Willpower, free will, and New Year’s resolutions

Henry Ford Quote from schlueter7
(in Flickr CC, April 20011)

I’m not a great pronouncer of New Year’s resolutions, but it’s impossible for me not to see Jan. 1 as a date for turning over several new, healthier leaves. I usually decide to use this date like a starting gun signalling the beginning of a marathon

to try to lose weight, walk every day, stop procrastinating, and clean up a host of unfinished tasks. Invariably, I end up finding that just thinking about these things makes me too tired to follow through when the time comes. In past I put this down to poor self-control. I gave up after a couple of weeks, but vowed to try again in the spring.

This year I’ve discovered some good news about my failure to persevere: it’s not me!!! Well it is, but it’s not due to some character deficiency. It’s the way my brain is hardwired. There’s neuroscience research to explain my repeated failures in the willpower department.  Apparently, the very act of trying to stick to my resolutions sets up the conditions for failure.

Pie Extravagnaza from robstephaustralia (in Flickr CC Attribution 2009)

First, it seems that exerting willpower sucks up a lot of glucose.

From Dr. Kelly McGonigal at Stanford (2012)

“The mind-body response of exerting willpower literally fatigues us (Tice et al. 2007). … Trying to control one’s thoughts decreases muscle endurance (Bray et al. 2008).

… Simple acts of self-control both require and lower blood glucose levels.” If asked to perform 2 successive tasks requiring self control, participants performed significantly worse on the second one unless “given a sugary drink between tasks (replenishing their blood glucose levels).”

So it seems that if I even think about making myself get up and go for a walk, I’ll need a glucose-restoring sugary snack to help me better resist the next urge to eat something that is not in my healthy meal plan. Arghhhh!!!! All good advice to the contrary, if any of the tips and tricks to help me stick to my resolutions involve exerting self-control, scientifically I’m  doomed.

Apple Cider Donuts from manda_wong (in Flickr CC Attribution Oct. 2010)

Jonah Lehrer (The Science Behind Failed Resolutions, 2009) cites an interesting study which suggests that part of the problem is that trying to break too many bad habits at once places too great a burden on my pre-frontal cortex (brain region responsible for willpower). The result is “cognitive overload“:

“In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

… The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. … This research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn’t built for [this kind of] success.”

Lehrer cites another study (Baumeister 2007) which also relates the limited attention span of the prefrontal cortex and the resulting lack of self-discipline to glucose deficiency. The best way to keep my willpower in peak condition is to feed it real sugar. Interestingly, the brain can tell the difference between the real stuff and diet substitutes which are of no use whatsoever.

The final bit of research I have to offer is in the form of this fascinating video from Marcus Du Sautoy, Prof. of Mathematics at the University of Oxford (see article).


So if (1) my brain is making the decision to blow my resolutions 7 seconds before I consciously make the choice, and (2) it’s also driving me to consume sugary snacks to replenish the glucose I expend when exerting any sort of self-control, I guess the whole process is doomed from the outset and I’d be better off trying to figure out how to stop thinking of New Year’s as a time of self-renewal.

Is there no hope? Read the next instalment to see what I discover.

2 sleeps ’til Christmas

Merry Christmas

I don’t want to be a “Debbie Downer” at this time of year, but a search of ‘neuroscience + Christmas’ which I expected would direct me to research into why we enjoy feelings of ‘comfort and joy’ or ‘peace and goodwill’ especially at this time of year, instead returned these 4 studies:

  • Sadness, in this case induced by watching a heart-wrenching video, can make us desperate to buy! buy! buy!

~from The Neuroscience of Christmas Shoes

“The authors (2008 Psychological Science study) reason the sad clip caused participants to devalue both their sense of self and current possessions, making them willing to pay more for new material possessions. Presumably, this could re-enhance their sense of self.”

  • Deep loneliness can lead to chronic Grinch syndrome.

~from Neuroscience Explains Why the Grinch Stole Christmas

“People with an acute sense of social isolation appear to have a reduced response to things that make most people happy, and a heightened response to human conflict. … The Grinch is easier to understand given these findings. … Watching [the citizens of Whoville} surround themselves with happy things like ornaments and gifts and food ticks him off, so he determines to inject some strife into the festivities and watch the fallout.”

  • Companies are exploiting neuroscience research into obsession and games to induce us to join, befriend, and play.

~from Exploiting the neuroscience of Internet Addition

“Companies now openly discuss compulsion loops. The goal is to [get us to] gather thousands of friends on Facebook [or] followers on Twitter. In the past, society has been able to put physical barriers in place to make it more difficult to satisfy unhealthy obsessions. Today smartphones and portable electronic devices travel with us in our pockets.”

  • Especially good news for those of us who live in the northern latitudes, our ‘little grey cells’ in for a sort of ‘perfect storm’ of neuro-chemical havoc at this time of year.

~ from What does Christmas do to your brain?

External conditions and behavioural choices at this time of year can lead to changes in brain/body chemistry including: SADD, chronic inflammation, “brain hyperexcitability,” ” low-alpha state resulting in attention-span issues and an inability to concentrate when you return to work,” stress-induced cortisol overload which impairs your memory and ability to multi-task.

Aren’t any brain scientists out there interested happiness, joy, fulfillment, or contentment? If you know of any research into why Christmas is such a wonderful time of year, please send it my way.

Meanwhile, my Christmas wish for you is to take some time to have fun and (even better) to enjoy a good Santa-like laugh that makes you shake all over like a bowl full of jelly. According to Neuroscience for Kids, laughter has been shown to cause positive changes in the autonomic nervous system, to provide a boost to the immune system, and to reduce levels of stress hormones and neurotransmitters including: cortisol, growth hormone, and catecholamines (dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine). I guess Reader’s Digest did have it right: laugher is the best medicine.