What are Neural Pathways?
Neurons are nerve cells. These nerve cells make-up the core of the nervous system, most notably, the brain. Clusters of neurons can work together to create a memory, belief or a learned behavior. When neurons are connected in this way, they are referred to as a neural pathway.
Creation of a "Comfort Food"
Neural pathways are created when we experience life events. But, experience itself is not necessarily the issue, it is the unique perspective of the experience is. A child exposed to arguing parents may be just as troubled as the child who is neglected or abused. A neural pathway can be created that is a 'belief of self'.
This is something that could make the child feel sad, alone, or 'less than' other people around them. While this pathway can be changed by other, more positive experiences, it often remains a part of this person's perception. Repetition of these experiences will reinforce the pathway.
For example, the same child has her eight year old birthday party. Both of her parents and her brother are there and happy. She feels a mixture of happiness, joy, and love. These strong good feelings are a unique part of this experience, along with the ice cream. Her young mind creates a neural pathway that associates ice cream with a release of the neuropeptides that contain these positive emotions. Over the following years, the repetition of her birthdays, as well as friend's birthdays, reinforces this pathway. When she has ice cream, this neural pathway automatically responds with the release of the associated neuropeptides for the good feeling.
Negative and Positive Motivations
Now that her mind has these two pathways, it can connect these behaviors to find balance. At the end of a day at work she feels down, tired, and un-appreciated. The pathway is triggered and responds with a desire to feel better, a craving for ice cream. Years after the behavior is created, it is still functioning as designed. The worse she feels, the stronger the craving feels.
The bad feeling is a negative motivator in this behavior. The need to feel better is the positive motivator. The mind will always look to do what it thinks it needs to in order to feel "better" (better than "what" is the issue).
Of course, this example is very simple. In real life, the out of control craving makes her feel additional stress. The extra body weight it creates makes her feel worse about herself. The ice cream only makes her feel good for short amount of time. It is not able to do what her mind is looking for. This creates more imbalance in the behavior. Emotional imbalance will create more stress.
This example is about food. But, you can apply this model to any behavior or habit there is. Not every behavior has both a positive and negative motivator, though many do. Having both makes the behavior more difficult to 'break'. In some cases there is not an emotional component to a behavior. Like the previous example of locking your car door.
This is sometimes seen in snacking, the reaching part of the smoking habit (when the smoker reaches for where they used to keep cigarettes without experiencing a craving to smoke) and habits like tongue thrusts, jaw clenching, and picking.