Your Brain Might Be Secretly Thwarting Your New Year's Resolutions
The human brain is wired to pay attention to previously pleasing things — a finding that could help explain why it’s hard to break bad habits or stick to New Year’s resolutions.
In the February 2016 issue of Current Biology, Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists demonstrate for the first time that when people see something associated with a past reward, their brains flush with dopamine — even if they aren’t expecting a reward and even if they don’t realize they’re paying it any attention. The results suggest we don’t have as much self-control as we might think.
A release from the university quotes “We don’t have complete control over what we pay attention to,” said senior author Susan M. Courtney, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, as saying, “We don’t realize our past experience biases our attention to certain things.”
This could be why it’s so hard for people to break the cycle of addiction and why dieters keep thinking about fattening food when they’re trying to eat better.
“I could choose healthy food or unhealthy food, but my attention keeps being drawn to fettuccini Alfredo,” Courtney said. “What we tend to look at, think about and pay attention to is whatever we’ve done in the past that was rewarded.”
For their study, the researchers asked 20 participants to find red and green objects on a computer screen filled with different colored objects. Participants got $1.50 for finding red objects and 25 cents for finding green ones. The next day, while brain scans (positron emission tomography, or PET scans) were conducted, researchers asked participants to find certain shapes on the screen. Color no longer mattered and there was no reward involved. But when a red object appeared, participants automatically focused on it and a particular part of their brain involved in attention filled with dopamine, a brain chemical proven to be released when we receive rewards.
People in the study found the shapes they were looking for; they were just slower doing it. The previously rewarded “red” distracted them.
“What’s surprising here is people are not getting rewarded and not expecting a reward,” Courtney said. “There’s something about past reward association that’s still causing a dopamine release. That stimulus has become incorporated into the reward system.”
Some of the test subjects were more distracted by the previously rewarded red than others. Those who were most distracted had the most elevated dopamine levels while those who were better able to focus on the task at hand appeared to have suppressed any release of dopamine.
Generally speaking, distractions tend to be bigger for people prone to addiction and smaller for people who are successful abstainers and people who are depressed and not caring about rewards, Courtney said.
The findings suggest there could be a way to pharmaceutically curb these neurochemical distractions — a potential benefit for addicts, dieters and those with other problem behaviors.