You know the joke: February 1st rolls around and people ask how your New Year’s Resolution is going. Scanning your memory banks you vaguely recall what seemed so relevant and essential just a month ago. You chuckle along: ”Oh yeah, that…”
Not that all resolutions are broken so easily. Some really do stick. We know how important mental fortitude and emotional discipline is in making our pledge work. As someone who has been exercising and teaching in gyms for over two decades, I’m accustomed to observing our yearly cycles: packed Januarys; an inevitable slide until April, when visions of summer kick in; crowded studios until late June; a resurgence in September that slowly fades until January rolls around again. Resolve, repeat.
Fitness and nutrition goals are two of the most common resolutions, though others persist: quitting smoking or drinking, being better parents, practicing more meditation, cutting down on road rage. While goals may be vastly different, they are all dependent upon one thing: the human brain. The term we use in the New Year might be resolution, but the concept we’re really discussing is change.
ADDICTED TO INSTANT GRATIFICATION
Our brains are intriguing. While neuroplasticity—the ability to rewire neural patterns and shift the way you think—is possible, we are often resistant to change. It’s uncomfortable and uncertain. At first it doesn’t feel right. We’ve grown too accustomed to routine, fearful of the unknown.
Yet at the same time we crave change. Novelty bias is rampant in our world. That’s the dopamine release we receive when our phone dings. We put aside whatever to reply, even at inopportune and dangerous times, like when we’re driving. (Four hundred thousand people are involved in accidents every year thanks to distracted driving.) How can our brain be so resistant to change while seeking it constantly?
The answer lies in chemistry. The neurotransmitter dopamine is linked to our reward system. When our phone beeps, we jump in excitement—something to disrupt the monotony of whatever we’re doing. This switching of tasks comes at a cost: our brain is rewarded for losing focus in its perpetual quest for immediate gratification.
A cascade of negative effects ensues. Any information learned while multitasking enters an area of our brain called the striatum. Unfortunately we want it to head over to our hippocampus, where the information has an opportunity to become a long-term memory. The results are clear: when we’re continually desiring stimulation, we become impulsive and angry. To compensate, our brain requires more glucose to meet the demands of inattentiveness. The link between stress and overeating (or eating fatty, sugary foods) is well documented.
It takes less energy to focus on one task than to jump around. That’s why so many of us feel exhausted by evening. Instead of drifting off into peaceful sleep, our eyes graze our phone screens until the lights go out (and sometimes after). This too has been shown to disrupt our sleep cycles in terrible ways. We enter a vicious cycle of caffeine and sleeping medications that ensure we never get a good night’s sleep, spending our days unable to remember valuable information as we move from task to task to task.
Is it any wonder that our resolutions are forgotten by February?
TRAINED TO DISTRACTION
This is no rant against technology. It’s all how we use it. As neuroscientist Dan Levitin writes in “The Organized Mind,” “It is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centers in the prefrontal cortex. Make no mistake: E-mail, Facebook, and Twitter checking constitute a neural addiction.”
When we desire to make real, sustained change, we must delay instant gratification for the long haul. Journalist Nicolas Carr battled such an addiction when realizing that he, an avid reader, could no longer finish an entire book. He knew the Internet was chemically altering his brain. He wrote “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” after years of research into exactly how.
He too discovered that the more time we spend surfing the Internet and on social media, the more we train our brains to be distracted. While we think we’re learning greatly thanks to the infinite treasures of information stored on the Web, this neurological outsourcing not only destroys our own process of memory consolidation, it increases our anxiety and reduces our ability to strengthen emotions like compassion and empathy.
Our brains are a contradiction: the region needed for sustained focus—and to enter Flow states, which those of us who work out regularly understand—is the prefrontal cortex. Yet that’s the same area implicated in novelty bias. Which pathways we develop and strengthen is the result of where we place our attention. If it’s always on our device, the change we’re creating is not going to be healthy.
I’m always amazed when students in my yoga and VIPR classes turn their attention from the class to their phone, an all-too-common occurrence. Exercise is one of the greatest ways to release the chemicals we want, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, serotonin, even cortisol, which helps aid in tissue repair. Stress in your body while exercising is a good thing, for it releases those chemicals into the proper pathways. Stress as the result of distraction, however, creates harmful neural pathways that will spread throughout your life.
While there are a number of ways of countering the negative consequences of such addiction, a few stand out. One is sleep. Naps, for example, have been shown to reduce the incidence of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And as mentioned above, not staring at a screen for an hour or two before bed will greatly enhance the possibilities of entering a deep, restful sleep.
Our hippocampus consolidates memories while we’re sleeping, moving our daily experiences from short-term storage into longer-term memory. That’s why dreams seem so familiar—they’re part of that process writing the larger narrative of your life piece by piece. If you never enter the deeper stages of sleep, your ability to remember will suffer. Besides immediate frustration, this does not bode well for staving off the diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s.
Another is mindfulness meditation. Regular practice has been shown to help regulate connections between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions where sustained attention takes place. One of these regions is the hippocampus. This means that not only will you remember better, you’re able to focus on what it is you’re recalling—like, say, that pledge you made to yourself on January 1st.