How can we learn new habits and skills?

01/04/2019

Wiring and rewiring automatic, habit-like behaviors is undoubtedly one of the most important scientific challenges today. It might seem an overstatement. It is not. Beyond its basic scientific significance of understanding brain plasticity, it has important implications for the health sciences aiming to overcome harmful behaviors such as addictions and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. It can also bring breakthrough in training programs targeting the improvement of automatic behaviors, including skills involved in as cello or piano playing, sport activities, or communication.

Habits are automatic, recurring, and frequently unconscious behaviors. They are written into the fabric of our lives allowing us to perform complex routines automatically, while our thoughts, attention, and deliberate actions are directed to other tasks. Yet, at times, habits can be immensely destructive, supporting maladaptive behaviors, such as drugs, or behavioral addictions. The healthcare system is facing an increasing number of people suffering from behavioral addictions in the EU and worldwide searching for ways to overcome these maladaptive habitual behaviors. For example, there are many serious discussions about the questionable habits in Internet and Smartphones use.

Changing habit-like behavior also occurs in our verbal and non-verbal communication when we move from one social environment to another, such as moving from a small town to a city, or from higher education to a work environment. In these situations, overwriting our behavior is necessary for adapting to the new or changed environment. The aim of my research is to gain mechanistic insight into the evolution of habit-like behaviors from acquisition to rewiring. In order to do so, we examine the learning and memory processes underlying habit learning and rewiring. In my lab, we are using methods from neuropsychology, developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. For example, we are using non-invasive brain stimulation in order to investigate the causal relationship between brain and behavior or EEG in order to see brain oscillation during learning and memory processes.

Learning new habits and skills: the competitive memory system approach

Recent research has shown that neurocognitive networks underlying learning and memory can interact in a cooperative or a competitive way. A vast body of research in different labs - including mine - demonstrated that weaker frontal lobe-dependent executive and control functions were associated with better habit and skill learning performance.

It could be interpreted by assuming a competitive-antagonist relationship between controlled and spontanious processes. In other words, there is a competition between hypothesis testing and automatic / stimulus-driven learning processes.    Because the frontal cortex is responsible for control, and hypothesis testing (a type of thinking) processes and subcortical structures are responsible for spontanious, automatic behaviors, the greater involvement of the former processes hinders the habit and skill learning.

For instance, in one of our study, we found that the learning of probabilistic sequences is better under hypnosis. Hypnotic instructions are an experimental manipulation that weakens the functional connections of frontal cortices: it reduces control function. It was suggested that control functions decreased throughout hypnose: indeed, during relaxational hypnosis we can see weaker functional connectivity in the brain from frontal regions.

Hypnosis could boost the learning processes underlying habit formation.

Previous studies have revealed competitive neurocognitive processes underlying habit and skill learning. But the neural communication of the related brain regions (functional connectivity) has not yet been investigated. Last year we aimed to fill this gap by investigating functional brain connectivity that promotes learning processes in humans. We used a high-density EEG with 128-channels. We measured and analyzed functional connectivity between cortical regions during the first, second, and third periods of the learning task, respectively. The weaker the connectivity of the anterior brain regions are, the better the implicit learning performance is. These correlations increased as the learning progressed. The result is interesting because this region of the brain is related to the access of memory representation. It means that we can learn new patterns from the environment - therefore new skills or new habit - when we can’t access our memory, our previously learnt materials. Our long-term memory representations, our knowledge about the world can inhibit totally the learning of new skills and habits. Our findings provide evidence that dynamic antagonist brain networks serve a hallmark of learning.

To sum up, understanding learning and memory systems underlying habits and automatic behaviors can lead us to invent new methods and techniques to boost not only the learning but also the rewiring of our automatic behaviors. Science can help you to break bad habits!
We will provide behavioral and neuroscientific methods to boost rewiring. Beyond the basic scientific significance, the results will open up the window to translational solutions such as the development of new behavioral trainings, psychotherapy techniques, and new pharmacological therapies in order to overcome old habits and rewire automatic behaviors. 

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