Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work; Scientists say 'Blame Your Brain'

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Feb 12, 2016 11:00 AM EST

New research coming from neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University point out that humans are naturally wired to pay attention to things that previously pleased them, which may be the reason why it's so hard to stay committed to New Year's resolutions, Eurekalert reports.

The study, which was published in "Current Biology," shows how the brain gets flushed with dopamine when people see something associated with a past reward. This actually happens even if the person is not expecting a reward and even if they do not realize they are paying attention to any of it, leading researchers to believe that people don't have as much self-control as they think they do.

Medical Daily reports that for the study, researchers asked 20 participants to complete a task on a computer, in which they were to find red and green objects on the screen, which was filled with many different colors. Identifying a red object rewarded them with $1.50, while finding a green object rewarded them with $0.25.

The following day, researchers scanned the brains of the participants through positron emission tomography or PET scans as they completed another task of finding specific shapes on the screen.

Although the new task did not involve any sort of reward, researchers discovered that when participants saw red objects, the brain temporarily filled with dopamine in regions linked to attention. The neurotransmitter dopamine is linked to the brain's reward and pleasure systems, and is also responsible for taking action to get rewards. It's also linked to addiction, because those people who have addictions are said to have lower levels of dopamine.

It turns out that the red objects made it more distracting for participants to complete the task because of the previously associated reward. In fact, researchers found that those who were most distracted by the red objects had the highest levels of dopamine in their brain. Those who were better focused on the task had seemingly suppressed dopamine. In addition, researchers also said that distractions are most likely bigger for those who are prone to addiction, and smaller for those who are successful at abstaining, as well as those people who are depressed and do not care fr any rewards.

According to WebMD, study results are of great use to those who are seeking a way to pharmaceutically curb the neurochemical distractions, and also pave way for better treatment for addicts, dieters, or other behavioral problems.

"We don't have complete control over what we pay attention to. We don't realize our past experience biases our attention to certain things," study senior author Susan M. Courtney, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, explained. "I could choose healthy food or unhealthy food, but my attention keeps being drawn to fettuccini Alfredo. What we tend to look at, think about and pay attention to is whatever we've done in the past that was rewarded."

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