Last year I read a book called The Power of Habit that gave me some insight into what happens in our brain when we develop habits or get into a routine. I’ve thought about this topic before and had the sense that, while some routine is often necessary, too much routine can make life feel dull and short. It turns out that research backs this up.
In the book, the author talked about an experiment that the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at MIT did on rats. They hooked their brains up to a bunch monitoring devices and then put them, one at a time, into a simple T shaped maze. At one end of the maze, behind a partition, was a rat. Down the hall and around the corner was some chocolate. With the flip of a switch, the researcher would drop the partition (which made a loud click) and the rat would be standing there staring down the hall.
Slowly, it would start to sniff. It could smell the chocolate, but didn’t know where it was, so it would wander down the hall, stopping, sniffing, scratching and looking around. When it got to the end, it would usually look to the right, sniff, look to the left, sniff and then follow its nose to the left where the rat would discover the chocolate.
The more they did this experiment, the more the rats would hear the loud click, the partition would disappear and they would go straight to the chocolate. Once the rats had figured out the maze and developed a routine for getting the chocolate, the researchers compared the before and after brain scans. When the rat was new to the situation, his brain exploded with activity when he heard the click and the partition disappeared. Each time it scratched, sniffed and looked around the brain was buzzing with activity as it analyzed the sights, sounds and smells.
After repeating that experiment hundreds of times, however, the way their brains reacted started to change. Once they had the routine down—walk down hall, turn left, get chocolate—their mental activity started to decrease. The more automatic it became, the less the rats had to think. Almost every area of their brains quieted down. Even the part of the brain responsible for memory went quiet.
The only part of the brain that was still active was the basal ganglia, which is this ancient part of the brain that, up until then, scientist didn’t understand very well. What they learned from their experiments is that the basal ganglia is responsible for identifying the habits and routines that we have. Once it recognizes those patterns, it takes over and allows the rest of the brain to pretty much shut down.
The basal ganglia is your best friend when you’re trying to form new habits like going to the gym or eating healthy, but it’s bad news if life becomes so routine that your brain basically switches to autopilot. In that case, you’re not really creating new memories or being an active participant in big chunks of your day because major parts of your brain are switched off. If you do the same thing every day for a year, you don’t remember a bunch of unique days. You basically remember 1 day that you lived 365 times. The entire year kind of feels like it took 24 hours.
So if we want time to feel as if it’s passing more slowly and we want our memory banks full of unique experiences, we need to find a good balance between routine and novelty. Yes, we want a good exercise routine, but we also want to steer off the well-worn path of life once in a while. Especially in retirement. We need to find ways to break up the routine. We need to try new things and seek out new experiences. How can you do that in your life? What can you do this week to break routine? Experiment and see what happens.
Here’s a short video for inspiration. It’s by Jed Jenkins where he talks about coming to the realization that routine is the enemy of time so he quit his job and took a thousand-mile bike trip from Oregon to Patagonia. Some of you may remember the video from our Facebook page a while back. If you haven’t seen it yet, it will likely be the best 4 minutes of your day. Enjoy.