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The Nature Of Habit

Many people when they speak or think of habit give the term a very
narrow or limited meaning. They have in mind only certain moral or
personal tendencies usually spoken of as one's habits. But in order to
understand habit in any thorough and complete way we must, as suggested
by the preceding paragraph, broaden our concept to include every
possible line of physical and mental activity. Habit may be defined as
the tendency of the nervous system to repeat any act that has been
performed once or many times.

THE PHYSICAL BASIS OF HABIT.--Habit is to be explained from the
standpoint of its physical basis. Habits are formed because the tissues
of our brains are capable of being modified by use, and of so retaining
the effects of this modification that the same act is easier of
performance each succeeding time. This results in the old act being
repeated instead of a new one being selected, and hence the old act is

Even dead and inert matter obeys the same principles in this regard as
does living matter. Says M. Leon Dumont: Everyone knows how a garment,
having been worn a certain time, clings to the shape of the body better
than when it was new; there has been a change in the tissue, and this
change is a new habit of cohesion; a lock works better after having been
used some time; at the outset more force was required to overcome
certain roughness in the mechanism. The overcoming of this resistance is
a phenomenon of habituation. It costs less trouble to fold a paper when
it has been folded already. This saving of trouble is due to the
essential nature of habit, which brings it about that, to reproduce the
effect, a less amount of the outward cause is required. The sounds of a
violin improve by use in the hands of an able artist, because the fibers
of the wood at last contract habits of vibration conformed to harmonic
relations. This is what gives such inestimable value to instruments that
have belonged to great masters. Water, in flowing, hollows out for
itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having
ceased to flow, it resumes when it flows again the path traced for
itself before. Just so, the impressions of outer objects fashion for
themselves in the nervous system more and more appropriate paths, and
these vital phenomena recur under similar excitements from without, when
they have been interrupted for a certain time.[2]

ALL LIVING TISSUE PLASTIC.--What is true of inanimate matter is doubly
true of living tissue. The tissues of the human body can be molded into
almost any form you choose if taken in time. A child may be placed on
his feet at too early an age, and the bones of his legs form the habit
of remaining bent. The Flathead Indian binds a board on the skull of his
child, and its head forms the habit of remaining flat on the top. Wrong
bodily postures produce curvature of the spine, and pernicious modes of
dress deform the bones of the chest. The muscles may be trained into the
habit of keeping the shoulders straight or letting them droop; those of
the back, to keep the body well up on the hips, or to let it sag; those
of locomotion, to give us a light, springy step, or to allow a shuffling
carriage; those of speech, to give us a clear-cut, accurate
articulation, or a careless, halting one; and those of the face, to give
us a cheerful cast of countenance, or a glum and morose expression.

HABIT A MODIFICATION OF BRAIN TISSUE.--But the nervous tissue is the
most sensitive and easily molded of all bodily tissues. In fact, it is
probable that the real habit of our characteristic walk, gesture, or
speech resides in the brain, rather than in the muscles which it
controls. So delicate is the organization of the brain structure and so
unstable its molecules, that even the perfume of the flower, which
assails the nose of a child, the song of a bird, which strikes his ear,
or the fleeting dream, which lingers but for a second in his sleep, has
so modified his brain that it will never again be as if these things had
not been experienced. Every sensory current which runs in from the
outside world; every motor current which runs out to command a muscle;
every thought that we think, has so modified the nerve structure through
which it acts, that a tendency remains for a like act to be repeated.
Our brain and nervous system is daily being molded into fixed habits of
acting by our thoughts and deeds, and thus becomes the automatic
register of all we do.

The old Chinese fairy story hits upon a fundamental and vital truth.
These celestials tell their children that each child is accompanied by
day and by night, every moment of his life, by an invisible fairy, who
is provided with a pencil and tablet. It is the duty of this fairy to
put down every deed of the child, both good and evil, in an indelible
record which will one day rise as a witness against him. So it is in
very truth with our brains. The wrong act may have been performed in
secret, no living being may ever know that we performed it, and a
merciful Providence may forgive it; but the inexorable monitor of our
deeds was all the time beside us writing the record, and the history of
that act is inscribed forever in the tissues of our brain. It may be
repented of bitterly in sackcloth and ashes and be discontinued, but its
effects can never be quite effaced; they will remain with us a handicap
till our dying day, and in some critical moment in a great emergency we
shall be in danger of defeat from that long past and forgotten act.

WE MUST FORM HABITS.--We must, then, form habits. It is not at all in
our power to say whether we will form habits or not; for, once started,
they go on forming themselves by day and night, steadily and
relentlessly. Habit is, therefore, one of the great factors to be
reckoned with in our lives, and the question becomes not, Shall we form
habits? but What habits we shall form. And we have the determining of
this question largely in our own power, for habits do not just happen,
nor do they come to us ready made. We ourselves make them from day to
day through the acts we perform, and in so far as we have control over
our acts, in that far we can determine our habits.

Next: The Place Of Habit In The Economy Of Our Lives

Previous: Problems For Introspection And Observation

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