“Plastics.” Brain benefits, present to future

by | Mar 9, 2015 | Blog | 2 comments

plastic globesWho knew how astute, powerful and prophetic the classic film line “Plastics” would become.

In the 1967 film, The Graduate, a family friend says he has just one word for the recent college graduate Ben: “Plastics.”

When Ben, played by Dustin Hoffman, asks “Exactly how do you mean?” The family friend responds, “There’s a great future in plastics.”

Now 48 years later, we’re learning more and more about the brain’s plasticity. Back in the 60s, general wisdom was that by the time Ben had graduated from his East Coast college and returned to California, his brain would have been hardwired and stable.

As neuroscientists have confirmed in recent years, both the brain’s physical structure and organization can change throughout adulthood as we learn, undergo new experiences, try different environments, and recover from illnesses and accidents.

More recent research is showing that the brain’s plasticity extends to our habits—the daily routines that make up about 40% of our actions.

While we may act in an automatic way and think that our habits are outside of our control, that’s not the case.

Instead, research by Dr. Ann Graybiel of MIT and her colleagues is showing that the executive function of our brain “is dutifully monitoring our behavior” while we’re doing our habits.

In other words, you may think you are destined to check email on your phone during meetings or treat yourself to a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon, but your brain is just giving you a hall pass.

Since we can’t overcome this, we should own it.

From the perspective of our habits, we should rethink how we view them. This can be extremely helpful for us, both professionally and personally, and especially as we work with others inside organizations.

For instance, rather than characterize our habits as “good” and “bad,” think of them more as “scripted” and “improv” as I dubbed them in my special project for my applied neuroscience program, entitled “Mastering Habits: Taking advantage of the brain’s plasticity.”

“Scripted” habits are the lower-order habits that are scarcely available to our self-conscious. We may not even be aware that we have these habits. They run in the background on automatic pilot. Many of these are part of our morning routine, helping us get out of bed, dressed and off to work in a timely manner.

By contrast, “improv” habits are habits over which we exhibit more conscious, voluntary and deliberative control. Like “improv theater,” they have an outline or a sketch which makes them easy to adjust in the moment to fit the situation.

For example, we may have a habit of attending a weekly standing meeting. However, it’s our choice to decide how to participate, either call in or walk over to a conference room. We also control how we participate, such as going with the flow, asking questions, making contributions or other actions.

Improv habits are well suited for today’s “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex and uncertain) world. We’ve got a template or framework that can save us valuable thinking and preparation time, but we’re not locked into a setting or situation that trips a behavior that is no longer appropriate. Plus, we can adapt not only to fit the environment, but also to the team members with whom we’re now working.

As my study of the literature and research on habits shows, we can take even more advantage of our habits and their plasticity if we make an effort to become more aware of habits, their benefits and value.

It’s even better when we learn the skill of building habits.

That’s one of the reasons why Dr. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits® program is so powerful, and why some of us view is as transformational. In one work week, you can learn the basic skill of building habits. (For more about this, see 3 tips for building new habits.)

Once you learn the skill of building habits, you can start creating habits on your own, both scripted and improv.

And with practice, greater self-awareness and more intentional actions, you also can start to figure out how to exercise more control over your habits and overall behavior.  

Based on my work and study of habits, there are likely a number of other actions that individuals can take to help monitor and regulate control their habits and behavior, which I’ll be glad to share another time.

For now, keep in mind Aristotle’s observation: “We are all what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

And with plasticity of motion and thought, we can be even more excellent.

Are you ready to remold your view of habits?


  1. John Fentress

    As always Ann Graybiel has taken her expertise in neuroscience and found ways to address important everyday issues (habits) in human life. The theme of brain plasticity along with issues involving levels of neurobehavioral control have revolutionized our thinking about ourselves in many ways. Dr. Graybiel has been a pioneer in these important areas.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks for your comment, John. I too share your admiration for Dr. Ann Graybiel. Neurobehavioral control will be huge for individuals, assuming we step up and take control.

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