PART 4 of 11 | This series highlights practical approaches to leveraging game mechanics in business and digital learning design.

The Habit Loop

“A young woman walks into a laboratory. Over the past two years, she has transformed almost every aspect of her life. She has quit smoking, run a marathon, and been promoted at work. The patterns inside her brain, neurologists discover, have fundamentally changed.” Duhigg, C. (2017) The power of habit. Available at:

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, uncovers the mystery behind how habits control our lives and how we can reshape our habits. He describes why the habit loop exists and how it influences individuals as well as organizations.

Duhigg breaks down several compelling studies. One, a 1990 MIT study, describes a rat waiting at the entrance to a T-shaped maze. At one end of the maze lies a piece of chocolate. The rat is taken off guard by a loud “click” when the door to the maze snaps open.  Initially the rat would meander down the corridor, sniffing at the corners and scratching at the walls. On some trials it would find the chocolate easily, but on others it would initially turn away from the reward, before being able to track down the chocolate.  At first glance, the rats appeared partly disinterested, however measurements of brain revealed a different story. As the rats explored their environment, their brains were exploding with activity. In particular, a tiny, primitive region of the brain called the basal ganglia. The scientists ran the experiment hundreds of times, and after a while began to notice something. The rats would gradually stop sniffing at the corners and begin to dash through the maze. What was more remarkable, is their brain activity would dramatically decrease. Activity in regions associated with decision making and memory calmed. So as they required less brain power to learn about the environment and cues, the basal ganglia would take over, letting other regions of the brain rest. The basal ganglia was key to recalling patterns and acting on them. In this case for a reward.

As it turns out, about 40% of our decisions and the actions we take, every day, are controlled by the basal ganglia. That means almost half of our day is virtually out of our conscious control. Driving, brushing our teeth, making breakfast. We do these things without really thinking. We can thank our basal ganglia for helping us avoid a crash in our earlier scenario where we were signing 80’s ballads while driving.

Let’s recap. The habit loop involves three key elements. A cue (the “click”), a routine (navigating the maze), and a reward (the chocolate). Can we hack this loop to elicit behaviour change? What does this have to do with learning, memory, and confidence?


Robert Sapolsky is a professor of biology, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. He has been involved in groundbreaking studies which have revealed insights into human and animal behaviour and long held myths about our understanding of why we do what we do.

Our previous notions about rewards and pleasure have been transformed. Robert describes the following study; a monkey is cued by a yellow light flashing in front of him. The monkey has learned the pattern to execute in return for a food rewards. Remember, this is controlled by its basal ganglia. Unlike the rat, the routine cued by the yellow light involves pressing a lever ten times and waiting for a few seconds before a morsel of food if dispensed from the device. For decades, researchers assumed dopamine was associated with pleasure, thus dopamine levels in the brain were assumed to spike when a reward was given. However, researchers were astonished when modern technology revealed dopamine spiked as soon as the cue was given. In this case, DA spiked as soon as the monkey saw the yellow light. Levels stayed high until they had finished the task (pressing a lever ten times) and quickly dropped BEFORE the reward was given. Why? This is the monkey’s brain saying, “I recognize this! I know exactly what to do! I am going to execute the lever pressing routine.” The basal ganglia had taken over. It became clear then that dopamine was not about pleasure but about the pursuit of it. The pursuit of happiness. What was more remarkable; when dopamine was blocked from being released, the monkeys would not execute the routine. They refused to press the lever for a reward. So dopamine is capable of eliciting goal directed behaviour. (Sapolsky, Robert (2011) Dopamine jackpot!).

Researchers decided to do a second experiment. And what they discovered has forever changed my thinking. This experiment began exactly like the other. Monkeys were given a cue, expected to perform a routine and given a reward. They created a similar habit loop. The only variable was the rewards schedule. Instead of distributing a food reward every time, the food was distributed only 50% of the time. What’s more, it was given randomly. In other words, the monkeys couldn’t predict when they would receive a reward. This sounds like a pretty raw deal. Some may hypothesize that the monkeys would eventually quit and refuse to perform the routine. However, the researchers discovered that dopamine levels not only spiked when the cue was given, but they went through the roof. Sky high on dopamine the monkeys were. This was indicative of the monkeys brains trying to learn how they could guarantee reward 100% of the time, or at least increase their chances of success. They may have been wondering, did I press the lever to quickly last time, was I too firm? What was different about the instances I was given reward? Their brains were in overdrive, studying every aspect of the situation and their environment. The sights, smells, sounds.

This is what makes gambling so much fun. So addictive. A brain at the blackjack table is constantly producing dopamine in an effort to learn the patterns. It’s the pursuit of happiness occurring at the chemical level.

DA (Dopamine) Pathways

A form of temporary amnesia, what alcoholics call “blackouts,” can be caused by drinking too much. During a blackout, a drunk person continues to do things like have a conversation or, more dangerously, drive a car, but has no memory of it. Many alcoholics who suffer blackouts report that they have found themselves (and their cars) either at home or in an unfamiliar place after a night of drinking but have no recollection of how they got there. Blackouts can last a few minutes or stretch into hours. It was once thought that these episodes resulted from neuron death caused by over-indulgence. However, the July 6, 2011 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience reported that rather than brain-cell death, blackouts are caused by disruption of LTP — too much alcohol prevents memory formation in the hippocampus1.

Alison B. spent her evenings at sleazy nightclubs and shady bars where she proudly stayed till last call. Her alcoholic drinking was a source of freedom and fun. An escape from the stresses of everyday life and a path to a state of bliss.

But bliss came at a price. She often blacked out, waking up with a feeling of amnesia. Missing hours worth of memories of events from the night before. Mornings became detective work on her own life. What did I say last night? How did I get home? Did I sleep with him? She apologized for things she couldn’t remember doing, as though she were cleaning up after an evil twin. For almost ten years the blackouts got worse until her drinking climaxed and she sought help. Today her life is manageable. She finds immense joy in ordinary things. Every day. And she never forgets events from the night before.

Blackout drinking is not unique to alcoholics, however this does highlight the very important role dopamine plays in the formation of memories. Alcohol inhibits dopamine production. Without it, memories are lost forever. More accurately, they can’t ever be formed in the first place.  This also helps us understand the flow of stimuli through the brain and how they are shaped into lasting memories.

Picture the brain like a supply chain. At one end, raw materials are extracted from the environment and processed into goods. At the other, polished goods are stored for future sale and use.

Let’s suppose you walked into a gourmet chocolate shop. Your senses would be bombarded with enchanting sweet scents, rich visuals, and vibrant sounds. This cornucopia of stimuli are transported to processing centers of the brain such as your occipital and parietal lobes. At that point, your amygdala will step in. It filters all non-essential sensory information. The decadent smells and delightful sights of chocolates are enough to get any amygdala’s attention. Your approving amygdala then has a dialogue with something called the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). Your VTA is responsible for producing dopamine (DA) and sending it along the four DA pathways.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. A chemical messenger which is tasked with carrying stimuli along certain information highways. Without it, information will never reach higher regions of the brain for processing and long term storage.  

  • The hippocampus plays an important role in the formation of new memories about experienced events (episodic or autobiographical memory). Part of this function is hippocampal involvement in the detection of novel events, places and stimuli. Some researchers regard the hippocampus as part of a larger medial temporal lobe memory system responsible for general DECLARATIVE memory explicitly verbalized—these would include, for example, memory for facts.
  • The temporal lobe is involved in processing sensory input into derived meanings for the appropriate retention of visual memory, language comprehension, and emotion association.
  • The frontal lobe is responsible for integrating longer non-task based memories associated with emotions.
  • The frontal lobe contains most of the dopamine-sensitive neurons in the cerebral cortex.
  • The temporal lobe communicates with the hippocampus and plays a key role in the formation of explicit long-term memory modulated by the amygdala

Amygdala Approval

We know, based on scientific research, that it’s physically impossible for the brain to store information in a meaningful way, UNLESS,  we get the crocodile to pre-approve us! And that’s only one piece of the puzzle.

Before diving into the seven fundamental game mechanics, let’s recap what we need in our tool kit if we are to improve learning and elicit behaviour change.

  1. We need the dopamine to be our mailman
  2. To produce dopamine, we need to get a thumbs up from the crocodile
  3. Anticipation of rewards will boost levels of dopamine production


JUMP TO NEXT: 05 | Game Mechanic #1 – Narrative



1The Biology Behind Alcohol-Induced Blackouts,, July 7, 2011.

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