Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Biology of Change (Part I)

“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” William Faulkner

Using Faulkner’s criteria, most Americans are splendid failures at keeping their New Year’s Resolutions. From the top three resolutions (lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking ) to the highly individual ( answer all my emails this year ) most resolutions have fallen by the way long before Valentine’s day. Why is it that otherwise talented, intelligent human beings are rarely able to achieve and sustain lasting change?

The answer lies in the brain in the form of a chemical called Dopamine. Dr. Nora Volkow is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and has spent the better part of fifteen years studying the role of Dopamine in addictive behaviors. Dopamine is a chemical that transmits signals from one brain cell to another brain cell. Dr Volkow’s research indicates that dopamine is responsible for teaching the brain what it wants, then driving the brain to attain it.

This happens in two steps. First, you experience something that gives you pleasure. In my case, it’s Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream. When I took my very first bite, the dopamine in my brain surged, creating a memory in the area of the brain that “records” memories. Dopamine also controls the areas of the brain related to desire, motivation, and decision making. The memory was not just recorded, but was also linked to motivation. In scientific terms, the ice cream became “salient” for me. The part of the brain engaged in this dopamine dance does not judge the ice cream as “good” or “bad”……it just triggers the next step.

Once the Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream became salient for me, my brain started Step 2. Every time I was exposed to Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream, the dopamine in my brain surged again, driving me to get more. Getting more Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream caused more dopamine to be released, which caused me to desire more. This is an endless cycle: once you do something that gives you pleasure, dopamine makes sure you do it again.

Dopamine is motivation, and deeply ingrained neural pathways are difficult to beat. In fact, the pathways are so sophisticated that eventually, a salient object will enroll other objects in its saliency. In other words, if I eat my Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream in a red bowl every time, eventually just seeing the color red will trigger my desire for Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream.

Will it trigger my desire for strawberry ice cream? NO. I hate strawberry ice cream. The scientific understanding of motivation and desire is not perfect. But…..someday perhaps scientists will discover a way to make my dopamine crave carrots and celery sticks. In Part II, we’ll discuss how to trick the brain into breaking a bad habit.

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