Your Brain Can’t Handle New Year’s Resolutions

Your Brain Can’t Handle New Year’s Resolutions





The neuroscience is indeed interesting; the brain cells that operate willpower are located in the Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC), which is the area right behind your forehead. This area of the brain is also responsible for staying focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract tasks. When you set a New Year’s resolution, it is this PFC area that goes into overdrive, as an enormous amount of willpower is required. It is this surge in activity at that your brain simply can’t handle. Imagine your Pre Frontal Cortex as a simple muscle; it needs to be trained, developed and worked on. If you decide to train this ‘muscle’ at the start of the New Year, with a resolution to say quit smoking, add to it start going to the gym and then lose lots of weight, that’s the equivalent of doing an world record squat lift without any previous training. It’s no surprise that your brain can’t do the heavy lifting.

Look into my eyes and just do it. So you can blame your overloaded brain for it’s lack of success on seeing through you resolutions. There is a secondary problem about trying to tackle a goal because someone told you to (or because you simply think you should). It seems that taking on a goal because of outside pressure just makes people want to rebel. There’s an important distinction to be drawn between goals that we feel that we should accomplish and those we believe we truly want to accomplish. Rarely do we attain goals unless we truly embrace the goal. Make sure you’re only picking goals because you’re ready and eager to fulfill them.

So what strategies might work in helping you achieve your NYr? The latest research into the psychology and the neuroscience of goal setting and willpower offer some surprising non-cliché tips for making your resolutions work for you.

1. Pick Only One Resolution. Start with the biggest goal you have for 2015 and let’s focus on that one. Exclude all the sub goals and mini resolutions. In an experiment conducted at Stanford, one group of students was given a two digit number to memorise while the other group was given a seven digit number. Afterwards, they were asked to walk down a hallway while holding that number in memory and presented with the option to eat a slice of cake or fruit salad at the end. It turns out that the seven digit memorisers were nearly twice as likely to choose cake over the fruit salad. It was as though memorising the extra numbers took up ‘good decision making’ space in their brain. Pick one key goals to focus on and you’ll be much more likely to follow through. Then, let go of everything else, otherwise you’ll be picking the chocolate cake for every situation, instead of the choice that you set out to make.

1. Start on Monday. I know that New Year is on a Thursday this year, but think about the 5th as your key day. The turn of another year tricks us into seeing our big-picture selves, our slates wiped clean. Take advantage of it. People commit to their goals more fiercely after a major benchmark like New Year’s Day. If you are an I-don’t-believe-in-resolutions person who nonetheless wants to break a bad habit, wait for a Monday. It’s the most popular day of the week for starting diets and stopping smoking, studies show.

2. Focus on the carrot, not the stick. A new powerful study from the University of Chicago outlines how clearly positive feedback on any of your new habits will increase the likelihood of your success with your new habits and resolutions. Hand in hand with this goes the fact that rewarding yourself for advances with your habits with things that make you feel great way to increase your success rate.

3. Pick a Round Number. George Wu, Professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and his colleagues recently looked at marathon runners at the end of their races. A huge number of people finished in times that clustered around ’round’ numbers, the researchers discovered e.g. a 4-hour marathon. Marathon runners feel a lot worse just missing these really arbitrary reference points: the round numbers. So when people are really, really close to just missing their round-number goal, they’re much more likely to speed up at the painful end to beat it. People who are projected to beat it comfortably, however, actually slow down.

4. Chunk it up. My hero, the late Professor George Miller came up with a theory about short term memory ( 7 +/- 2 ) that helped people learn and recall more efficiently. Use the same ‘chunking up’process for your NYR. You know how good it feels to tick off an item from your to-do list. Put that to work by hacking a massive goal (reading 24 books a year, say) into parts (two per month).

One very comforting and important last fact is that having strong willpower is not something we’re born with, as opposed to popular opinion. So just like your muscles have to be trained in order to grow stronger, so does the Pre Frontal Cortex in your brain. The key is to make sure not to start lifting too heavy, as then we’re bound to drop everything on the floor with our New Year’s Resolutions.

One goal, 365 days, Be Amazing Every Day.

Happy New Year.

Predicting The Future and Being Wrong

Predicting The Future and Being Wrong

20:20 Vision, pah! We live in strange social and economic times, where we think we know what is going on yet actually we don’t. People often say, ‘let the facts speak for themselves’. They forget that the speech of facts is real only if it is heard and understood. It is thought to be an easy matter to distinguish between fact and theory, between perception and interpretation. Despite empirical evidence, thick data and big data it is extremely difficult to know what may be.

We know what we are, but not what we may be. – William Shakespeare

Can we trust the evidence of our own eyes? Well I went to the Optician on Friday afternoon and had a revelation. The Optician was brilliant, kind, patient, intelligent and opened my eyes (literally with some nasty yellow droplets) to some new thought processes and amazing new lens (my thanks to Archana* for the inspiration and ability to write this). Apparently now I have 20:15 vision (which is better than 20:20 vision).

Are you clear on what you see? Apart from a trip to see Archana, I suspect you believe what you see to be real. You may doubt everything else, but you have no doubts about what you see right now. Sometimes if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. But we’re often so eager to accept that we’re right while others must be wrong that it’s essential for anyone interested in what’s true rather than what they prefer to take the view that the more complicated the situation, the more likely we are to have missed something.

In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates asks Theaetetus, a budding mathematician, “What is knowledge?” That is an enormously difficult question. Following Socrates’ example, what does it mean when a child eagerly lifts his hand in the classroom and repeats persuasively to the teacher, I know? Or what is meant in the statement of a financial columnist who writes that the Dow Jones standard of the market will plunge by 100, if inflation is not controlled. In what sense does he mean, I know this will be the case?

The overarching question, how do we know what we know? is vital to being a critical thinker, citizen, and scientist. It is a particularly important ‘lens’ to use today when we are awash in information from a virtually unlimited variety of sources. Scientists rely on evidence (data from their own and others’ observations and investigations) to construct explanations and answer their questions. A good scientist respects evidence and is willing to change his or her ideas, predictions, theories, and explanations if new information is inconsistent or contradictory.

But, we are all victims of powerful cognitive biases, which prevent us from acknowledging that we might be wrong (see also the God of Gaps). Other psychological problems with what you think might be true include:

  • The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight: the belief that though our perceptions of others are accurate and insightful, their perceptions of us are shallow and illogical.
  • The Backfire Effect: the fact that when confronted with evidence contrary to our beliefs we will rationalise our mistakes even more strongly
  • Sunk Cost Fallacy: the irrational response to having wasted time effort or money: I’ve committed this much, so I must continue or it will have been a waste.
  • The Anchoring Effectthe fact that we are incredibly suggestible and base our decisions and beliefs on what we have been told, whether or not it makes sense.
  • Confirmation bias – the fact that we seek out only that which confirms what we already believe

These biases pulls into question the notion of Truth as commonly used and pursued. But there is a further problem based on our anatomy and physiology. There are things, which we, quite literally, cannot see. My Optician tested me for what seemed like ages, on a machine where I had to follow a red dot with one eye and click how many green lights I saw when it stopped. This measured my blind spot, or scotoma, is an obscuration of the visual field. It is the place in the visual field that corresponds to the lack of light-detecting photoreceptor cells on the optic disc of the retina where the optic nerve passes through the optic disc. Since there are no cells to detect light on the optic disc, a part of the field of vision is not perceived. Your clever brain interpolates the blind spot based on surrounding detail and information from the other eye, so the blind spot is not normally perceived.

I ride a motorbike and I have often wondered why drivers pull out from side roads into the path of bikers. They cannot want to cause them harm. When they look at a busy scene, whether it’s a static landscape or a hectic rush of traffic, their brain cuts details from the surrounding images and pastes in what it thinks should be there. For the most part our brains get it right, but then occasionally they paste in a bit of clear road when what’s actually there is me on a motorbike.

In 1960, George Sperling, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, did something amazing. You can try the experiment yourself online. He used an experiment to demonstrate that our brains are creating a virtual image of the world (and storing it) that indicates we see more than we remember. In the test, you see a three-by-three grid of nine letters flash up for a split second. What letters were they? You will only be able to report a few of them. Now suppose the experimenter tells you that if you hear a high-pitched noise you should focus on the first row, and if you hear a low-pitched noise you should focus on the last row. This time, not surprisingly, you will accurately report all three letters in the cued row, though you can’t report the letters in the other rows. Now you only hear the noise after the grid has disappeared. You will still be very good at remembering the letters in the cued row. But think about it: you didn’t know beforehand which row you should focus on. So you must have actually seen all the letters in all the rows, even though you could only access and report a few of them at a time. It seems as if we do see more than we can say.

Or do we? Here’s another possibility. We know that people can extract some information from images they can’t actually see—in subliminal perception, for example. Perhaps you processed the letters unconsciously, but you didn’t actually see them until you heard the cue. Or perhaps you just saw blurred fragments of the letters. According to views of modern philosophers we know things in a variety of ways. Whether they are ‘true’ or ‘accurate’ is another argument. These are the main ways of acquiring that knowledge:

Testimony or the past, transmitted culture 
  • Empiricism (objects before us experienced 
through the senses)
Reason, logical truths, deductions, 
  • Phenomenology essences, general or 
universal ideas
Self-revelation human persons and god as person
  • Intuition love, friendship, hunch, feeling
  • Apprenticeship skills, music, connoisseurship

It appears that one way may have more limitations than another. The way of the senses has all kinds of uses whereas self-revelation is quite restricted. Intuition may be the most limited way. Philosophers sometimes argue that our conscious experience can’t be doubted because it feels so immediate and certain. But scientists tell us that feeling is an illusion, too. Are we good at being wrong?Katherine Schultz says that our obsession with being right is “a problem for each of us as individuals, in our personal and professional lives, and… a problem for all of us collectively as a culture.”

Go get your eyes tested*.

Be Amazing Every Day

*Vision Optique London, 142 Hammersmith Road, London W6