How to Build a Better Brain: Failing to Follow Through?

It’s officially February, the groundhog predicted an early Spring, and I’m still staying up past 2am every night, despite my resolution to get more sleep. We are a month into 2019, and it’s around the time when people start dropping their resolutions like a serious game of hot potato. Why is this? Why do we set out righteous intentions to do better for our health, careers, or relationships, but we never seem to follow through? The good news is, we are not alone. In fact, about 92% of those who make New Year’s resolutions ultimately fail to achieve them. This widespread phenomenon, known as the ‘intention-behavior gap’ has been studied extensively, and there are many behavioral framework models that attempt to explain the discrepancy of following through. Are these models useful to help influence changes in your intended behavior (or in my sleeping habits)?

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Leap. Image credit: sasint via pixabay Licensed under: Public Domain.

The theory of planned behavior is a social cognitive theory that is derived from the theory of reasoned action, and is regularly employed to develop cognitive behavioral therapies that promote changes in patient behavior. This theory describes behavior as a result of intention, which is influenced by three essential factors: attitude towards the behavior (Is it beneficial to me? What are the pros and cons?), subjective norms of the behavior (what will others think of this? How will I be treated?), and the perceived behavioral control of the action (logistical issues with available time, resources, cost, energy, health). It has been shown that perceived behavior control can be enough to directly cause the intended behavior for older adults, while intention and the other two factors are also necessary for the desired response in younger individuals. Does this mean we just have to weigh the pros and cons, get an OK from our friends, and be a bit more timely to get in those eight hours of sleep every night? There might be a little more to it.

The health action process approach is another social cognitive theory that includes planning as a key contender in mediating behavior, along with intention, and the previously mentioned three factors. Most importantly, the theory states that behavior is not in our control, that sole intention is not sufficient for a behavioral response, and that action planning is necessary to translate intention into behavior. Ahhh, there it is, that dreaded word: PLAN. As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. Arguably the quintessential person to follow for methodologically pursuing self-improvement, Franklin had a chart of 13 virtues he would look at every day, review every night, and check off the ones he believed to have practiced well that day. By regularly planning, recognizing, and practicing his ideal virtues, he eventually became the person he aspired to be. Similarly, in order to reach my goal of sleeping better, I will set a plan to organize my time wisely, write down a schedule so that I can routinely look at it as a reminder to get my work done, and hopefully make a habit of going to sleep at a decent hour.

However, with today’s high-speed lifestyle and innumerable distractions, intention and planning just might not be enough to secure our interests. Let’s look a bit deeper, past the ego, to the frontal lobe. This is the foremost part of the brain which houses the prefrontal cortex, an area known to be involved in planning, motivation, and decision-making. It demonstrates cognitive control based on motivators and goals weighed from past experiences, intended outcomes, and potential gain. One of the most prominent motivators, as similarly addressed by psychological theories, is reward-based actions, or actions that have an incentivized end-result. For instance, by getting my task list done hourly according to my plan, I can reward each accomplished task with having my favorite food, talking to a friend, or watching an episode of a TV show.  Knowing that brain physiology plays an important role in motivating, planning, and, ultimately, behavior, it is important to keep the brain active to successfully have a positive change in behavior. Some important techniques to strengthen the prefrontal cortex are sleeping well, staying happy, being thoughtful and mindful, and staying sharp with strategy-based activities.

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Brain training. Image credit: Tumisu via pixabay Licensed under: Public Domain.

Overall, both behavioral scientists and neuroscientists generally agree that intention, positive outlook, supportive environments, and reward-based plans are necessary to start bridging the gap between New Year’s resolutions and lifestyle changes. I think I’m ready to start building that bridge, are you?

About the author:

chaitanya Chaitanya Tondepu is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Integrated Life Sciences program at the University of Georgia. Other than science, her favorite pastimes are dancing, hanging out with friends and family, exploring, crafting, and eating delicious food. You can email her at chaitanya.tondepu@uga.edu. More from Chaitanya Tondepu