The New Student's Reference Work/Habit

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Hab′it. By habit is meant a method of responding to certain stimuli that has been learned or acquired by its possessor. Habit is thus distinguished from instinct, in that the latter is inherited. Both depend upon association (see Association of Ideas) or pathways of discharge that exist between sensory and motor centers in the nervous system. The reflex actions and the instincts depend on hereditary associations existing largely in the spinal cord and in the ganglionic masses at the base of the brain, whereas habits depend upon associations established in the cortex of the cerebrum as a result of experience. In the human being bodily control is much more dependent upon habitual coördinations than in any of the lower animals. Hence the helplessness of infants before habits have had time to form.

The method by which habits are established may be roughly indicated in the following example. Speech is a habit dependent in general upon the formation of associations between the auditory lobes lying in the temporal regions of the brain and the motor-areas controlling the vocal organs, which lie more toward the front. One hears a sound, and in the endeavor to make it produces a sound more or less like the model. The nervous currents have discharged in a random way from the auditory into the motor-regions. The reaction is an experiment that is repeated or not, according as its result approximated to the desired sound. Experimentation continues until an entirely satisfactory result is gained, when by repetition the effective pathway of discharge is strengthened until it becomes the habitual one. Thereafter the individual will tend unconsciously to respond to the hearing of the sound by making it. Further, the auditory tracts may become associated with other sensory areas, so that, for instance, when one sees a horse, he instantly thinks of the sound of its name and tends to utter it. This utterance may be checked by other impulses tending in other directions. The simple acts governed by single stimuli become themselves coördinated into complex acts by the association of their stimuli. A simple suggestion may thus start off a complicated series of actions, as in walking, speech, playing the piano etc. Here the sensation of having done one act constitutes part or all of the stimbulus for the next.

Habit is indispensable to practical efficiency. Through it action is simplified by the elimination of useless movements. This insures accuracy and rapidity of reaction to a situation. It also gets rid of much of the fatigue involved in experimental activity. Most important of all, consciousness is relieved from the strain of active superintendence over habitual acts. This permits it to attend to new matters. Every useful habit formed is so much gain toward larger achievements. On the other hand, every useless or injurious habit is a positive check to such advance. Worse: when the habit is formed the mind finds it difficult or impossible to take charge again of the reaction in order to remedy it. We are thinking of other things, and have acted in the habitual way before we can check ourselves. Usually only such constant watchfulness as seriously impairs our efficiency in other fields will avail. Professor Bain gives the following rules for breaking old habits or forming new ones: first “launch yourself with as strong and decided an initiative as possible;” and, second, “never suffer an exception to occur until the new habit is thoroughly rooted in your life.”

Habit does much toward making the man, the social order and the race what they are. It is, as Professor James declares, the great conservative force in society. When one has fixed his habits of life, he has practically determined what he shall be. He may change in this or that detail, but the mass of characteristics can not be modified. At 20, Professor James thinks, our personal habits, such as those of speech, manners, dress etc. are practically formed, and by 30 our intellectual and professional habits are well-established. The question of generalized habits is discussed under Mental Discipline. See Association of Ideas, Child-Study, Psychology for Teachers. Consult Principles of Psychology by James.