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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 6

Issue Highlights: How Habits Form, the Illusion of Free Will and Biosensors

Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina introduces the June 2014 issue of Scientific American
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Credit: Marek Haiduk

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Although we humans are capable of creating amazing new innovations, most of our daily lives are shaped instead by routines. We get up, brush our teeth, dress, have that first cup of coffee, make the commute to work—and on, day after day. As Ann M. Graybiel and Kyle S. Smith write in this issue's cover story, “How the Brain Makes and Breaks Habits,” many such activities “simply allow us to do certain things on autopilot so that our brains are not overtaxed by concentrating on each brushstroke and countless tiny adjustments of the steering wheel.”

Some customs—taking a daily walk, for instance—are healthful. Others—having dessert after every meal—are not. Worse, the authors write, “The more routine a behavior becomes, the less we are aware of it,” resulting in an insidious undercutting of our intentions such as happens when, say, those frequent desserts become extra pounds. In some ways, habits can even resemble addictions. What are the neural mechanisms behind such behavior, and why are these ingrained tendencies so hard to break? Recent work reveals the specific brain regions and connections necessary for forming habits. A better understanding of those circuits, researchers hope, will help us in learning how to amend them when needed. 

With many research papers pointing out how often we are influenced, marionettelike, by automated processes like habits, many neuroscientists and philosophers argue that the conscious control we believe we have may be more illusion than reality. Azim F. Shariff and Kathleen D. Vohs probe that notion in their essay, “What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will?.” What happens when a society's belief in the existence of free will is shaken? How do we then judge responsibility for crimes—and even whether they ought to be punished?

David J. Ecker discusses dealing with a very different kind of perpetrator in his article, “Coming Soon: New Machines That Know Exactly What’s Bugging You.” New biosensors are being developed that can identify viral, bacterial or fungal sources of infection. Connecting such sensors would create a dynamic network, enabling us to counter outbreaks effectively across the globe. As it turns out, however, the largest challenges to producing such an electronic shield are not technical. Instead they are regulatory and societal—requiring us to cooperate across countries without centralized health care systems. And, as we might be tempted to add at this point, to get past our current habits and routines.

As is the case so many times, a better understanding of ourselves and how we think, which we gain through the evidence-based process known as science, can help us create a more prosperous future.

This article was originally published with the title "Creatures of Habit."

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