People with OCD feel the need to repeat habits over and over, but at the same time that they are feeling compelled to do the behavior (habit) they are also aware that it is irrational. These compulsions can grow and interfere with a person’s life in a multitude of ways. Earlier studies have found that people with OCD have brain differences in the areas around habit formation and the related “supervisory role” over the relevance/use of habits.
A recent study at the University of Cambridge looked at the brain activity of people in the process of forming new habits. In the study, 37 people diagnosed with OCD and 33 people without, were taught to avoid a mild shock while by pressing their foot down on a pedal. Everyone in the study adopted the habit of pressing down on the pedal, but the people with OCD continued to press on the pedal even after the threat of the shock had ended.
The people with OCD showed abnormal brain activity in the supervisory “goal-directed” areas of the brain; the area that should have told them “Enough! You can stop now.”. They had no differences in the areas of habit formation. This study suggests that people with OCD can learn habits effectively, but have a glitch in the way their frontal lobes monitor and direct their goal-directed behavior which allows their habits to keep going and going.
This study is relevant in the treatment of OCD for several reasons. First, the cognitive training specific to the “goal-directed” areas may be a useful intervention for OCD. Second, this fact-based understanding may help some people with OCD “talk back” to the urges. If we can understand why something is happening, it can often make it less scary.
To read more:
Solls, M. (2015, May 1). Unsupervised Habits. Scientific American Mind, 10-10.
Gillan, C. et al. Functional neuroimaging of avoidance habits in OCD. American Journal of Psychiatry; 19 Dec 2014