Researchers shut down habits with a burst of light

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2012-11-05

Habits are a powerful thing. Once formed, they require little conscious thought, which can be a good thing, like driving a manual transmission while being able to pay attention to traffic, or a bad one, like lighting a cigarette. Bad habits can be hard to break, but researchers modified some rats so that they could switch off a habit with little more than a bit of light. What they found, however, was that breaking one habit caused the rats to simply revert to a previous one.

The rats were trained to find food in a T-shaped enclosure. Starting at the base, they'd be given one of two tones, with the different sounds indicating which of the arms of the T would contain the food; one turn told them to turn right, the other left.

With 40 trials a day for 10 days, the rats reached an accuracy of about 90 percent, consistently choosing the correct path to the food based on the tone they heard. To demonstrate this was a habit, the researchers put a noxious substance in one of the food sources. But in response to the tone, the rats kept going to it even after the unpleasant experience, although at a slightly lower rate.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments