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What determines whether you can deal with new situations in a flexible way or act out of habit? A team of psychologists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) have discovered that this can be predicted by the strength of specific brain connections.


A person’s brain can be studied to predict if they will act in a goal-directed way or based on habitual action. Such knowledge is relevant to the treatment of drug addicts or patients with impulse control disorders. Dr Sanne de Wit, Ms Poppy Watson and Prof. Richard Ridderinkhof from the UvA led the research, which was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. The results were published in the Journal of Neuroscience on 29 August.


As a result of our automatic pilot, we do not perform all daily actions consciously. For example, you can suddenly notice while riding to the supermarket that you have already cycled part of the route without realising it. However, the ways your automatic pilot causes you to act are not always correct. This is the case, for example, when you forget to turn right or left at a crossroads because you are used to going straight on. By studying your brain connections, researchers can see if you are able to deviate from automatic habits easily when the situation requires it.


Twenty-three test subjects between 18 and 26 participated in a computer game. The adolescents learned, after exposure to a stimulus, to perform a certain action to get a reward. Once they became familiar with these actions, the rules changed. Some of the actions suddenly led to penalties instead of rewards.


MRI scans showed that the strength of a number of brain connections determined how well the subjects were subsequently able to adapt their behaviour. Did the stimulae cause automatic actions, even when they no longer had positive effects? In those subjects, the connection between the premotor cortex and the posterior putamen was the strongest. On the other hand, if the subject was able to change his or her behaviour to adapt to the new situation, then it appeared that the connection between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the caudate nucleus was stronger. The strongest brain connection therefore determines whether you are a creature of habit or act in a goal-directed way.


Researchers have earlier shown that patients with impulse control disorders have a strong tendency to carry out actions on automatic pilot. ‘They cling to their compulsive habits, despite the negative consequences,’ says Sanne de Wit, one of the researchers. ‘That automatic pilot can be changed through therapies aimed at raising awareness of automatic patterns (such as mindfulness) or therapies which actually break these patterns (such as response prevention).’ Future research needs to further unravel the relationship between the brain and automatic behavior in impulse control disorders. ‘We think that the balance between the brain connections patients with impulse control disorders is severely disrupted. We also expect a similar structural distortion in addicts and people with obesity. It may well be that this very disruption leads to compulsive behaviour.’

Publication Details

de Wit S, Watson P, Harsay HA, Cohen MX, van de Vijver I, Ridderinkhof, KR: 'Corticostriatal Connectivity Under Lies Individual Differences in the Balance between Habitual and Goal-directed Action Control. The Journal of Neuroscience, 32 (35, 2012)