Why does it take so long to change your mind?
The science behind the famous experiment that took you from your desk to your favorite outdoor sauna is being published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The findings show that when you feel like it, you can become addicted to something you might not normally want.
The idea that people tend to like and enjoy the same things, whether it’s a sauna or a coffee, may not have come about by chance.
Researchers used a mathematical model to predict what people like and dislike, and then ran simulations of what would happen if a similar experiment were repeated.
The results show that the desire for a new activity, which is common in young people, is not only the result of genetic factors but also social factors, which include the perceived enjoyment of activities that are less socially desirable.
These are the first studies to demonstrate that we can change our mind by simply thinking about the experience, says lead author Dr Maria Fontei, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University College London.
In the study, published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, participants were asked to spend a short amount of time in a simulated sauna.
Then, after a short time, they were asked if they would like to go to another sauna, or if they preferred to go with friends.
If they did not like their first sauna (or did not want to go after all) they would be instructed to go back to the start, and if they did like their second sauna they would return to the beginning.
But if they chose the second sauna they would then have to choose whether they wanted to go or not.
This meant that participants were forced to think about their choices, even if they had not yet made a decision about whether they liked or disliked a new experience.
“Our work shows that when people think about a new behaviour they tend to feel a little more motivated to try it,” says Dr Fonteiei.
“We don’t need to be tempted to say ‘Yes, I want to do that, but I have no idea how to do it,'” she says.
“Instead, we can take action by imagining the experience we would like, then asking ourselves if we can be satisfied with it.”
In the same way, if a person had to choose between going to a new place or not, they might choose to go somewhere new.
“If we were to have a saunaball, you would have to decide whether you want to play in the first place or if you want it to be a little different,” says Fontea.
“When people do this experiment, they have to think in terms of what is really motivating them,” says co-author Prof. Richard Gage, also at the university.
“That’s the key here,” says Gage.
“The goal is to get people to think differently about the behaviour they would prefer, rather than having them decide for themselves what to do,” he says.
The researchers hope the results of the research will open up new possibilities for treating people with OCD and other mental illnesses, and help researchers develop better ways to monitor people’s minds.
“This work is an exciting step towards understanding how people experience their behaviour and their thoughts,” says the lead author, Dr Eun-Ju Kim, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard-affiliated Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
“A lot of the work on our understanding of brain chemistry, and what’s happening in our brains, has focused on how people have a strong sense of what they’re doing, but not a good idea of what the right thing to do is.”
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