Our brains and New Year's resolutions
The science behind keeping resolutions -- why our brain might actually prevent us from being successful in following through.
Gained five pounds when you wanted to lose ten? Started smoking again after swearing you wouldn't? Not eat vegetables at every meal? Forget to not watch television? Who hasn’t had a New Year's resolution fail? "The Takeaway’s" science contributor Jonah Lehrer tells us why our brain actually prevents us from changing everything at once.
According to Lehrer, people should realize how weak the will-power in the brain is: "Scientists took people ... a group of undergraduates, and told them they were being tested for long-term memory -- that was actually a lie, they were being tested for will-power. One group of students had to memorize a two-digit number ... just two random numbers. The other group had to memorize a seven-digit number, which is pretty tough for the brain to do -- to hold seven random numbers in your working memory."
Then, without knowing they were being tested for the experiment, the subjects were given a choice between fruit salad or chocolate cake: "It turned out that people who had to remember the seven-digit number were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake instead of the fruit salad. And the answer is ... using working memory, the reason those seven numbers make you so much more likely to choose the indulgent, high-calorie treat is that, those extra five numbers so weakened your will-power because they [function] along the same brain area, that people literally weren't able to choose the healthier alternative."
Lehrer says working memory and will-power both rely on the same brain area: the pre-frontal cortex: "It's a very small, feeble brain area just behind your eyes. And the act of having to remember those seven numbers so stressed out the pre-fontal cortex, took up all the cognitive space that there was no space left over for will-power."
When we choose to do something that's very difficult for us -- quitting smoking, dieting -- we don't have enough energy to conduct our daily lives and maintain the intensity that we need to keep our resolutions.
It's important to pick and choose your battles says Lehrer: "If you're trying to quit smoking, don't try to diet at the same time. If you're going through a messy relationship break-up, don't try to quit smoking at the same time. Pick and choose your will-power battle -- that, I think, is one of the morals of this research."
"The Takeaway" is PRI's new national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.