Habits are behaviors that are so deeply wired into our brains that we perform them automatically. They can be both good and bad: A habit can allow you to follow the same route to work every day without thinking about it, freeing your brain to think about other things. But we can develop plenty of bad habits too.

A new study has found that a small region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most thought and planning occurs, controls which habits are switched on at a given time.

Neuroscientist Ann Graybiel says, "We’ve always thought–and I still do–that the value of a habit is you don’t have to think about it. It frees up your brain to do other things. However, it doesn’t free up all of it. There’s some piece of your cortex that’s still devoted to that control."

This shows that though habits may be deeply ingrained, the brain’s planning centers can shut them off. In other words, we’re never FULLY "on automatic pilot." When it comes to bad habits, like biting our nails, this should be reassuring.

Habits often become so ingrained that we keep doing them even though we’re no longer benefiting from them. This study raises the possibility of intervening directly in that brain region to treat people who suffer from disorders involving overly habitual behavior, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or Tourette’s Syndrome.

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