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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 tende
cy 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.