By Kelly Jamieson Thomas, PhD
Each year, most of us resolves to “X”… go to the gym more often, eat a more balanced diet, save more money, watch our children’s sporting events, be early to work… While each of these resolutions is rooted in good intention, they’re broad in scope. Usually, ambiguous and drastic changes in our life are unsustainable. Research from the University of Scranton suggests that approximately 45% of Americans will set New Year’s resolutions. Of these, only 8% of us will successfully stick to our resolution.
Why is it so difficult to form new habits, thereby keeping our resolutions?
Our brains act as barriers that need to be redesigned through unrelenting, diligent willpower and repetition. Recently, scientists have gained some insight into how the brain forms new habits and breaks bad habits by defining our “habit circuits”. It is possible to control both our good and bad habits by conditioning our brain, but it’s not nearly as easy as writing down a New Year’s resolution and hoping for the best results.
How do habits form?
First, we explore new behavior through communication between the prefrontal cortex, striatum and midbrain. Dopamine, which aids learning and assigning value to goals, and positive-feedback loops, which help us figure out what works, are essential for this process. As new habits form through mindful decisions, our brain monitors our actions and determines whether or not the new habit is a keeper. Favorable habits are reinforced and the behavior begins to shift from deliberate to habitual. This process, called reinforcement-related learning, was originally explained through studies by Wolfram Schultz and Ranulfo Romo at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
Second, we form habits through repetition, which activates a feedback loop between the sensorimotor cortex and striatum. Scientists at MIT found that brain activity in the motor-control area of the striatum were initially active for the entirety of a new behavior. As the behavior became more habitual, this brain activity was only high at the beginning and end of the behavior. Through consistent repetition, the striatum effectively sets up chunks of behavior, which rely on dopamine from the midbrain. Our new habit is now a single unit of brain activity. These units are what enable us to eat those extra pieces of candy without even “thinking” about it—even when we aren’t hungry.
Lastly, the infralimbic region of the neocortex works with the striatum to imprint our new habit, making it semi-permanent. Dopamine aids the infralimbic cortex in controlling our new habit. Researchers found the pattern of brain activity in this region of the brain to form a unit like structure only after the behavior had become habitual, as though the infralimbic cortex changed in response to the striatum deciding the behavior was a keeper. Interestingly, if the infralimbic cortex was inhibited, the new habit disappeared.
How can we stick to our New Year’s resolutions?
Forming new habits, and breaking old ones, is much more complicated than intending to be more healthy, to save more money, or to be more active. We must continuously cue ourselves to behave a specific way until our resolution becomes one unit of brain activity. Then, we form a new habit, which will still need diligent monitoring to remain a habit and not be lost. But, these insights into habit-formation give us hope that we can recondition our brains.
Be specific in your New Year’s resolutions. For example, instead of intending to run more, commit to running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at a set time. Set your alarm, lay out your running gear the night before, and make an exhilarating playlist that fires you up to run. This will prompt you, positively reinforce you, and help you repeat your new activity over and over. Eventually, you will begin to awaken as your alarm is about to ring, automatically lay out your gear, and seek out new songs for inspiration.
Set yourself up for success and stay committed to your resolution. Happy New Year!