The Neuroscience of Habits: How Subconscious Neural Activity Holds Control Over Our Daily Lives

by Aviram Nessim, April 8, 2023

Among the notable findings that Wendy Wood, a social psychologist at the University of Southern California, illuminated throughout her decades-long career is that an astonishing 43% of daily actions are enacted on the basis of habit (Wood et al., n.d.). A habit, or psychological disposition to repeat past behavior, is gradually acquired through repetition and is reinforced by desirable outcomes (Wood et al., 2021). Habits can be subdivided into a continuum of strength, where habits of weak and moderate strength are performed less frequently and/or in more variable contexts than strong habits (Lalley et al., 2009). To better understand the causation of both beneficial and harmful habitual behaviors, it is critical to consider the various facets, both at micro and macro levels, impacting human behavior. Fortunately, extensive psychological research has delved into the neural mechanisms responsible for habit formation and perpetuation by way of unconscious, automatic actions, thereby promising valuable insights into their development and propagation. With this in mind, this article seeks to investigate the interplay of habits with regards to cognitive neuroscience, providing a more nuanced comprehension of habitual behaviors, their potential implications, and feasible solutions to eradicate unnecessary behavior for greater individual and societal benefit.

Within the brain, two major neurotransmitters, dopamine and glutamate, serve as the backbone behind the neural mechanisms involved in the habituation process. Dopamine acts in reward-motivation learning, while glutamate functions in the formation and strengthening of neural connections. When accounting for common cases in which a behavior is associated with a reward (such as gratification upon consumption of unhealthy food), dopamine is released into the striatum, invoking a pleasurable response (Volkow et al., 2010). Over time, the gradual release of glutamate will strengthen neural connections that underpin the behavior, fostering its automaticity and reducing reliance on volitional thought (Gardner, 2011). Therefore, once a behavior is reinforced, its chances of reoccurrence increase. 

Aside from this, a larger group of subcortical structures known collectively as the basal ganglia are responsible for habit formation and maintenance. The basal ganglia consists of several nuclei, including the striatum, which is composed of the caudate nucleus and the putamen, in addition to the globus pallidus. The striatum is the primary site for habit formation, while the globus pallidus is affiliated with inhibiting habitual responses (Gu et al., 2020). With its extensive regulatory framework, the basal ganglia orchestrates a feedback loop, which serves to strengthen the conduct of the behavior in response to a particular cue or contextual stimulus.  To the basal ganglia, however, it is of least concern as to whether this stimulus is advantageous or deleterious; if a person habitually reaches for unhealthy food in times of stress, the basal ganglia will proceed to reinforce such conduct whenever they encounter analogous circumstances or experience a comparable degree of stress. This subsequently makes the behavior more likely to occur in the future, even in the absence of conscious thought or effort (Seger et al., 2011).

Although habits are largely involuntary (Marsch et al., 2014), they are capable of being altered through habit reversal training (HRT). The process entails pinpointing the cue that prompted the behavior and substituting it with a more preferable one (Heinicke et al., 2020). In the same case of a person habitually reaching for unhealthy food in stressful situations, a substitution attached to an alternative behavior, such as taking deep breaths, necessitates a deliberate attempt to supplant the automatic response with the forceful implementation of a new habit. 

The intrinsic nature of habit is one of ubiquity and omnipresence﹣a universal, primordial relic deeply embedded within every human. While old habits die hard, gaining an understanding of the neural mechanisms involved in habituation can lead to greater control over conscious decision-making and initiative-taking in our lives. Through the continuation of global research as well as driving home the ways habits intertwine with daily life, we can be driven towards a more conscious society and a far more empowered world. 


Gardner E. L. (2011). Addiction and brain reward and antireward pathways. Advances in psychosomatic medicine, 30, 22–60.

Gu, B. M., Schmidt, R., & Berke, J. D. (2020). Globus pallidus dynamics reveal covert strategies for behavioral inhibition. eLife, 9, e57215.

Heinicke, M. R., Stiede, J. T., Miltenberger, R. G., & Woods, D. W. (2020). Reducing risky behavior with habit reversal: A review of behavioral strategies to reduce habitual hand-to-head behavior. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 53(3), 1225–1236.

Lalley, P., Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

Marsch, L. A., Guarino, H., Acosta, M., Aponte-Melendez, Y., Cleland, C., Grabinski, M., Brady, R., & Edwards, J. (2014). Web-based behavioral treatment for substance use disorders as a partial replacement of standard methadone maintenance treatment. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 46(1), 43–51.

Seger, C. A. & Spiering, B. J. (2011). A critical review of habit learning and the basal ganglia. Frontiers in systems neuroscience, 5, 66.

Volkow, N. D., Wang, G. J., & Baler, R. D. (2011). Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: Implications for obesity. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(1), 37–46.

Wood, W., Mazar, A., & Neal, D. T. (2021). Habits and goals in human behavior: Separate but interacting systems. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(2), 590–605. 

Wood, W., Quinn, J., & Kashy, D. (n.d.). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. 

Nine Minute Medicine? Your Brain on Music

by Aviram Nessim, October 22, 2022

The intense rise and fall of chords, flow of rhythm, intricate melody, and extensive variation of tonality as instruments play a unique tune — these are the typical sounds an individual hears while actively listening to music. Music, or sounds amalgamated to produce beauty of form and harmony, is a ubiquitous companion to people’s everyday lives. It is a universal human relic, confirmed to have originated approximately 35,000 years ago (Smithsonian, 2021). At present, the average American listens to over 32 hours of music on a weekly basis, and there are good reasons for why (Lupis, 2017). Music has an extraordinary capacity to stimulate emotions and alter mood. Its sheer power can have profound biological effects both internally and externally: it can affect blood pressure and heart rate internally, and cause spine-tingling, chills, and even sadness externally (Manning-Schaffel, 2017). 

In 2020, a study conducted by the British Academy of Sound Therapy (BAST) exposed 7,581 subjects to various intervals of music (encompassing driving rhythm and fast tempo) to investigate whether music can be prescribed for specific mood states. The study concluded that just nine minutes of music was sufficient enough to emotionally stimulate virtually every subject (Westmore, 2020). For every 10 subjects, 9 reported improved energy levels and 8 reported an enlivened outlook on life. In thirteen minutes of exposure, 8 of every 10 subjects reported elimination of negative thoughts as well as decreased muscle tension. In the same timeframe, a whopping 9 out of 10 subjects reported having increased levels of focus as well as enhanced performance throughout the work day.  

With such powerful analgesic effects, how precisely is music able to stimulate the body? Music primarily activates specific neural pathways located within the auditory, limbic, and prefrontal brain regions (McCollum, 2019). These parts of the brain are synchronized; levels of physiological activity are influenced through the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and cortisol. Thus, regions of the brain that register rewarding stimuli, altruistic acts, and subjective enjoyment are activated (Sachs et al., 2019). By influencing levels of activity within the brain, the body effectively responds, undergoing transient changes in physiology, which, in turn, can have the same mood-enhancing qualities on the psyche as over-the-counter remedies that target anxiety, insomnia, and stress (Landau, 2018).

Regardless of one’s ailment, music therapy, or usage of “singing, music play, improvisation, songwriting, and music-assisted imagery that address the emotional and developmental needs of individuals of all ages” is an effective therapy that should continue to be widely implemented within the medical community (Yale New Haven…). By utilizing neuroscience, music is a powerful, restorative analgesic that has withstood the advances of modern medicine. A seemingly unlikely therapeutic, music is admired for alleviating the dreadful effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body, and Parkinson’s by serving alongside the current array of prescribed therapies. In patients with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), between 45% and 68% of people with PD will sustain a fall each year (Pelicioni et al., 2019). However, upon exposure to targeted music therapy, a study found that over a 16-week period, 47 subjects with PD reported an improvement in velocity, cadence, and stride length, as well as a significant decrease in the occurrence of falls (Malhas, 2018). According to Wang et al. (2022), rhythmic auditory stimulation (that is, an application of targeted music therapy) allows for a variation between the “on” and “off” dopaminergic states, suggesting that upon an auditory stimulation of familiar music, the release of dopamine serves as an integral player in improving spatio-temporal parameters as well as overall parkinsonian gait (Erra et al., 2019).   

Besides the aforementioned emotional capabilities music has on daily life and health, music is also being utilized as a vehicle for social change to bring communities together. Choral repertories such as bands, chorus, and common musical groups have been around for thousands of years and, through an infectious beat, audacious gimmick, or catchy chorus, propagate messages of motivation, inspiration, and self-empowerment to inspire and alter the status quo of its listeners (Perrot, 2020). The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic raised important questions about the role of music in society, namely as a medium for coping with the crisis. As the world went into lockdown, communal initiatives were undertaken to provide solace and comfort. Andrea Bocelli performed a solo Easter concert from an empty Milan cathedral, John Legend streamed live concerts from his residence, and cellist Yo-Yo-Ma spearheaded the #Songsofcomfort campaign to offer tranquility amid the time of crisis. Upon an 2021 analysis of Indian civilians who were in lockdown, those who regularly listened to music reported decreased feelings of depression, fear, and worry (Hennessy, 2021). In the streets of Dnipro, Ukraine, local musicians are commonly found performing in the streets for passers-by to penetrate the horrors of the war with soulfulness and defiance. By serving as a literal and figural “instrument,” the universality of music’s affective potency is able to be showcased in its ability to help people manage an unprecedented life stressor.

The utilization of music is imperative and advantageous in one’s mental wellbeing. Music is more than entertainment; it binds humanity together in a way that language sometimes fails to proffer. It is a social communication system that, irrespective of listening idiosyncrasies, has united humanity for tens of thousands of years. By continuing to implement it into daily aspects of life, music can help drive us towards a more cooperative society and a far more connected world.


Malhas, A. (2018, July 30). Beat it! Learning to walk to music reduces falls for Parkinson’s patients. Parkinson’s News Today.  

Erra, C., Mileti, I., Germanotta, M., Petracca, M., Imbimbo, I., De Biase, A., Rossi, S., Ricciardi, D., Pacilli, A., Di Sipio, E., Palermo, E., Bentivoglio, A. R., & Padua, L. (2019). Immediate effects of rhythmic auditory stimulation on gait kinematics in parkinson’s disease on/off medication. Clinical Neurophysiology, 130(10), 1789–1797.  

Hennessy, S., Sachs, M., Kaplan, J., & Habibi, A. (2021). Music and mood regulation during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE, 16(10). 

Landau, E. (2018, January 23). This is your brain on music. CNN.  

Manning-Schaffel, V. (2017, July 21). Why some songs make us cry. NBC News.  

Lupis, J. C. (2017, November 13). We listen to music for more than 4 1/2 hours a day, Nielsen says. Marketing Charts. 

Pelicioni, P. H., Menant, J. C., Latt, M. D., & Lord, S. R. (2019). Falls in parkinson’s disease subtypes: Risk factors, locations and circumstances. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(12), 2216. 

Sachs, M. E., Habibi, A., Damasio, A., & Kaplan, J. T. (2020). Dynamic intersubject neural synchronization reflects affective responses to sad music. NeuroImage, 218, 116512. 

McCollum, S. (2019, September 5). Your brain on music: The sound system between your ears. The Kennedy Center. 

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (2021, April 27). Musical instruments. The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program.  

Perrot, S. (2020, November 18). Reperforming, reenacting or rearranging ancient Greek scores? The example of the first delphic hymn to Apollo.   

Wang, L., Peng, J. L., Ou-Yang, J. B., Gan, L., Zeng, S., Wang, H. Y., Zuo, G. C., & Qiu, L. (2022). Effects of rhythmic auditory stimulation on gait and motor function in Parkinson’s disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical randomized controlled studies. Frontiers in Neurology, 13, 818559. 

Westmore, L. (2020, February 21). Music as medicine – The musical recommended daily allowance. The British Academy of Sound Therapy. 

Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital (Ed.). (n.d.). Arts for healing. Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.