Chances are your New Year's resolution has taken some serious hits by now, if not kicked the bucket altogether. But don't feel bad if you can't resist the Valentine's Day chocolates your colleague brought in — it turns out the brain might be a bit of a saboteur.
In a February 2016 study published in Current Biology, researchers found that the human brain may be wired to reward us for paying attention to things that we've found pleasurable in the past. For instance, when you see someone ordering a greasy slice of pizza, your brain remembers that one time you had a dee-licious slice of greasy pizza and takes it as a cue to release feel-good chemicals — even if you aren't planning on eating pizza and aren't paying any attention to it.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University asked 20 participants to find red and green objects on a computer screen; the participants received $1.50 for every red object they found and only 25 cents for every green object. The next day, the participants had their brains scanned while they repeated the process from the day before, except this time there was no reward for finding a certain color. Despite this, when a red object popped up, participants immediately focused on it, and their levels of dopamine — the chemical released when people receive a reward — shot up. They were also distracted by seeing the red object, and they completed their tasks of finding shapes more slowly. The more distracted they were, the higher their dopamine levels.
"What's surprising here is people are not getting rewarded and not expecting a reward," senior author Susan M. Courtney, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, said in a release. "There's something about past reward association that's still causing a dopamine release. That stimulus has become incorporated into the reward system."
The study was small and didn't necessarily prove that the dopamine rush causes a lack of willpower. But the study authors say these results suggest there might be a chemical way to change how our brains respond to a potential reward — which could be very useful for future research on problems with self-control, such as addiction and overeating.
Speaking of which — anybody else suddenly craving a slice of greasy pizza?