Dead Resolutions

Why the brain can't break habits.


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Maybe you wanted to quit smoking. Or you vowed to get off the couch and cut back on your fast food intake. Whatever your New Year's resolution was, you're not alone if it's already broken. Now neuroscientists say you can pin part of the blame on your brain.

MIT's Ann Graybiel got rats in the habit of searching for a piece of chocolate at one end of a T-shaped maze in response to a sound. At the same time, tiny electrodes recorded the electrical activity in their brains—neural patterns that identify connections between brain cells. When Graybiel and her team broke the rats' habit by repeatedly playing the sound without the chocolate reward, that specific brain pattern "dissolved". But when they put the chocolate back, after only a few trials the brain pattern returned, along with the habit.

"It's like all that time they spent trying to break the habit doesn't count," Graybiel says. 

Graybiel and her research team don't yet know what happens in the brain to trigger the old patterns to return, but she says the answer might give new insight into deeply ingrained habits, or addictions. 

"We and many others in the field are struggling to understand whether there's a switch that suddenly turns things from being a habit that is not really very dangerous to us, into one that becomes so demanding that it kind of consumes us," she says.

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