Why your brain sabotages your New Year’s resolutions (and how to fight back)

A young girl takes part in a cake eating contest during the Fourth of July festivities at the Baumholder U.S. military base on July 4, 2012 in Baumholder, Germany. Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

You screwed your New Year’s resolution to give up junk food, but don’t be too hard on yourself.

Caving in isn’t completely your fault – your brain is hardwired to pay attention to the things that make you happy, according to a new U.S. study.

Our past experiences with our vices tap into the reward centre of our brains, where feel-good chemicals flood the body and where addiction sets its roots. If you turned to doughnuts or pizza for comfort, convincing your brain to forget those happy memories is tricky.

“We don’t have complete control over what we pay attention to, said lead author Dr. Susan Courtney, a researcher specializing in cognitive control. “We don’t realize our past experience biases our attention to certain things.”

The Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist says that when we’re faced with our former vice we’re trying to give up, just seeing the object floods our brains with dopamine, a happy, feel-good chemical, leaving us a bit helpless to our desires.

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Courtney says that’s why it’s so hard for us to kick our bad habits and break the cycle of addiction.

“I could choose healthy food or unhealthy food but my attention keeps being drawn to fettuccini Alfredo. What we tend to look at, think about and pay attention to is whatever we’ve done in the past that was rewarded,” Courtney explained.

Courtney told Global News there’s three reasons why we pay attention to things:

  • They’re sparkly, loud, bright or unexpected
  • They’re tied to our goals and tasks at hand, say, if we’re driving and following directions
  • They’re objects that activate our reward centre, making us gravitate towards them

For her study, Courtney and her team recruited 20 volunteers. The group sat in front of computer screens and had to look for red and green objects – they’d win $1.50 for finding red objects and 25 cents for green ones. The next day, the group had to focus on shapes and not colours. There were no prizes involved.

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Anytime they saw red objects, brain scans showed their brains filled with dopamine – a reminder of the cash they won the day before from identifying the objects.

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It was distracting. The study participants completed their new tasks but they were slower in doing them.

“There’s something about past reward association that’s still causing a dopamine release. That stimulus has become incorporated into the reward system,” Courtney explained.

The researchers even noted a marked difference in the group: some people were more distracted by the red objects than their peers who seemed to have stronger willpower and focus.

With that detail in mind, Courtney suggests there may be a way to tame your response to the things you’re trying to give up.

For starters, exercise self-control, a social construct that infiltrates every aspect of our lives. It keeps us cool when we’re angry, it makes us commit to quality time with the treadmill or it leaves us with window shopping without swiping our credit cards.

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Courtney suggests it’s like a muscle. The more you abstain from cookies and cake, the easier it’ll be to maintain your momentum.

Self-control and will power come from the prefrontal cortex of our brain – they’re only active when we’re consciously putting in effort. Self-control is also slow to develop and quick to lose – it isn’t fully functional until you’re about 20 and declines in function in your 40s.

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In other cases, you can kick an old habit by replacing it with a new one. If you can’t stop eating pasta, you need to replace it with a healthier comfort food until you’ve built the feel-good association with your new dish.

“You’re changing bad habits by developing new good habits…the challenge is using your willpower to explore new options until you find a good replacement,” Courtney told Global News.

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She said her next steps are to dissect how we grow an addiction to objects and how we wean ourselves off.

Courtney’s full findings were published Thursday afternoon in the journal, Current Biology. Read the full findings here.

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