JOY Full Horses: Part 2: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues

This is a continuation of Part 2 of my new book, JOY Full Horses.  If you are new to this series, go to the contents for links to the previous articles.

In the preceding section I introduced you to Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habits“.  I ended by talking about traveling outside your habits.  I wrote:

“When I travel, I step outside of all of these classically conditioned triggers.  I get to experience “me”, not the “me” of my daily habits.  I think this is why people enjoy traveling on their vacations.  They could stay home and spend time in their own backyards, but that doesn’t give them a break from their habits.  Traveling may not be more restful, but it certainly creates more of a change when you can step outside not just of familiar landscapes but also of familiar habits.”

Until I started traveling on a regular basis, I was aware that I had routines to my day and general habit patterns, but I wasn’t as keenly aware of all the little microhabits that formed the overall pattern to my day.  They dictated not just what I was doing, but how I was feeling.

It turns out this has a very useful function.  Habits let us go on auto pilot.  In his book, “The Power of Habits”, Charles Duhigg shared some interesting research on habits.  He cited a study done with rats where their brain activity was monitored as they learned to navigate through a simple maze.  Each rat was kept behind a partition.  When the partition opened with a click, the rats would began to explore the passageway they were in. They sniffed the air and ran their whiskers up and down the walls.  The passageway ended in a T.  To the left was a piece of chocolate.  To the right just a dead end.  The rats first explored to the right before turning and getting the chocolate.

Duhigg recounts that outwardly the rats’ meanderings had no discernible pattern.

“It seemed as if each rat was taking a leisurely, unthinking stroll.

The probe in the rats’ heads, however told a different story.  While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain – and in particular, its basal ganglia – worked furiously.  Each time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, its brain exploded with activity, as if analyzing each new scent, sight, and sound.  The rat was processing information the entire time it meandered.”

The scientists ran each rat through the maze several hundred times, and they repeated the experiment with multiple rats.  With each animal they saw the same series of shifts.  Over time the rats stopped sniffing the walls or making wrong turns.  Instead they ran through the maze at speed to the chocolate reward.  That was expected.  What was not expected was what the probes were recording.

“As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less.

It was as if the first few times a rat explored the maze, its brain had to work at full power to make sense of all the new information. Once the maze was learned, the rat didn’t need to scratch the walls or smell the air any more, and so the brain activity associated with scratching and smelling ceased.  It didn’t need to choose which direction to turn, and so decision making centers of the brain went quiet.  All it had to do was recall the quickest path to the chocolate.  Within a week, even the brain structures related to memory had quieted.  The rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all.

mouse in maze

This process – in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine – is known as “chunking”, and it’s at the root of how habits form.  There are dozens – if not hundreds – of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day. . .”

Why do we have these habit chunks?

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.  Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.  This effort saving is a huge advantage.  An efficient brain requires less room. . .  An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking about basic behaviors so we can devote more mental energy to other things.”

I don’t have to think about how to move my fingers over the keyboard as I type these words.  Finding the next letter is done by habit, which frees me up to think about what I am about to write not how I am going to record it.

Autopilot has huge advantages, but any of us who drive know the dangers of relying on it too much. That’s how you miss spotting the deer that’s about to jump out in front of your car.  (Or if you’re the deer, it’s how you miss seeing the car that’s about to hit you.)

Our clever brains have come up with a solution to depending too much on autopilot.  What the rat study showed was there was a spike of activity at the beginning of the maze just as the rat was hearing the click that signaled that the partition was about to go up.  There was a second spike at the end of the sequence when the rat found the chocolate.

“These spikes are the brain’s way of determining when to cede control to a habit, and which habit cat outside mouse holeto use. From behind the partition it’s difficult for the rat to know if it’s inside a familiar maze or an unfamiliar cupboard with a cat lurking outside.  To deal with this uncertainty, the brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a habit looking for something  – a cue – that offers a hint as to which pattern to use.  . . . At the end of the activity, when the reward appears, the brain shakes itself awake and makes sure everything unfolded as expected.”

The Structure of Habits
Now we get to the part that should feel very familiar to clicker trainers:

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop.  First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.

Then there is the routine, which can be physical, or mental, or emotional.

Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

single habit loop

Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic.   The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.  Eventually . . . a habit is born.”

habit loop

Changing Habits
Habits may be set in neurological pathways, but those pathways are not set in stone.  The good news for both ourselves and the animals we work with, is habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.  Understanding the habit loop gives us insights into both the function of habits and how to go about altering them.

Habits mean that the brain doesn’t have to work so hard on certain tasks, and it can divert attention to other things.  Unless you deliberately resist a habit, the pattern that’s been routined in will unfold automatically.

But once you understand the components of habit loops, you can alter a habit by changing one of the components.  For example, in the rat study the scientists changed the location of the reward.  That appeared to extinguish the original habit.  Think about how simple that kind of change is to make the next time you want to alter a habit.  There is this caveat, though.  When they put the reward back in it’s original location, the habit reemerged without needing to be refreshed.

Once formed, we don’t have to keep relearning how to do things.  Which means, even if I take a long break from this computer, when I return to it, I’ll still know how to type.  Given the right triggers and rewards, the habit loop of typing will be there when I need it.

Bad Habits
Bad habits can certainly get in the way and make our lives miserable.  Think of the people who can’t sit down to watch a bit of television in the evening without also reaching for the snack bowl.  They feel guilty (probably also a habit by now), but they still fall into the habit of couch-potato snacking instead of going out for a walk.

Instead of grumbling at our unwanted habits, we need to appreciate habits in general.  Without our habit loops we would not be able to function.  People with damage to their basal ganglia have trouble coping with even the most mundane tasks.  They become paralyzed by all the tiny behind-the-scenes decisions we don’t have to make because our habit loops take care of them.  Most of the time we aren’t even aware that’s what’s happening.

I’ll stop at this point to give you time to appreciate your habits, good and bad.  In the next installment I’ll look at what it takes to form a habit.

Coming next: Forming Habits – Good or Bad

Remember, if you are new to the JOY Full Horse blog, click on the JOY Full Horses tab at the top of this page to find the full table of contents and links to each of the articles I have published so far.

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: