Step 5: Learn to Make Good Decisions
Making the ChoiceThe brain's prefrontal cortex, which sits right behind the forehead, manages executive control—the task of choosing a thought or action to meet an internal goal. Two other regions of the brain, the closely linked orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala, play a role in regulating decision-making based on the memory of feelings that resulted from past decisions. If, in the past, making a certain choice caused you to experience regret, the OFC and amygdala jump into action, reminding the brain that the decision had certain emotional consequences. READ MORE
Regions of the midbrain in which the neurotransmitter dopamine is predominant also influence decision-making. Some of the choices that trigger dopamine's release: eating sugar, taking certain drugs, or having sex. If, in the past, a choice has resulted in a flood of feel-good dopamine being released, the brain will recall and reinforce that choice as a positive one. LESS
Can You Control Yourself?READ MORE
If you are addicted to a substance, the decision to forgo that substance is nearly impossible, in some cases. But absent an addiction, our memory forges a shortcut that helps us decide what to do almost automatically, without a laborious consideration of all of the rewards and consequences. Once your brain knows that chocolate cake is tasty, it doesn't immediately come up with reasons not to eat chocolate cake. We value the short-term outcome we know (deliciousness!) over the long-term outcome we have never experienced (weight loss resulting from better nutrition). The key to breaking that cycle, writes Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is finding a short-term positive reward in the desirable behavior. Instead of eating cake, go play a game or listen to music. Making the good-for-you decision gets easier with repetition. LESS
Over and OverHow long does it take to form a new habit? An average of 66 days, according to a 2009 study from University College London. In a group of subjects who set out to form healthy diet and exercise habits, researchers tracked how long it took for the new behaviors to become automatic. Depending on the habit and the subject's diligence in repeating it, new habits were “set” in as little as 18 days, as much as 254 days, and at many points in between.
Clearly, repetition and giving yourself time to adjust are the main factors in forming a new behavior pattern. A big pitfall is that the trace of the shortcut your brain had for the old, unhealthy behaviors remains lurking fairly close to the surface. Falling into bad, old patterns is perilously easy to do. READ MORE
“We knew that neurons can change their firing patterns when habits are learned,” MIT's Ann Graybiel, professor of neuroscience in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences has said. In 2005, her lab conducted a study in which animals learned their way through a maze to a reward. When the conditions were changed and the reward removed, the animals “unlearned” the behavior. As soon as the original conditions and reward were back, the animals had no learning curve whatsoever. They regained their previously learned habit effortlessly.
“It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back,”Graybiel added. “This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit.” LESS