The Brain Science Behind Habits


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These four statistics from my Rich Habits Study data caught me by surprise:

  1. 21% of the wealthy were “A” students.
  2. 41% of the wealthy were “B” students.
  3. 29% of the wealthy were “C” students.
  4. 7% of the wealthy were below average students.

77% of the wealthy were not exceptional students. In fact, more than a third under performed academically.

How can this be?

I had always assumed that success and intelligence, were correlated. But they’re not.

A high IQ has no bearing on success in life!

What I learned from my Study, is that in order to understand habits, I needed to understand how the brain works.


There are essentially three parts of the brain:

  1. Brain Stem
  2. Limbic System and
  3. Neocortex

All three parts of the brain are connected through a series of nerve fibers.

Brain Stem

The brain stem is the oldest part of the brain. It is sometimes referred to as the Reptilian Brain, the Reactive Brain or the Instinctive Brain. At one time, it was the first and only part of our brain. The brain stem connects to your spinal cord which branches out to form our central nervous system. It is primarily made up of the Medulla Oblongata and the Pons. The brain stem controls all of your autonomic processes such as breathing, heart rate, swallowing, and organ function. It prompts hunger, your sex drive and the fight or flight mechanism. There is no thinking involved with the brain stem. It exists to ensure your survival.

Limbic System

The limbic system is the second oldest part of the brain. It is sometimes referred to as the Emotional Brain. It is where all of your emotions reside and is heavily involved in memory storage, both long-term and short-term.

It includes the following components:

  • Amygdala – Memory and emotions.
  • Hypothalmus – Muscle vibrations and internal temperature. This is why you shiver when you are sick. The hypothalmus increases body temperature to kill bacteria. Muscle vibrations generate heat to kill bacteria. The hypothalmus also controls appetite and hormones.
  • Thalamus – Sits right next to the Basal Ganglia. Affects touch, pain, temperature and muscles. Recent studies have found that the thalamus is the brain’s gate keeper – all external sensory information passes through the thalamus first. Most of that information is discarded.
  • Hippocampus – This is where short-term memory is stored. The hippocampus, during deep sleep, moves short-term memory to long-term storage in the neocortex.
  • Olfactory Lobe – Triggers smell. This is why smell sometimes evokes emotions. They both are connected in the limbic system.
  • Recticular Activating System – Along with the thalamus, the RAS vets the sensory information we take in. Most sensory information is blocked out by the recticular activating system and the thalamus. This is done in order to prevent brain overload.
  • Cingulate Cortex – Creates Mirror Neurons that are critical to developing new skills, new habits and for survival. These mirror neurons program children to mirror the behavior and emotions of their parents, good or bad.
  • Basal Ganglia – This is the command and control center for habits in the brain. The basal ganglia acts like the hub of a wheel. Each spoke (dendrite) of the basal ganglia reaches into the deepest parts of the neocortex, limbic system and brain stem. Habits are formed when we repeatedly use certain neural pathways. The basal ganglia will create a spoke and link it to other parts of the brain, in an effort to create a habit. The hub and those spokes remain forever. That is why habits are hard to break.


This is the newest, most unusual part of the brain. It is found only in mammals. It is most of your human brain. Fully 5/6ths of our brain mass is made up of the neocortex. It has the most neurons – 40 billion. It is sometimes referred to as the Thinking Brain, Higher Brain, Conscious Brain, Cerebrum or Cerebral Cortex. It is responsible for learning, long-term memory, thought creation and decision making. It is comprised of the four lobes: Parietal, Frontal, Temporal (vision) and Occipital (vision), the Amygdalae and the Corpus Callosum – a bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the neocortex. It takes in and processes sensory data the thalamus and RAS allow it to see.


It is estimated that the average adult has between 23 to 100 billion neurons. The jury is still out on this. No one really knows. The preponderance of the research I’ve done seems to skew toward 100 billion.

A neuron is also known as a brain cell. Each neuron is made up of one axon and multiple dendrites. Each axon and dendrite have multiple branches, just like trees.

When neurons talk to each other, this is known as a synapse. Axons receive communications from other neurons through each one of its axon branches. Dendrites send communications to other axons on other neurons through each one of its branches.

The synaptic gap is an indentation on each dendrite that an axon branch sends its signals through. Think of each axon branch as a plug and each dendrite as an outlet. The axon branch plugs into each dendrite outlet and viola, we have a connection.

The most powerful neurons are called spindle cells. These are like neurons on steroids. They are bigger neurons; four times bigger than all other neurons, with long, thick extensions that look like spindles. They reside primarily in the cingulate cortex and are able to connect divergent areas of the brain due to their enormous size. No other species on earth has the abundance of spindle cells humans do. Spindle cells make human unique among all species. Because of their size, spindle cells are capable of faster communication over longer distances. Think of ordinary neurons as local neighborhood roads and spindle cells as the German autobahn highway. Spindle cells are the superhighways of the brain. They are where intuition comes from and gives us the ability to make instant, quick decisions.

Ok, thanks for staying with me so far. I’m almost done with laying our foundation.

Recent Breakthroughs in Brain Science

Neuroscience (the study of the brain), over the past ten years, has completely changed our understanding of how the brain works. We now know that the brain changes every day. We can rewire our brains. This is called neuroplasticity.

We also now know that the hippocampus gives birth to thousands of new neurons every day. This is called neurogenesis. That’s a big revelation. For over a hundred years, we were told that the number of neurons was fixed at birth.

We also now have a better understanding of what memory is and how memory happens. Once again, one of our hardest working brain parts, the hippocampus, is a major player in the formation of long-term memory (called long-term potentiation).

We now know that when we sleep, the hippocampus and the cortex are hard at work creating memories.

We also now know, thanks to the study of, and mapping of, the genome, that genes give us the ability to increase our IQs during our lifetime. We know that IQ can change over time. It’s not fixed. Just because you were a “C” student at age 17 with an IQ of 100 doesn’t necessarily mean you will stay that way.  You can increase your IQ all during your life, even into your eighties.

Success and Your Brain

Because of the recent advancement in our understanding of how the brain works, we now know how it is possible for unexceptional students, with average IQs, to achieve incredible success in life – they are able to increase their IQs as a result of continuous study and the growth that occurs as a result of pursuing goals and dreams.

Successful people forge certain Rich Habits that enable them to improve their brains and increase their intelligence during their lifetimes. These activities increase brain mass by increasing and strengthening old neural connections and by creating entirely new neural connections.

Let’s touch on some of the brain-building activities of wealthy, successful people.

Daily Learning

Every time you learn something new, you re-wire your brain. New neurons are recruited and begin firing with one another (known as synapses). As new neural pathways are created by learning, your brain actually increases in size; your intelligence grows.

Eighty-eight percent of the wealthy in my study, sometime prior to realizing financial success in life, formed the daily Rich Habit of reading to learn 30 minutes or more every day. This self-education daily habit allowed them to increase their cognitive abilities during their lives, which contributed to their success in life.

Daily Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise floods the bloodstream with oxygen. This oxygen eventually makes its way to the brain. Since the brain uses 20% of our oxygen reserves, increased oxygen flow into the brain soaks up more free radicals inside the brain, making it cleaner and healthier. Increased oxygen flow into the brain also increases the the production of brain fuel (glucose or ketones).

Twenty to thirty minutes of aerobic exercise every day has been proven to stimulate the growth of axons and axon branches on each neuron.

The number of axons and axon branches your brain has is directly related to your intelligence.

Aerobic exercise also increases the release of neurotrophins, or Nerve Growth Factor (NFG). NFG stimulates the growth of neurons, helps maintain a healthy coating around every neuron (called myelin sheath) and stimulates synaptic communications between neurons.

Increased synaptic communication translates into better memory and faster recall.

So, daily aerobic exercise increases your intelligence, each and every time you engage in it.

Avoid Intoxication

Our livers are able to process at most, about two ounces of alcohol an hour (about two 12 ounce glasses of beer).  Anything in excess of that allows alcohol to enter your bloodstream and this makes its way into your brain.

Neurologists are still debating the long-accepted belief that alcohol kills brain cells. Some say it does, others disagree.

What they all agree on is that once alcohol reaches the brain it infiltrates the glutamate receptors in your synapses, damaging the neurons’ ability to fire off signals.

If you regularly drink in excess, you are causing long-term damage to these receptors and this can cause long-term or permanent damage to your memory and your motor skills.

Is it a coincidence that 84% of the wealthy in my study drank less than two ounces of alcohol a day? I don’t think so. Their moderation in the consumption of alcohol helps them keep their brains growing and improving.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Eighty-nine percent of the wealthy in my study slept an average of seven or more hours each night.

Why is sleep so important to brain function?

To understand this, we need to understand sleep. Everyone who sleeps goes through four to six sleep cycles that last between 60 – 90 minutes per sleep cycle. Each of these sleep cycles is composed of five separate levels of sleep: Alpha, theta, delta, rapid eye movement (REM) and then back to theta.

For each individual sleep cycle, the first three sleep levels (alpha, theta and delta) last 65 minutes. REM lasts 20 minutes and the final level of sleep lasts 5 minutes.

The number of hours you sleep is less important than the number of complete sleep cycles you have when you sleep. Five complete sleep cycles a night is considered optimal. Completing less than four sleep cycles a night, however, negatively affects our health.

REM sleep is particularly important as one of its important functions is long-term memory storage. During REM sleep, what we’ve learned the day before is transported from the hippocampus to the neocortex for long-term memory storage.

If we do not complete at least four sleep cycles a night, long-term memory storage becomes impaired. Completing at least four sleep cycles the night after learning a new skill or the night after studying for a test, locks in the new skill or study material.

If we get less than four complete sleep cycles the night after learning a new skill or the night after studying for a test, it is as if we did not practice the skill or did not study at all because it never fully gets transferred to long-term memory.

So sleep helps you remember what you’ve learned.

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Thomas C. Corley About Thomas C. Corley

Tom Corley is a bestselling author, speaker, and media contributor for Business Insider, CNBC and a few other national media outlets.

His Rich Habits research has been read, viewed or heard by over 50 million people in 25 countries around the world.

Besides being an author, Tom is also a CPA, CFP, holds a master’s degree in taxation and is President of Cerefice and Company, a CPA firm in New Jersey.
Phone Number: 732-382-3800 Ext. 103.
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  1. Vinoth Puvichandran says:

    Hi Sir,
    Thanks for sharing. It was a great read. So much information.

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