Our human brains evolved over millions of years to ensure the survival of our ancestors in a dangerous world full of threats, scarce resources, and few comforts. Their lives depended on instincts to react quickly, repeat beneficial actions, and form habits that helped them endure. Many of those same ingrained impulses now lead us astray by compelling us toward destructive habits unfit for our modern lives. Though parts of our brains have adapted to our new environments, the most primitive structures remain intact. By understanding how these ancient brain systems operate, we can override their control to form healthy new habits aligned with our goals.
While our predecessors’ habits centered around tracking animals and locating water to live another day, ours gravitate toward overindulgence in abundant food, devices, substances, or other stimuli. Even though the specific habits have changed, the underlying neurological process of forming them remains the same. Our brains are still wired to seek rewards and relief by repeating actions that worked in the past. But when those actions no longer serve our health and happiness, we must consciously rewire our ways.
We can gain power over these destructive cycles by exploring the neuroscience of how habits operate through cues, routines, and rewards. Though it requires patience and diligence, our rational capacities can override ancient impulses by incrementally replacing detrimental routines with those aligned with our modern lives. Let’s examine how our “caveman brains” control our behaviors and how we can take back the reins.
The Habit Loop
Habits form through a three-step loop. First, there is a cue or trigger prompting an action. This could be a time, place, preceding action, emotions, or other stimuli. Next, you perform the routine behavior or habit, which may be physical, mental, or emotional. Finally, you receive a reward or relief. This reinforces the pattern, encoding it in the brain.
For example, you come home from work feeling stressed. This cue triggers pouring a glass of wine or lighting a cigarette. The reward is stress relief or a dopamine hit. The same cue can trigger different habits in different people based on their past rewards. Over time, this habit loop is ingrained in the brain through neural pathways that make it feel automatic.
Your Caveman Brain’s Role
Two main structures compel us to repeat habits – the amygdala and the basal ganglia. The amygdala generates rapid emotional reactions to cues before your rational mind can think. This triggers the “fight-or-flight” mechanism needed for survival. Nowadays, this often pushes you to seek relief through unhealthy habits.
The basal ganglia stores habitual loops and initiates them automatically through familiar cues. When triggered by the amygdala, you act out the habit before consciously choosing a better action. These structures once helped our ancestors survive by quickly repeating beneficial actions. But now, they betray us by sticking to outdated routines.
Example: Nick’s Evening Snacking Habit
For example, Nick has a habit of snacking on junk food while watching TV at night. Coming home and sitting on the couch cues his brain, making him feel bored and restless. His amygdala reacts by firing up cravings for stimulation. His basal ganglia kicks in, causing him to mindlessly grab Doritos from the pantry – a habitual routine ingrained over time through the reward of satisfying his cravings.
Understanding this habit loop – the cue of arriving home, the routine of snacking, and the reward of stress relief – is the first step to changing it.
Rewiring Your Caveman Brain
You can rewire habits by disrupting loops. Identify your cue, routine, and reward. Then, modify your routine to get the same reward through a healthier action. For example:
Modify cues: Avoid or alter habit triggers to make them less tempting. Nick could change into workout clothes when he gets home as a visual cue for a new routine.
Introduce friction: Add obstacles to make bad habits inconvenient to perform. Nick could keep his Doritos out of sight in a high cabinet.
Satisfy the craving differently: Find a substitute routine for the same reward. Nick could replace his snacking with reading or calling a friend.
Strengthen your prefrontal cortex: This logical brain area can override impulsive habits. Practice mindfulness to make conscious choices.
It takes time to establish new neural pathways. But the conscious mind can reprogram even stubborn habits through awareness and small, consistent changes.
Amanda’s Morning Routine Makeover
Amanda used to start her mornings by grabbing her phone and scrolling through social media sites in bed. The cue was waking up, the routine was mindlessly checking her feeds, and the reward was feeling informed and entertained.
To disrupt this habit, she first identified the loop – waking up was the cue, checking her phone was the routine, and entertainment was the reward. She decided to substitute meditation after waking to get the same reward of feeling calm and centered before her day.
To solidify this new routine, Amanda charged her phone across the room, making it inconvenient to check first thing. After a week of consistency, she reached for her meditation pillow rather than her phone. Amanda leveraged her logical mind to recognize the habit loop and intentionally reroute it.
Though it requires diligence, we can override the primitive drives compelling us toward outdated habits. Our human brains evolved robust survival mechanisms that served our ancestors well. But in the modern world, those same impulses often lead us astray. The good news is by utilizing our higher rational abilities; we can disrupt detrimental loops and incrementally rewire healthier routines in their place.
While the most primitive parts of our brains still sit at the base of our skulls, we ultimately hold the reins over even our caveman brains through the power of awareness. By shining light on these subconscious processes, we can fulfill our most significant potential and align our lives to our intentions, not just our impulses.