Stop! Don’t Let Your Resolutions Fall By the Wayside Quite Yet

We’re almost three weeks into those New Year’s Resolutions.

So how are you doing?

If you’re like 40 to 45% of Americans, this month you made a least one resolution for the coming year. What are your chances of actually making the changes you vowed to make? Statistics indicate that, for every 20 people who make a New Year’s promise to themselves, 4 people will break that promise within the first week. Ten more will abandon their good intentions within three months, and of the six people who make it past that three month mark, only 3 will still be going strong by the time the year comes to an end.

In his blog, Business Mind Hacks, business coach Alex Schleber talks about the length of time it takes to truly ingrain a new habit. Rebuffing the traditional advice that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, Schleber says it actually takes between 30 and 60 days–and says that the reason it takes that long is rooted in the physiology of the brain.

It has to do with white matter in the brain called myelin. Myelin forms a protective coating around well-used pathways in the brain, helping to insulate those pathways and allowing information to be transmitted up to 200 times faster than along less established pathways. In other words, the more you repeat any behavior, the more efficient and protected that habit becomes. (For a fun slideshow showing how myelin helps athletes and others develop true talent, click here).

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Want a Better Memory? Do These Three Things (And Don’t Do These)

Your memory is powered by core brain skills, also known as cognitive skills. But your brain isn’t exactly the Lone Ranger. It can’t function by itself (or even with a single trusted friend named Tonto). Instead, your brain depends on myriad systems in your body (and the health of those systems) in order to do its best work.

To keep your body, your brain (and your memory) riding strong, here are three things you should do (and three things you should avoid):

1. Do treat depression. Everybody feels blue now and then, and these feelings usually mosey on out of our lives by themselves. Ongoing depression, however, is another matter and can lead to numerous health risks and problems. For example, long-term depression elevates levels of cortisol in the brain. This can shrink the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for short term memory. One study showed that people who had been depressed–even if it was years ago–had smaller hippocampuses by as much as 15%. Because the hippocampus helps process short term memories, long-term depression can impair the ability to hang onto new information. If you have been depressed or sad for more than six weeks, get help. See a doctor or mental health professional.

2. Do exercise your body. Your brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients. Exercise not only increases blood flow temporarily, it also helps keep your heart and arteries healthy so that even when you’re not exercising, blood flow to the brain stays strong. Even more fascinating, studies show that regular aerobic exercise actually grows new brain cells in the hippocampus (yes, the memory-processing part of your brain that long-term depression can shrink). Extra good news: Exercise is a recognized treatment for depression, too! In one study by the National Academy of Sciences, a three-month program of vigorous aerobic exercise produced a 30 percent increase in hippocampus brain cells!

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You Created Some Great Holiday Memories. Now Hang Onto Them.

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With Thanksgiving and Christmas behind us, you probably had the chance to hang out with friends and family, creating warm, festive memories.

Now all you have to do is remember them.

As we age, memory can weaken. The good news is that memory skills are not “fixed.” You can improve and strengthen your ability to remember important events and details in your life. This is because of something called neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s life-long ability to reorganize, strengthen, and even create brand new connections that allow us to store and retrieve information, including memories!

Here are three ways to protect and even improve your ability to remember the important events and details in your life:

1. Practice the 8-second rule. Sometimes we can’t remember something because we never focused on it long enough to get the information into our memory banks to begin with. By practicing and strengthening your attention skills, your brain will have what it needs to retrieve the information later. A good rule of thumb is to focus for a minimum of eight seconds on whatever it is you want to remember later.

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Seeing Red? How This Favorite Holiday Color Impacts Your Brain

During the holidays, the color red is everywhere we look, from bulbs and bows to Santa’s trademark threads.

What impact does this favorite holiday hue have on your brain?

For starters, studies show that the color red increases appetite (no wonder holiday goodies are so hard to resist!). Also, when people are exposed to the color red, tests show they become more cautious and attentive to detail, and memory skills improve as well.

In one study, more than 600 people were asked to perform various tasks, usually on a computer. When tasks (such as proofreading) required focus, people performed as much as 31 percent better when their computer screen had a red background.

In contrast, researchers say the color red can keep us from performing our best in situations where creativity and analytical thinking are required. For these tasks, people perform better after being exposed to the colors green and blue.

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Is Your Brain Making You Spend Too Much This Christmas?

Three Simple Tips to Avoid Impulse Spending and Stay within Your Holiday Budget

The holidays are here, which for most of us means spending time shopping in malls or online looking for gifts for loved ones (and even for ourselves!). It also means trying to keep from spending too much money.

Apparently whether we stay within our holiday shopping budget may not depend as much on willpower as it does on the circuitry of our own brains.

Brian Knutson of Standford University and colleagues mapped the brains of shoppers using a MRI. They discovered that, as people contemplated whether or not to make a purchase, one of two segments of their brains would “light up.” If the nucleus accumbens–part of the reward and pleasure center of the brain–lit up, the subject would invariably make the purchase. If the insula–the part of the brain that registers pain (such as the pain of something costing more than its perceived value)–lit up, the subject would invaribly say “Thanks, but no thanks.”

By watching which part of the brain became active, researchers could accurately predict whether or not the shopper would make the purchase.

The reason shopping feels so good may be related to the brain chemical dopamine. This “feel good” chemical is released anytime we are exposed to the exciting mix of new places, challenges, sights and sounds–all of which are plentiful at the mall.

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