If I break what I resolve, blame it on my brain


We have entered the year 2011… some of us in a l’il tipsy state after an overdose of alcohol on New Year’s Eve, some with an air of drowsiness after a late night of talks and babbles with friends and some with a fresh start coupled with best efforts to begin their New Year on a good note. No matter how each one of us decide to embrace the first day of the year but often the first thought of the year consciously or sub-consciously that occurs to all of us is – “I resolve to achieve XYZ in this Year” … a list of New Year resolutions soon occupy our mental space or get jotted on a blank page. Some vow to quit smoking, while some commit to lose weight and some decide to finally kick out their laziness… (Well, I’m barring a few who resolve to stay exactly the way they are ūüėČ )

Alas, just a few days pass by and we find it hard to keep all that we resolved for the New Year. The cigarette seems more tempting than ever before, the cake wins over the salad and lethargy sets in, like forever. As time passes by, the¬†New Year’s resolutions become no more than a distant memory and by the end of the year, we end up cursing ourselves for not sticking to what we resolved.

But here’s the thing – more than ourselves, it’s our brain that’s to be blamed. It makes us lose both the will and the power in¬†all our attempts at willpower and makes temptation win.

Now to explain – We are creatures of habit, good or bad. We have been wired to get attracted to immediate rewards even if they are smaller than the rewards that we can achieve after a waiting period. Saying ‘no’ to immediate rewards is a test for our willpower, which most of us often fail.

As per the scientific study that investigated the mechanisms of addiction, the brain area – prefrontal cortex (located just behind the forehead)¬†is¬†largely responsible for willpower. While this bit of tissue has greatly expanded during human evolution, it probably hasn’t expanded enough. That’s because the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about besides New Year’s resolutions like keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Now in addition to that, asking it to lose weight or quit smoking, etc. is often asking it to do one thing too many.

Often most of us end up doing something even if it’s not the right thing for us, say gobbling up a cake when we have promised to be on a strict diet. The 3-minute sinful indulgence feels more rewarding than a slimmer figure which seems too far-fetched in that particular moment. Now, even when we promise ourselves,¬†yet again¬†to stick to our diet, the indulgence has all possibilities to recur in the future. That’s because a pleasure-sensing chemical named dopamine conditions the brain to want that reward again and again – reinforcing the connection each time – especially when it gets the right cue from our environment.The diagram below explains it further:

Now, it hasn’t been a new discovery for us that more often temptation wins over willpower, except of course most of us weren’t aware of the scientific mechanism behind it. But what makes this study useful is how we can apply it for our betterment. The trick is to train our minds for acquiring rewards after a waiting period. The task is definitely not an easy one and yes, even scientists who recognize the scientific mechanism can fall prey¬†but such a habit can at most be successfully inculcated in our kids. They can be trained to resist an impulse or build their willpower against superfluous immediate rewards. This conditioning can help them ingrain a better lifestyle and make them better achievers in future. A long-known Marshmallow¬†study by¬†Walter Mischel¬†helps us understand that. In the study, a group of four-year olds were made to sit in an isolated room and given a marshmallow. They were told that they could either eat the marshmallow right away or wait for 20 minutes after which they would get two marshmallows. Most kids ate the marshmallow soon after they were left alone with it while few others waited for 20 mins to get one more. The kids who ate the marshmallow immediately were considered to be oriented towards the present while the other few were considered to be oriented towards the future. When these children were interviewed again when they were 18 years old, there was amazing difference between children who could delay gratification and those who couldn’t resist the immediate temptation. The former scored better in their SAT scores, coped better under pressure and were self-reliant and confident while the latter over-reacted to frustration, were indecisive and prone to jealousy. This experiment has then been¬†practiced¬†by a number of scientists, researchers and psychologists and am sharing below the one carried out by Dr David Walsh to give you a glimpse of how it was conducted:

As all experimental studies cannot promise the same verifiable results all times in different situations, so can’t this one in particular. However, it doesn’t harm in being aware and conscious that the two marshmallows promised after a little waiting period are more rewarding than the immediate one. It’s about¬†trusting our own power that we will get two marshmallows, if we follow a certain path. So, whenever temptation tries to tease you, do think for a moment – ‘What’s my second marshmallow: more money?,… better health?,… better relationship?,… a house?’ If you choose to resist the first marshmallow, you are sure to get any of these second marshmallows. So, follow your chosen path and wish you all a very Happy New Year that wins you lots of marshmallows ūüôā