Yesterday, millions of people across the world made New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, quit smoking, or follow their dreams.  Chances are that this isn’t the first time they made these resolutions!  We start off the year with much fervor, but inevitably this enthusiasm fades out.  Why are we unable to sustain our New Year’s resolutions?

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The fact that we resolve to change something about ourselves each year shows that our brain is already aware of a limitation in our behavior.  This awareness comes from the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain’s executive center that is responsible for the decisions we make.  But it is intriguing that the same region of the brain that triggered a motivation early in the year seems to slowly decide against it as the months pass by.  What goes wrong in that period?

One of the leading theories behind losing perseverance on our previous motivations is that of an “overworked” prefrontal cortex.  Because the PFC is also actively involved in working memory, as we get busy with other engagements that require our immediate attention, we seem to use up valuable space of the PFC.  This overtaxed PFC is now overloaded and finds it difficult to sustain its willpower.  For example, after an incredibly tiring day at work, no matter how determined you were to stay on a diet, that piece of cheesecake seems irresistible.  Whatever happened to the dieting decision that was on your mind all along?

Sticky note on calendar

The reality is that our brain is not perfect in all respects.  But the good news is now you know that an exhausted PFC may weaken your willpower.  There are some ways in which you can train your PFC into proudly sustaining your resolutions:

  • Set smaller milestones:  There is a reason why old habits die hard.  Old habits are basically neuronal networks that are very robust, and therefore, difficult to break!  Instead of setting a huge goal like “lose weight this year,” we could consider setting smaller goals like “join a gym this month” or “no cookies for me this weekend.”  These smaller goals are easier for your PFC to orient itself to, even when it is overworked.
  • Add a value to your actions:  The brain is wired to function through a reward mechanism.  Unfortunately, in the case of resolutions, we are often required to change or stop something we once considered a reward.  How does one simply stop eating sweets when we’ve drawn pleasure out of them for decades?  The answer is to set a value to your new goal.  The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) assigns a value signal to a goal-directed decision.  If you enjoyed sweets, the vmPFC likely puts a high value on “tasty.”  But as you start consciously adding a new value variable, like “healthy,” your vmPFC will automatically start assigning those signals to a salad, and you will now make a better choice!
  • Know the brain’s capacity for change:  While the brain readily adapts to change, it does have some limitations.  Making overlapping resolutions that exert the brain excessively are invariably bound to fail.  For example, you should refrain from making resolutions like “going on a diet while and trying to quit smoking.”  In this case, your are tackling two separate habits, each having hard-wired reward pathways, and it would be difficult for the brain to handle all this change simultaneously, resulting in a rather wobbly will power.

While you may have heard that “it’s all in the mind,” we, at Knowing Neurons, believe that it’s all in the brain!  While the brain’s complexity leaves us fascinated every day, we also believe that appreciating its imperfections can help us better overcome our behavioral weaknesses.  Now, you are all set to go out and pursue your resolution for 2013.

Have a happy and prosperous New Year!

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Images adapted from JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Corbis and Tetra Images/Corbis.

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