Its my brain, stupid
By Jason Lim
The ritual stays the same year after year. As the New Year’s approaches, I grimace and muster up the courage to dig up my previous year’s resolutions and see how I am doing on the achievement meter.
Of course, without fail, I am not even close to meeting the high hopes and expectations that I started the year with. But armed with the gift of self-delusion and short memory, I begin the heroic task of putting down a new set of New Year’s resolutions, which looks amazingly like the one from the year before.
And the resolutions from the year before look disturbingly like the ones from the year prior. And the year before that. And so on for the years that I actually kept a record of my New Year’s resolutions. In fact, my New Year’s resolutions have remained basically unchanged in the last 10 years, giving truth to the well-known Korean saying, “A decision lasts for only three days,” that so accurately describes my pitiful lack of willpower.
This sad state of affairs could have led me to a ghastly bout of self-introspection. However, I was saved by recent spate of articles that puts the blame for my New Year’s resolutions failings squarely onto my brain.
In her Wall Street Journal article, “How to Keep a Resolution,” Sue Shellenbarger writes that relying on willpower to keep a New Year’s resolution is exactly the wrong approach.
As she puts it, “Willpower springs from a part of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex that is easily overloaded and exhausted … when the cognitive parts of the brain responsible for decision-making becomes stressed by other life events, that resolve is likely to succumb to an emotional desire for instant gratification.”
Instead of relying on willpower, we should be “training others parts of the brain responsible for linking positive emotions to new habits and conditioning yourself to new behaviors.”
So, does this mean that I am not really at fault? Is it all my brain’s doing?
Basically yes, according to a recent Associated Press article, “New Year’s Resolutions? Brain Can Sabotage Success.” It quotes experts telling us that resolutions are hard to keep because “We all as creatures are hard-wired that way, to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that’s delayed.”
In other words, we prefer the immediate taste of vanilla fudge sundae over the eventual weight loss that would come as a result of not eating any sundaes, although we “resolve” to lose weight every year.
And this preference is a biological one, hard-wired into us through the brain’s pleasure pathway: “Just how that bit of happiness turns into a habit involves a pleasure-sensing chemical named dopamine. It conditions the brain to want that reward again and again ― reinforcing the connection each time ― especially when it gets the right cue from your environment.”
So, let me get this straight. I am biologically hard-wired to choose the immediate pleasure (that is bad for me) in the short run over long-term behavior (that is good for me). And if I want to exercise willpower to overcome this self-destructive, biological preference, I am doomed since the part of the brain that generates willpower is far too weak to overcome the pleasure pathway that drives my choices.
Which means that I am doomed either way and that I should give up even trying to keep my New Year’s resolutions. Basically, we are all born crickets of Aesop’s fable and should stop from trying to behave like ants, right?
Not exactly. Fortunately, the brain does have a wonderfully amazing property called neuroplasticity that allows it to learn new behaviors throughout one’s lifespan. Learning new behaviors in brain-speak means that the brain can create new neural pathways that drive alternate behaviors.
Usually, public discussion about neuroplasticity centers on learning a new language, taking up musical instruments, or developing new solutions to old problems. However, neuroplasticity is not just for new skills.
It can also be harnessed to help us keep our New Year’s resolutions because it allows us to train our brain muscles to become stronger. We can literally train the weak, will-power part of the brain to be strong enough to drive changes in the overpowering, pleasure-pathway part of the brain.
And it all begins with small steps to strengthen your willpower. According to Mark Muraven, an associate professor of psychology at SUNY Albany, “By doing small things that take a certain amount of self-control, you can build up your ‘muscle’ for tackling larger changes.”
Small steps can mean anything that requires you to suppress a normal, habitual impulse, “such as cutting back on swearing or using your non-dominant hand for routine tasks.”
So, keeping a New Year’s resolution is all about your brain. But fortunately, it’s not only about your brain. It’s also about training your brain to build up the capability to implement changes in how you behave.
Which brings me to my one and only New Year’s resolution for 2011: train my brain. At least they rhyme.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook.com/jasonlim2000.