Notes on Habits from William James pt. 1


The foundation of psychological well-being and happiness lies in understanding how habits are formed. The first psychologist and physiologist whostudied these habits were William James back in the 1890s. William James is widely known as the founder of western psychology primarily because of his two long books called Principles of Psychology Vol 1 and Vol 2 respectively. William James himself had problems with physical and psychological conditions. Yet, he found himself to be one of the most successful psychologists and a Harvard physiology professor in American history. Psychology wasn't considered a science back in the late 1800s when William James was studying. But now in the 21st century, almost all psychology programs are highly regarded as scientific and materialistic. All credit for that goes to William James as he wrote extensively on how human anatomy and physiology intertwines with the brain and our psyche. As a professor, he taught his students not only the physical basis of the body and brain but also its implementation on habit and emotion. In this short essay, I will discuss the key concepts that James brings up about habit. He refers to this concept of habit as the Law of Habits, which is just as objective as the law of gravity or law of inertia.

Let us start the examination of habit through a strictly physical approach. The first principle James brings up is the Law of Habits. To James, habits are so foundational that they predict just as much information about behavior and emotion as the knowledge of mass and height would determine the measures of gravity. He goes even further in stating, "The laws of nature are nothing but the immutable habits which the different elementary sorts of matter follow in their actions and reactions upon each other" (Psychology Briefer). A note that all quotes in this and the next post come from the book Psychology Briefer Course by William James. Feel free to check his chapter on habits if you want to analyze the quotes in depth. Anyways, in the quote above, James is talking about how the natural existence of the planets, solar system, and galaxies all depends on the way their initial habits were built. It is a difficult concept to grasp but he is pointing out that due to an initial state of occurrence, the world came to be in its cumulative stage, where each time it produced an impression on itself, it remembered it and consolidated it further to be more consistent in the future.

But what about organic material including humans and animals. To James, "An acquired habit, from a physiological point of view, is nothing but a new pathway of discharge formed in the brain, by which certain incoming currents ever after tend to escape." To break that down, a habit occurs when the same types of neural networks are activated, to the point where the organism no longer needs new cues or information to produce behavior. Instead, a single cue at the very beginning is good enough to produce a habit. An example of this can be seen with a smoking addict. The addict no longer needs a particular set of cues to trigger the desire to smoke. In wholeheartedness, he knows he mustn't smoke and that he is likely to develop an illness if he does, but a habit in the brain is enough to overturn all these cognitive cues, forcing the man to dig his own grave. At once the man only smoked with his friends but overcome, the cue of being friends wasn't the only triggering factor there was no triggering factor involved later on. The man consumed the nicotine just because he was in the habit of doing it and his nervous system was stimulated in response.

Thus, a habit occurs naturally, without the organism ever knowing about it. But a habit is far different from an instinct and a reflex, so let me explain the ontology behind the three. A reflex requires the lowest level of organ intelligence or evolutionary progression. A reflex happens spontaneously mostly at the muscular and sensory levels. An example of this is twitching eyes when dust goes into the eyelids. This then produces an adjustment in the pupils, lens, and muscles in the eye. The vision changes in response as well. But this act happens without any volition or any sort of brain signal. Even the autonomic nervous system isn't involved in the process, and hence it is referred to as a reflex. When the brain or the spinal cord comes into the picture, we shift to an instinct. All instincts have a certain level of brain involvement, which is what makes them different from reflexes. An example is a fight, flight, or freeze response which is completely instinctive due to the hormones secreted by the hypothalamus in the brain. The spinal cord is required as that is the only way of transducing the cerebral message to the muscular movements. So far, we have reflex as the lowest stratum of expression, then there is instinct, usually due to survival benefits, and the highest among them is habit. A habit is a tool of expression that is far more complex than the other two mentioned. And this is because it involves the mind, not just the brain and spinal cord. The mind is rather the driving force of the will that turns the brain. The neural networks are how thoughts are produced, but they aren't the thoughts, hence the thoughts cannot be given an exact location in the brain. Instead, we refer to them as perceptions caused due to several habits formed in earlier parts of life.

Now that we have talked about how habit differentiates from reflex and instinct, we can go a little more in-depth about how it affects the brain. This one quote from James summarizes the basics of neuroplasticity, "Plasticity, then, in the wide sense of the world, means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once." James is referring to perhaps what John Locke would call the blank slate at birth. James argues it is due to our helpless and flexible state at birth, that we are forced to form new impressions as they come and build a library of neural networks. James' was a Darwinianist and he often explained his concepts based on the organism's best chance of surviving. Thus, having this very fragile brain at the beginning of our life 'yields' new information to come naturally. It is almost the potential energy at the top of a dam that allows the water to flow heavily at the bottom. We mustn't ask ourselves why this happens as there is no clear answer: it happens due to the law of thermodynamics. Similarly, we mustn't ask ourselves why habits are formed and why the brain wants to create a library of neural networks, for it happens only for the sake of evolution. The last part of James's quote is important as it states the brain mustn't be too weak to cause hyperactivity. This often occurs in clinical conditions such as autism and ADHD where the child is incapable of focusing or forming proper habits due to the brain's inability to limit the amount of 'yielding' it does. Too much flexibility can lead to impairment in judgment.

Furthermore, James argues it is easier for the nervous system to build upon its already built habits than to go out and create new ones. He states "it costs less trouble to fold a paper when it has been folded already" implying that our habits, though not completely set in stone for life, have the potential to last for long times due to the nature of how impressions in the brain have initially been formed. Thus, there has been great emphasis on developmental psychology research which assesses how children from certain habits affect their behavior in the future. You hear it everywhere: once a habit is formed, it takes twice as much effort to get rid of it.

The clear application of this concept can be seen in functional diseases such as epilepsies, neuroses, OCD, and psychosis. They all happen, according to William James, simply to keep themselves going. They had begun at a certain point due to a trigger, whether physical or psychological need not be important. But as those chronic diseases of the nervous system progressed, it was only best for the brain to continue its trip downhill. This is what neurobiologists call behavioral inertia, which is often backed up by biology at cellular levels. It seems our bodies, muscles, and brain tend to want to do what they have been doing for so long and that it is far difficult for them to stop their paths long after they have started them.

We already know our brain consumes 25% of the calories we intake because of its cognitive tasks. To lighten its job, the brain tries to find shortcuts, even those at the molecular and muscular levels through hormone signaling just so it can save some energy. This fact of homeostasis alone is enough to justify James' Law of habits.

Now that we have finished discussing neuroplasticity and the functional causes of habits in the brain, we can move on to its psychological concerns, which are far more important in my opinion. These are greatly mentioned under the 'Practical effects of habit' under the chapter Habits in James' book. There are three major principles of habit: 1. They deepen previous neural networks that allow us to do functional work. 2. They simplify and reduce our cognitive effort and 3. They allow for perceptual learning and personality growth. Below, I will analyze each in depth.

The first principle refers to deepening our previous networks. This has already been discussed in the previous section, but it requires a more psychological approach. What does it mean to deepen our networks? Essentially, it means to divert our attention and concentration on only those tasks that we have been acquainted with in the past. This is often why we see extreme cases of anxiety and stress. Anxiety, at the fundamental level, is caused due to the lack of knowledge of the future and its uncertainty. We are scared that things will go out of our control and thus we get anxious. Forming habits solves this issue on a large scale. When we form habits, we can attend deeply to what is happening, increasing our chances of being alert when a threat approaches and improving the overall experience of the activity. In short, when we deepen our networks of a particular behavior, we condition ourselves to attend only those activities that we are prepared for. This then creates a positive cycle of doing activities that we have strong experience of and then building a strong experience of those activities that we already do. This is the crux of how habits are built. They require enough interest to build that attention, and once undivided attention has been built from numerous practices, the individual gets in the positive loop of doing the action more and getting better at it every time.

The second principle is that habits simplify our cognitive efforts, which we already saw happening at the molecular level in the previous section. For various evolutionary reasons, our brains like to store energy. We can't call them lazy as they already do so much but our brains do tend to be reserved for a large portion of the day unless trained and practiced otherwise. For this reason, it would be beneficial to have to think about everything we do at all times. Therefore, habits allow us to simplify our tasks and reduce the cognitive burden. As James puts it "habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed" and "habits simplify our movements,[making] them accurate and [reducing] their fatigue." The man already has hundreds of things on his list and habits allow him to organize his thoughts and reduce the burden of decision making. For example, you don't have to think and decide about each brushing stroke or movement of the legs during a walk. Even complex habits such as peripheral vision while turning a car, or body balance while doing a ballet, all happen without you consciously thinking about them. If you were to think about each particular thought and action, your brain would be too fatigued to do any one thing. This is often what happens with individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These individuals experience intense mania, where their thoughts are too much for them to handle. Their brains are fatigued yet their thoughts don't stop due to their psychiatric condition.

The third psychological benefit of having habits is that it produces personality and perceptual learning. Perceptual learning is the ability to perform actions that require only a few cues but are done very systematically and accurately. A perceptual habit can be being able to spot birds in the forest or having the ability to hear different frequencies of sounds, and so forth. Oftentimes, individuals diagnosed with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's often have an extraordinary ability to learn new perceptual habits. The point is that our brain adapts to disease and disorder; when one part of the brain is damaged, it relies on another, and so forth. These perceptual habits in no way improve our survival but they build our personality. We are different because each of us chose to attend to a different part of the same world, and thus we built our habits and continued consolidating them as we progressed. As a child becomes an adult, they are unaware of the millions of small perceptual habits they have built, how they have created mental stereotypes of certain people and places. And so this leads to my final point of this post: how important it is to train our brains to build good habits when they can in early childhood.

James states "the great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy... For we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous." By making those habits automatic that serve us in the long term and are advantageous to us in both our financial as well as psychological well-being, we set ourselves for success. The key here is to do it as early as possible and to do it with full conviction., There will be further analysis of how one can do this at a practical level in the next post.