Why is it so hard to change? The short answer is because doing so often involves overwriting one of the most fundamental neurological systems in the brain that evolved over millions of years. Dopamine – a pleasure chemical released by the brain – rewards us for many things crucial for survival such as eating and sexy. Actually, it’s hard to think of a better system. Over-time, however, dopamine has also started to reward us for unhealthy behavior. It’s hard to say no to chocolate (at least for me).
Animal studies indicate that diets fail because many people feel withdrawal when they try to kick certain foods. This makes it hard for us to get off certain foods our brains have become dependent on. Eliminating foods which are bad for us (but also trigger a dopamine response) makes us feel depressed, stress and generally horrible. This stress, it turns out, releases other hormones and creates a catalytic response that makes change even harder.
So what’s the secret? Rewards. But not just any reward… Rebecca Skloot takes a look for us:
I ask if he’ll pay me to exercise. He folds his hands on the Formica table between us, looks me in the eye, and says, “If you want to convince your brain you should exercise, you have to treat yourself the way you’d treat your dog.” It’s hardly the answer I’m looking for, but at this point, I’m open to anything.
“Imagine she’s wetting on the floor every day,” he says. “Are you going to say, ‘Hey dog, if you don’t wet on the floor for a week, I’ll buy you a rawhide bone’? That would be like your boss saying, ‘If you work five years, then you’ll get your check.’ It’s too far off.”
Obviously, this is why my MP3 player failed: A week was too long to wait. If I’m going to associate exercise with a positive payoff, the reward has to be immediate. But beyond that, Schlund tells me, I have to unlearn the rewards I’ve already associated with not exercising (no pain, more time for other things). Doing this actually requires changing my neural circuitry. And rewiring an adult brain, I am about to discover, is very tricky.