Choke

What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

A Self-Aware Brain Makes It Easier to Change Your Behavior

Activation of specific brain areas predicts smoking cessation.

We all have behaviors that we want to change - whether it's the way we eat, how often we exercise, or a lingering smoking habit. Interestingly, new research shows that one strong predictor of whether or not we will be successful in getting rid of bad habits has to do with how engaged brain areas devoted to thinking about ourselves become when we contemplate behavioral change.

In a study published a few weeks ago in Nature Neuroscience, researcher Hannah Faye Chua and her colleagues at the University of Michigan presented would-be smoking quitters with messages designed to change their smoking behavior. Some messages were tailored to each individual smoker, identifying obstacles each person needed to overcome to quit successfully and how they might achieve their quitting goals. Other messages were more general, not tailored to the needs of each individual smoker.

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While people listened to the smoking cessation information, their brains were scanned using fMRI. Everyone then completed a web-based smoking cessation program tailored to their individual needs. Four months later, the researchers followed up with the participants over the phone to determine who had been most successful at quitting smoking.

What the researchers found was that activation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex when people listened to the tailored smoking cessation messages - one of the major areas of the brain devoted to thinking about ourselves - predicted the odds of having quit smoking four months later.

In other words, the more people activated brain areas involved in self-awareness, the more likely they were to have successfully quit smoking. Moreover, these self-related brain areas were most active when people heard the quitting message that had been specifically tailored to their own needs (in contrast to the on-size-fits-all smoking messages).

For some time now researchers have known that public health messages tailored to an individual are better at curbing unhealthy behavior than more general information. But, they haven't really known why these specific messages are most effective. This new work suggests that one of the reasons tailored messages work is that they prompt self-awareness areas of the brain to get involved. The engagement of these brain areas likely helps people integrate the health-change goals they are hearing about with their own feelings and thoughts about themselves. The end result? Behavioral change. Indeed, follow-up interviews  with the successful quitters revealed that these folks had considerably changed how they responded to stress and had made progress in avoiding the particular situations that often prompted them to smoke.

These results provide an exciting new leap in thinking about how to construct health intervention programs that are most likely to get people to alter their unwanted behaviors. As it happens, when we think about ourselves, a desired behavior is more likely to follow.

For more on how our brains guide our behavior, check out my new book Choke!

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Chua, H. F. et al. (2011). Self-related neural response to tailored smoking-cessation messages predicts quitting. Nature Neuroscience.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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