Our brain sabotages all efforts at breaking bad habits, Johns Hopkins study finds

© Francois Lenoir
It hardly comes as a surprise that we’re our own worst enemies, but new research appears to conclusively prove that our brain is the biggest saboteur of success, and leads to self-deception on a grand scale. The culprit? Dopamine.

As some may know, dopamine is the chemical that gives us pleasure whenever we receive a reward.

So what if you promised yourself to start getting up earlier, or eating dinner at preset times? According to new research from Johns Hopkins University, none of this really matters, because the memory of something much sweeter always lingers in the brain.

“We don’t realize our past experience biases our attention to certain things,” Professor Susan M. Courtney at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences said.

Memories of burgers past are alluring because the dopamine in our brains keeps the memory very real. To get our juices flowing, all we need is a reminder of that past reward. Even without the promise of new, similar experiences, the image in the mind is enough to render self-control useless.

For this reason, addiction cycles are notoriously hard to break. And the more you deprive yourself of something, the more likely your nervous system is to fire off memories whenever an irritant manifests itself.

“I could choose healthy food or unhealthy food, but my attention keeps being drawn to fettuccini Alfredo,” Courtney jokes. “What we tend to look at, think about and pay attention to is whatever we’ve done in the past that was rewarded.”

To arrive at their conclusions, the authors played a little computer game with 20 participants, which involved a small financial reward every time the respondent located a red or green object on a screen filled with a myriad of other colored objects. They would get $1.50 for spotting a red object, but only 25 cents for spotting a green one.

The respondents then slept on it, and were asked to play another game the following day. But this time, they were asked to locate particular shapes – color and size did not matter. There was also no reward involved. Interestingly, participants zeroed in on the red objects before any other.

While they took part in the exercise, the researchers conducted PET scans on the participants and found that the part of the brain associated with attention lit up with dopamine. Additionally, those who focused on the red objects more than others experienced higher levels of dopamine release.

“There’s something about past reward association that’s still causing a dopamine release. That stimulus has become incorporated into the reward system,” Courtney says.

There are variables that affect this. People prone to addictive behavior, as well as those who are depressed, will show different responses – the first group generally can’t help but feel more exhilarated, while the latter tend to pay much less attention to rewards.

The Johns Hopkins team believes these results are sufficient to start thinking of a pharmaceutical way to address this chemical imbalance.