Are you paying attention?
Tips from a local UCT neuroscientist on how to boost your brain’s attention, will power and self-control.
By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.
It's that time of year when most of us have long forgotten those hard earned New Year's resolutions that we set ourselves with every intention of seeing through to the end of the year. We told ourselves at the start of January that we would give up smoking, eat more healthily, join a gym (and actually set foot on the treadmill!) and be a better person toward our loved-ones. With such a strong sense of will power at the beginning of the year, how do we manage to fool ourselves, year in, year out, that this year will be different? Why have most of us given up on our resolutions by Valentine's Day? Some of the answers to these questions can be found in the way our brains work. Neuroscientists have been gathering data over the last decade on how will power and self-control work and how will power often fails. It has a lot to do with the way we use our brains. The good news is it seems possible for our brains to be trained over time so that we can improve our attention, and stick to our life goals.
How do we train our brains to improve our attention, will power and self-control?
First of all you can help to train your brain yourself, and practice makes perfect, as the saying goes! Repeat, repeat, repeat a simple daily mantra silently in your mind (e.g. "I will only smoke 1 cigarette a day", or "healthy eating every day") while sitting in traffic on the way to work, or while cooking supper, and eventually you will be able to recite your resolution or life goal without too much effort. After a while of repeating your mantra, your goals will switch to become automatic, and unconscious. This switch is important and relates to a brain change that helps to develop what neuroscientists call a cognitive bias. This means that your attention will change and you will begin to make decisions in your everyday life that automatically support your life goals. But repeating your mantra every day, quietly to yourself, as often as possible is really important.
Doing this strengthens a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex – that's the lump of grey matter where your forehead is. By regularly repeating your mantra (a 'cold cognition') your prefrontal cortex will be kept active so that desire ('hot cognition') arising from the evolutionary older parts of your brain (e.g. the reward centre) has less chance to influence your will power.
Second of all we must pay attention to our ego! There is a strong body of evidence that says ego depletion has a lot to do with why we give up on our long-term goals. If you have a hectic job, a busy family to help organise, debts to think about often, or other worries that take over your prefrontal cortex, after a while your ego will become exhausted. Your ego is the part of the brain that gives you a sense of self – the same self that wants to repeat that mantra, or stick to New Year's resolutions. If your ego is depleted then you will give up easily on your life goals, and revert back to smoking, or eating unhealthily for example. This is not a good way forward because giving up on our positive life goals may lead us to develop hypertension, type 2 diabetes or other chronic medical conditions. So being aware of ego depletion helps – and that is why repeating a simple, general, every day mantra works better than overloading the prefrontal cortex with more specific promises ("tonight I will go to the gym", or "today I will stop smoking"). After a long, busy day, the last thing we can do is think about specific promises to ourselves, and often we end up beating ourselves up because we have broken those promises.
Finally, we can use specific brain training games that help to strengthen the brain's pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the older, evolutionary reward centres in the brain. Think of this pathway like a large brake pedal in your brain that helps you to inhibit urges to smoke, to eat fast food or to be aggressive. There are many brain training games on the market, and right now the University of Cape Town, where I conduct my brain imaging research, is developing a Smart Phone App called Curb Your Addiction or C-Ya, which can help you to say C-Ya to some habits you might want to break. My team and I are in the early stages of developing the App, which is currently available on the Apple Store. But whether you want to use a brain training App, or whether you simply want to repeat a daily mantra quietly to yourself, the good news is that neuroscience suggests we can strengthen our brains and improve our will power. Maybe this will be the year that we stick to those New Year's Resolutions after all!
Dr Samantha Brooks is a neuroscientist at the UCT Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, specialising in the neural correlates of impulse control from eating disorders to addiction. For more information on this research, and to contact Samantha, see www.drsamanthabrooks.com.