Monday, June 15, 2009

The Biology of Self Control

In an Cal Tech fMRI study of self-reported dieters, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) emerged as the important area for self-control. Subjects who exercised poor self-control in the study chose to eat fattening and non-nutritious foods and it correlated with a lack of activation in the DLPFC.

Excerpt: "The vmPFC works during every decision," says Hare. "The DLPFC, on the other hand, is more active when you're employing self-control."

"This, ultimately, is one reason why self-controllers can make better choices," Rangel adds.

Still, the DLPFC can only do so much. For instance, it can't override a truly negative reaction to a food, notes Hare. "We rarely got people to say they'd eat cauliflower if they didn't like cauliflower," he says. "But they would choose not to eat ice cream or candy bars, knowing they could eat the healthier index food instead..."Imagine how much better life could be if we knew how to flex the willpower muscles in the brain and strengthen them with exercises," says Camerer.

How does this all fit with what we know about the development of kids? From Bunge lab, not surprisingly this self control area usually takes quite a while to mature (colored in green at left). In fact in kids, control seems to much more subcortical (caudate) and direct-reward related. With maturity (not surprisingly), additional higher order types of information direct decisions.

Another interesting study that came out re: kid self-control is one from Opposite - Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes task in which kids are supposed to do the opposite of what was asked (kind of like a Stroop interference). The kids who were able to do this task well had the highest achievement scores in reading, vocabulary, and math.

The next obvious question is, would training in self control result in greater achievement? The likely answer is yes. Another self regulation game involves practice doing the opposite game in a back-and-forth ball activity.
Science Daily: Self Control (original scientific article not yet free access)


  1. Any suggestions for activities that could help train self control, particularly in adults?

  2. Hmm. Good question.

    Would think lots of activities can train cognitive control or impulse inhibition - but a lot depends on how one approaches it. For instance learning how to play the piano - there's going to be motor inhibition within fingers on the same hand as well as between fingers on different hands. Many sports activities require timing - having to wait and then to go. There are all sorts of low tech games that one can play - with backwards commands (like a Stroop) like back-and-forth ball play with a nerf soccer ball - heading the ball vs. throwing the ball - then reversing the commands so you have to do the opposite of what was asked for, etc.

    Any delicate artwork - certainly requires a lot of motor inhibition as does speaking a foreign language - inhibiting one and saying the other, etc.

    I was surprised how much impulse inhibition our daughter could acquire by video games actually - depends on the game and how it is played, but when she was quite young, she played Harvest Moon terribly impulsively - wanted to marry the first person she met in the game, selling her crops right away, etc. - but by the end - she knew who to wait for, would cycle her crops, reinvest in the farm - and it was pretty funny at the end of the game she had this massive farm industry - ("I've got to play with my son, milk the cow, and I want to make sure and sell my crops to get more seed for next year...").

    Even in an alien shooter game she plays with Brock, she initially was very impulsive and died right a way in a blaze of gunfire. Now she waits - is more strategic and plays cooperatively with him.

    Of course a lot of impulse inhibition is require for any hard task that needs to be learn...for instance the impulse to give up!

  3. So what you're basically saying is that one can practice self-control by having a punishment for being impulsive in that particular situation.

    Or lets at the very least say that that is what happened with your daughter when she was playing the game.

  4. Richy, this is basically true. A punishment can be 'game over' or limited rewards. It depends how the game is played. If it was 'fun' to go out of the game in a blaze of bullets, then the game's punishment is actually rewarding to a particular child.

    In conventional school, there are rewards - better grades, approval from parents - that come with increased study - but children may forego those rewards for more free time, chance to play with friends, etc.

    It would be nice for every child to gain some level of expertise for some activity - whether it is conventional school subjects, music, sports, art, etc.