Tag Archives: prefrontal cortex

Why breaking New Year’s resolutions is all in the mind

Happy New Year! So have you made any new year’s resolutions this year? Despite the high failure rate of these resolutions – research by British psychologist Richard Wiseman in 2007  has shown that 88% of all resolutions end in failure – many continue to make the same resolutions year in and year out. But just why are our old habits  so hard to break?

The science of willpower

The brain area largely responsible for willpower is the prefrontal cortex ( located just behind the forehead). This area of the brain is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems.

Author Johan Lehrer writing in the Wall Street Journal proposed that adding new year’s resolutions to an overloaded prefrontal cortex is a sure-fire recipe for failure.

He refered to an experiment led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, where several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

What do you think happened?

The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation. “A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.” writes Lehrer.

So instead of blaming our own lack of discipline in not keeping to our resolutions, perhaps this research shows that  the power of will is not enough due to the very nature of the brain.

So now we know what doesn’t work when it comes to keeping those resolutions, let’s take a look at what might help.

How to keep New Year’s resolutions

Lehrer suggests we think of willpower as a muscle that needs to be strengthened. Prof Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has pioneered the muscle metaphor, suggests that it might be possible to strengthen willpower by exercising it.

He asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks, thereby practicing mental discipline in one area. The students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control, at least when compared to a group that didn’t work on posture control.

If this sounds like too much hard work, you could always try the tried and tested goal setting approach to making positive change stick.

Goal Setting

Think about some small changes you could make in your lifestyle that would help to bring about your ultimate goal.  The cumulative impact of a modest change to your daily routine will restore in you the feeling that you are in control.

Above all, don’t  use your resolutions as a stick to beat yourself with. Ditch the negative connotations and instead focus on what those small changes will bring to your life in a positive way in the coming year.

Related Reading: Brain Pickings: How Long Does It Take To Form A New Habit


Brain’s Flexible Hub Network Helps Humans Adapt

Background diagram shows 264 brain regions in the human brain color coded by network affiliation. Center sphere shows networks labeled with their potential functions; lines indicate how much inter-network communication changes across dozens of tasks, with especially dramatic changes in bold. (Credit: Michael Cole/WUSTL)

One thing that sets humans apart from other animals is our ability to intelligently and rapidly adapt to a wide variety of new challenges — using skills learned in much different contexts to inform and guide the handling of any new task at hand. Now, research from Washington University in St. Louis offers new and compelling evidence that a well-connected core brain network based in the lateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex contains “flexible hubs” that coordinate the brain’s responses to novel cognitive challenges.

Acting as a central switching station for cognitive processing, this fronto-parietal brain network funnels incoming task instructions to those brain regions most adept at handling the cognitive task at hand, coordinating the transfer of information among processing brain regions to facilitate the rapid learning of new skills, the study finds.

Read more on this story here


What is ‘attention’ and where is it in the brain?

This is the third in a series on Understanding Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Today we look closer at the nature of attentiveness and its location in the brain.

english_brainAttention is the ability of the brain to selectively concentrate on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. There are two types of attention in two separate regions of the brain. The prefrontal cortex (directly behind the forehead) is in charge of willful concentration; if you are studying for a test or writing a novel, the impetus and the orders come from there. But if there is a sudden, riveting event – the attack of a tiger or the scream of a child – it is the parietal cortex (behind the ear) that is activated. Scientists have learned that these two brain regions sustain concentration when the neurons emit pulses of electricity at specific rates – faster frequencies for the automatic processing of the parietal region, slower frequencies for the deliberate, intentional work of the prefrontal region.

ADHD medications increase activity in the prefrontal cortex and attention-related areas of the parietal cortex during challenging mental tasks; these are the same areas that the study I cited yesterday demonstrated to be underactive in ADHD brains. However, there may be different forms of ADHD and there is an urgent need to develop more effective drugs to regulate these two different frequencies in order to improve attention for specific forms of the disorder.

Part 1: Understanding ADHD and Learning Disability

Part 2: Understanding ADHD and Learning Disability


Weekly Neuroscience Update

xbox

When selecting a video game to play, opting to turn on your Wii may provide a different experience than playing your Xbox, according to a study from Mississippi State University.

Excessive alcohol use accounts for 4% of the global burden of disease, and binge drinking particularly is becoming an increasing health issue. A new review article published Cortex highlights the significant changes in brain function and structure that can be caused by alcohol misuse in young people.

Working with patients with electrodes implanted in their brains, researchers have shown for the first time that areas of the brain work together at the same time to recall memories. The unique approach promises new insights into how we remember details of time and place.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow are hoping to help victims of stroke to overcome physical disabilities by helping their brains to ‘rewire’ themselves.

Keeping active can slow down the progression of memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease, a study has shown.

Neuroscientists have released the results of a new study that examines how fear responses are learned, controlled, and memorized. They show that a particular class of neurons in a subdivision of the amygdala plays an active role in these processes.

Neuroscience researchers from Tufts University have found that our star-shaped brain cells, called astrocytes, may be responsible for the rapid improvement in mood in depressed patients after acute sleep deprivation. This in vivo study, published in the current issue ofTranslational Psychiatry, identified how astrocytes regulate a neurotransmitter involved in sleep. The researchers report that the findings may help lead to the development of effective and fast-acting drugs to treat depression, particularly in psychiatric emergencies.

UC Berkeley neuroscientists have found that the slow brain waves generated during the deep, restorative sleep we typically experience in youth play a key role in transporting memories from the hippocampus – which provides short-term storage for memories – to the prefrontal cortex’s longer term “hard drive.”

Researchers have found altered connectivity in the brain network for body perception in people with anorexia: The weaker the connection, the greater the misjudgement of body shape.

A group of scientists planning to map all the major connections in the human brain began studying their first test subjects in August. The $30 million Human Connectome Project will trace the main neural pathways that link the roughly 500 major regions in the brain, illuminating how biological circuitry underlies our mental functions. MRI scans of 1,200 people, including 300 pairs of twins, will be used to compile an atlas of communication routes throughout the brain. The resulting blueprint will also reveal how brain connectivity varies from person to person.


Inside the teenage brain

Why do teenagers seem so much more impulsive, so much less self-aware than grown-ups? In this video, cognitive neuroscientist, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, compares the prefrontal cortex in adolescents to that of adults, to show us how typically “teenage” behavior is caused by the growing and developing brain.


What stress does to your brain

A brain drawing with the prefrontal cortex highlighted.

By watching individual neurons at work, a group of psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has revealed just how stress can addle the mind, as well as how neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex help “remember” information in the first place.

Read this story in full here


How does the brain multitask?

Dr Adam Gazzaly,  director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, answers the question of how the brain multitasks on the brainfacts.org website:

Multitasking is an attempt to engage in more than one goal at the same time. When two tasks demand competing attention, there is generally a switching that occurs between the neural processes involved, rather than concurrent processing as may be expected with true multitasking. Of note, recent research suggests that it may be possible for the brain to split two demanding tasks.

The prefrontal cortex has been frequently implicated as a brain region that mediates multitasking and the switching processes. Multitasking is commonly shown to impair cognitive performance, as each switch results in a reduction in performance compared to doing one task at a time. However, there is growing evidence that the ability to multitask can be trained with repetitive and adaptive practice. Multitasking abilities have been observed to decline as we age.


Weekly Neuroscience Research Update

Several specific regions of our brains are activated in a two-part process when we are exposed to deceptive advertising, according to new research conducted by a North Carolina State University professor. The work opens the door to further research that could help us understand how brain injury and aging may affect our susceptibility to fraud or misleading marketing.

We make our eye movements earlier or later in order to coordinate with movements of our arms, New York University neuroscientists have found. Their study, which appears in the journal Neuron, points to a mechanism in the brain that allows for this coordination and may have implications for rehabilitation and prosthetics.

The brain has a remarkable ability to learn new cognitive tasks while maintaining previously acquired knowledge about various functions necessary for everyday life. But exactly how new information is incorporated into brain systems that control cognitive functions has remained a mystery. A study by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and the McGovern Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows how new information is encoded in neurons of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in planning, decision making, working memory and learning.

A team of academic researchers has identified the intracellular mechanisms regulated by vitamin D3 that may help the body clear the brain of amyloid beta, the main component of plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Opening the door to the development of thought-controlled prosthetic devices to help people with spinal cord injuries, amputations and other impairments, neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown in Portugal have demonstrated that the brain is more flexible and trainable than previously thought.

Emotion-sensing computer software that models and responds to students’ cognitive and emotional states – including frustration and boredom – has been developed by University of Notre Dame Assistant Professor of Psychology Sidney D’Mello and colleagues from the University of Memphis and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Your Weekly Neuroscience Update

You’re running late for work and you can’t find your keys. What’s really annoying is that in your frantic search, you pick up and move them without realising. This may be because the brain systems involved in the task are working at different speeds, with the system responsible for perception unable to keep pace. So says Grayden Solman and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Scientists have now discovered how different brain regions cooperate during short-term memory  and in other research -findings that a prion-like protein plays a key role in storing long-term memories

Memories in our brains are maintained by connections between neurons called “synapses”. But how do these synapses stay strong and keep memories alive for decades? Neuroscientists at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research have discovered a major clue from a study in fruit flies: Hardy, self-copying clusters or oligomers of a synapse protein are an essential ingredient for the formation of long-term memory.

Researchers reveal a novel mechanism through which the brain may become more reluctant to function as we grow older.

New research from Uppsala University shows that reduced insulin sensitivity is linked to smaller brain size and deteriorated language skills in seniors. The findings are now published in the scientific journal Diabetes Care.

Age-related delays in neural timing are not inevitable and can be avoided or offset with musical training, according to a new study from Northwestern University. The study is the first to provide biological evidence that lifelong musical experience has an impact on the aging process.

Could brain size determine whether you are good at maintaining friendships? Researchers are suggesting that there is a link between the number of friends you have and the size of the region of the brain – known as the orbital prefrontal cortex – that is found just above the eyes. A new study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows that this brain region is bigger in people who have a larger number of friendships.

Scientists have long believed that human speech is processed towards the back of the brain’s cerebral cortex, behind auditory cortex where all sounds are received – a place famously known as Wernicke’s area after the German neurologist who proposed this site in the late 1800s based on his study of brain injuries and strokes. But, now, research that analyzed more than 100 imaging studies concludes that Wernicke’s area is in the wrong location. The site newly identified is about 3 centimeters closer to the front of the brain and on the other side of auditory cortex – miles away in terms of brain architecture and function.

New research from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) might help explain how a gene mutation found in some autistic individuals leads to difficulties in processing auditory cues and paying spatial attention to sound.

Neuroscientists may one day be able to hear the imagined speech of a patient unable to speak due to stroke or paralysis, according to University of California, Berkeley, researchers.

Cocaine-dependent men and women might benefit from different treatment options, according to a study conducted by Yale School of Medicine researchers.

New research finds problems that require a flash of illumination to solve are best approached during the time of day when you’re not at your peak.

Researchers for the first time are documenting the basic wiring of the brain, the complex relationships among billions of neurons that are responsible for reason, memory and emotion. The work eventually could lead to better understanding of schizophrenia, autism, multiple sclerosis and other disorders.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 718 other followers