Keeping New Year’s Resolutions: Your Brain and Commitment

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 08, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- It’s only a week into the new year, but people are already well along in failing at new year’s resolutions. An estimated 80 percent will be abandoned by Valentine’s Day. What’s going on in the brain that makes it so hard to keep your New Year’s resolutions? We asked world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich – recipient of the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, Professor Emeritus at University of California San Francisco, and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, maker of BrainHQ online brain exercises and assessments.

Dr. Merzenich sat down on the cusp of the new year for a discussion with BrainHQ Co-founder Jeff Zimman about why it’s so hard to keep commitments we make.

“First of all, in order to control anything in your brain, you need a strong executive – a strong captain of your ship,” Dr. Merzenich observed.  This is what brain scientists call executive function – that’s the brain’s control mechanism used in planning, reasoning, and decision-making.

“The second thing is attention,” Dr. Merzenich continued. “You have to attend, and not just on the positive side. You also have to NOT attend on the negative side, as it were, because you also have these processes that are operating to distract you. The smallest thing can carry you off the beam. You think ‘this is the time when I planned to practice piano, but, wait, there’s a game on TV…’ and then, you fail.”

Other lower level brain functions also come into play in feeding information to be used by executive function, including the collection of perceptual information (coming in at varying speeds across the day) and the use of memory.

“People commonly think they can attack this in a piecemeal way – they think ‘this year, I’m going to really promise myself’ – and, that’s not enough. If the machinery is weak, and you have weakness on the distractibility or executive control side or in memory or in all that information that’s feeding executive control, then there are all these reasons you fail,” Dr. Merzenich said. “You really need to exercise all the machinery in a more holistic way, so you are better equipped to keep your promises to yourself.”

Dr. Merzenich recommends engaging in intensive, repetitive and progressively challenging activities to activate the brain’s plasticity – it's ability to change – in a positive way, that contributes to building a stronger and healthier brain. He cited the exercises in BrainHQ as a highly efficient way to do that, noting that engaging in other new types of learning challenges – outside your comfort zone – is also healthy for the brain’s machinery.

“The whole idea is to build a stronger machine in all of its operations.” Dr. Merzenich said. “If your brain is really vital, if it’s really in command, if it’s really stable and not easily carried off the mark, you’re going to keep your commitments.”



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