In his Principles of Psychology, William James has a chapter exploring the nature of habits.
Point One: Habits are physical. If a substance can be shaped or manipulated and then hold its new configuration, it is capable of developing a habit. For example, “everyone knows how a garment, after 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.” Similarly, “when a bar of iron becomes magnetic or crystalline through the action of certain outward causes” it has developed a habit. The structure of these materials resists change, which is why the developement of a habit takes time. However, “when the structure has yielded, the same inertia becomes a condition of its comparative permanence in the new form.”
Applying this to humans, we find that the nervous system and more especially the brain are capable of acquiring habits. In fact, we understand how the brain develops habits much better now than when James was alive. Every time we act we either create new pathways or strengthen existing ones in the brain. James summarizes his first proposition: “the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed” (emphasis in original).
Point Two: “Habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed” (emphasis in original). He states this so beautifully I must quote him at length.
If an act require for its execution a chain, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, etc., of successive nervous events, then in the first performances of the action the conscious will must choose each of these events from a number of wrong alternatives that tend to present themselves; but habit soon brings it about that each event calls up its own appropriate successor without any alternative offering itself, and without any reference to the conscious will, until at last the whole chain, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, rattles itself off as soon as A occurs, just as if A and the rest of the chain were fused into a continuous stream. When we are learning to walk, to ride, to swim, skate, fence, write, play, or sing, we interrupt ourselves at every step by unnecessary movements and false notes. When we are proficients, on the contrary, the results not only follow with the very minimum of muscular action requisite to bring them forth, they also follow from a single instantaneous ‘cue.’ The marksman sees the bird, and, before he knows it, he has aimed and shot. A gleam in his adversary’s eye, a momentary pressure from his rapier, and the fencer finds that he has instantly made the right parry and return. A glance at the musical hieroglyphics, and the pianist’s fingers have ripped through a cataract of notes. And not only is it the right thing at the right time that we thus involuntarily do, but the wrong thing also, if it be an habitual [p.115] thing. Who is there that has never wound up his watch on taking off his waistcoat in the daytime, or taken his latchkey out on arriving at the door-step of a friend? Very absent-minded persons in going to their bedroom to dress for dinner have been known to take off one garment after another and finally to get into bed, merely because that was the habitual issue of the first few movements when performed at a later hour. â€¦We all of us have a definite routine manner of performing certain daily offices connected with the toilet, with the opening and shutting of familiar cupboards, and the like. Our lower centres know the order of these movements, and show their knowledge by their ‘surprise’ if the objects are altered so as to oblige the movement to be made in a different way. But our higher thought-centres know hardly anything about the matter. Few men can tell off-hand which sock, shoe, or trousers-leg they put on first. They must first mentally rehearse the act; and even that is often insufficient – the act must be performed. So of the questions, Which valve of my double door opens first? Which way does my door swing? etc. I cannot tell the answer; yet my hand never makes a mistake.
Just this week I was pulled over on my way to work. The first thing I remember is that I saw lights behind me so I signaled and pulled to the side of the road. The lights followed me. As the police officer approached, I tried to think what I might have done, but I could remember nothing. As often happens to me, I was pondering something and had no conscious memory of my trip thus far. Luckily, the officer described what I had done (failure to signal and then changing to quickly into the far lane). I tried to remember doing that. Nothing. It sounds like something I would do, but I had no memory of it. What we have done a thousand times eventually takes so little attention that we can perform it without almost no use of our conscious mind. Habit allows us to do subconsciously what we originally needed all our conscious attention to master (to which anyone who has tried to teach a teenager to drive can attest).
Point Three: What we call â€œcharacterâ€ is in large measure a collection of our habits. Not everything we do is according to our character, after all, we speak of people doing something which is “out of character” for them. However, character refers to all of the ways we usually act. It is an aggregate of all our habits. His closing paragraph is, again, so brilliantly stated that it must be quoted directly:
The physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally of hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson’s play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, ‘I won’t count this time!’ Well! he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. Down among his nerve-cells and fibres the molecules are counting it, registering and storing it up to be used against him when the next temptation comes. Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out. Of course, this has its good side as well as its bad one. As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work.
We have now touched briefly on Habits and Character, so we can mention Stains upon the soul. The brief exchange I had with britain a few days ago reminded me of my first conversation with BiV over a year ago. In both, we discussed the nature of the “stain” left by sin. We become so accustomed to talking about this through analogy that we forget the stain is not literal (we have not spilled grape juice on our souls). Rather, the stain seems to me to be explained in terms of habit and character. William James describes the stain of sin in that last quote. Every “fresh dereliction” is not “counted” in a bookkeeping sense. It is counted down among our nerve-cells. The stain of sin is left upon our character in that we literally become what we do. Our sins are captured in our habits and our character. Christ wipes away our sins by sanctifying us. That is, Christ helps us overcome our sinful natures until we are holy. Becoming holy (which we do by denying ourselves of all ungodliness, vs. 32) is what it means to be “without spot”:
And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:33).
[Associated radio blog song: Operation Ivy: Healthy Body]