The Science of a New Year’s Resolution

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It’s that time again – the infamous New Year’s Resolution. Whether it be to lose weight, pay off debts, be nicer to our mother-in-law, most of us have set goals for the coming year. Yet research shows that about 88% of all resolutions end in failure. Recent neuroscience studies explain why we tend to fail at our well-meaning intentions.

The area of the brain responsible for willpower, called the prefrontal cortex, has a slew of other things to concern itself with besides New Year’s resolutions. Among other things, it is in charge of focus, solving abstract problems, and short term memory. Asking it to lose weight at the same time as asking it to quit smoking, is asking too much. This makes resisting that piece of chocolate cake or cigarette almost impossible.

“In a 2002 experiment at the University at Albany, a group of male subjects was asked to not think about a white elephant for five minutes while writing down their thoughts. That turns out to be a rather difficult mental challenge, akin to staying focused on a tedious project at work. (A control group was given a few simple arithmetic problems to solve.) Subjects were then asked to take a beer taste test and were warned that their next task involved driving a car. Sure enough, people in the white elephant group drank significantly more beer than people in the control group, which suggests that they had a harder time not indulging in alcohol”

Researchers suggest a potential remedy by “bulking up” our mental muscles. Just like other muscles in the body, our willpower can be strengthened by concentrating, not on many, but one thing at a time making it easier to succeed at our yearly quests for self-improvement. “And just as our muscles get tired after a tough workout, and require a rest to recuperate, so does the poor prefrontal cortex need some time off. “(Wall Street Journal)