What fascinates and troubles me about the brain is what it wants and desires. I’m always acutely aware of the limits of my own free will: eat less, exercise more, study more, be more social, dare to do this, stop doing that; it seems like a never-ending struggle! I know I’m not the only one frustrated by this experience, especially now, with new year’s resolutions failing left and right. Why is this happening?! What can you do about it?
In the middle of your brain you have half a million neurons that release dopamine into your frontal lobes. These neurons form the core of your brain’s reward system, which generate motivation. Rewards like food, drink, play, sex and addictive drugs, raise dopamine concentrations in your brain just like earned rewards such as money. Unexpected rewards are particularly effective – dopamine builds up in anticipation of uncertain rewards, making everyone at the bus stop stare at the bend where the bus will appear. Low dopamine concentrations on the other hand make you distracted and disinterested.
Different behaviours are produced by different groups of neurons in the frontal lobes. These neuronal groups run on dopamine, and the behaviour you feel most motivated to perform at any given moment is that of the group that generates the most dopamine. Eating sweets is easy: with a few simple muscle movements, your dopamine neurons are activated. Studying for a distant exam is hard: it requires your full attention and activates your dopamine neurons only indirectly, through your prefrontal cortex, which simultaneously has to inhibit more immediate urges like surfing the web, going out or watching a film.
New year’s resolutions fail because we make them considering only the wonderful goal, which by itself produces plenty of dopamine, especially when it’s new and feels like a fresh start. We don’t realize how hard it will be for our prefrontal cortices to provide the new neuronal groups with enough dopamine to make us run regularly, or read in the library, or go to the gym, or in any way compete with the entrenched neuronal groups that have us sit on the couch, or over- eat, or smoke. On a normal day, the further away a goal is, the less attractive it seems, because the further away a reward is, the less dopamine it generates. For example going for a run will give me a shot of dopamine but its such an unlikely occurrence that sitting on the sofa eating a large bar of chocolate will give me a bigger surge, at least in the short term.
So the trick to keeping new year’s resolutions: be nice to your prefrontal cortex. Quitting smoking is knowing that the urge is strong because dopamine neurons are covered in nicotine receptors, but the brain will change in a few months because it can reorganize itself through plasticity – the ability for the brain to reorganise and reassign neurones for a new skill – and the urge to smoke goes away. Understand your brain, the possibilities are endless; you might even keep your resolutions.