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)