reward. Other examples include toothpaste, air fresheners, and soft drinks, which all achieved marketing success because these three elements created habits in consumers.

That’s not to say habits are a bad thing. There are good habits and bad habits, just like anything else. Imagine a Vim user thinking through the details of every command while editing a shell script. The absence of habits would make programming tasks a lot harder and we would need a lot more coffee to do our jobs. But for most programmers, bad habits go beyond the keyboard. Sometimes, they extend to food and exercise.

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