Path creation with the Will

When we move following a pre-established path, we call this habit and it feels automatic. Barring interruption, these movements will be carried out in response to the stimulus they have tended to follow in the past. On the other hand, deliberate path creation seems to require the application of will. What’s that? Here is a funky hypothesis. Willpower is what it feels like when new desire paths are being traversed. For this to be successful, it seems to require a combination of holding the path in attention and for its prospective traversal to feel sufficiently emotionally appealing. I’m not sure how emotional appeal works but perhaps we can black box it: given a set of perceptions and the patterns they activate within the mind, some emotional affect is experienced (good vs bad vs neutral, along with an intensity [1]).

We can imagine ourselves typically defaulting to follow what we normally do in a situation where our attention is occupied with something else (a memory, an unrelated thought, etc), e.g. I normally follow the paved sidewalk. Changes in behavior in response to an identical stimulus tend to be enabled only when attention is applied, e.g. I’m in a rush and notice that cutting across a lawn will reduce my journey length even if no formal path exists there. This willed and deliberate change in behavior is only possible when we can feel that a sufficiently emotionally-salient and emotionally attractive benefit may result from the change. What does this say about habit change? To deliberately form new paths — habits — we usually need to be ready to attend to the sensory experience that we want to trigger the desired new path while simultaneously holding the emotionally charged prospective outcome in attention. If I hypothetically want to stop smoking a cigarette every time I leave my office, I need to prepare myself to attend to the triggering stimulus — leaving the office — as well as the emotionally charged prospective outcome — I need to imagine myself getting lung cancer 30 years later and focus on what that would feel like.

This would suggest a strong link between the ability to control the movement of attention and the plasticity of habits.