Patience And Self Control Illustrated In Brain Imaging
June 19, 2012

Patience And Self Control Illustrated In Brain Imaging

Connie K. Ho for

Not taking a piece of chocolate cake is easy during the first ten minutes. However, trying to not take a piece of that same cake after 30 minutes is even more difficult. The reasoning behind this challenge is described in a new research project focused on patience and self-control. Scientists from the University of Iowa (UI) recently revealed that they discovered what the brain looks like when a person loses patience and self control with fMRI images.

In the experiment, William Hedgcock, a University of Iowa neuroscientist and neuro-marketing expert, proved that self-control is a commodity that can deplete to finite amounts if used continuously. When the pool of self-control is used up, people are less likely to stay level-headed the next time they encounter a situation that asks for self-control. While there have been other studies that examined this idea of self-control as a finite commodity, Hedgcock´s project is the first to demonstrate how it occurs in the brain.

“If we know why people are losing self-control, it helps us design better interventions to help them maintain control,” remarked Hedgcock, an assistant professor in the Tippie College of Business marketing department and the UI Graduate College´s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Neuroscience, in a prepared statement.

In the experiment, Hedgcock utilized fMRI images that showed scans of people as they were conducting self-control tasks. The images displayed the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is the part of the brain that identifies when self-control is need for a situation as well as issues a message that says “Heads up, there are multiple responses to this situation and some might not be good.” As such, the ACC will answer by giving equal intensity throughout the task.

Another part of the brain that manages self-control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), uses less intensity after using self-control beforehand. The DLPFC will send a message of “I really want to do the dumb thing, but I should overcome that impulse and do the smart thing.” Hedgcock believes that less activity in the DLPFC may signal that there is a decrease in a person´s self-control. Consistent activity in the ACC implies that people can identify a temptation and, even though they fight it, it becomes more and more difficulty to not give on over time. Interesting enough, the study shows how self-control could be considered similar to a muscle. For example, it explains why a person who works hard to not eat a piece of lasagna during a meal will end up taking two slices of cake for dessert.

In particular, participants were asked to perform two self-control tasks in the experiment. In the first task, they were to ignore words that flashed on a computer screen; in the second task, they had to choose preferred options. The results showed that the participants had more difficulty with the second tasks. Hedgcock described this situation as “regulatory depletion,” where the subjects´ DLPECS were not as active during the second self-control task because it may have been more difficult for them to overcome their first response.

Researchers believe that the project is important in defining what exactly self-control is and why people do things that aren´t necessarily good for them. They propose that one solution is creating more effective programs to assist people who are battling problems of addiction. Currently, there are various therapies available that help people break addictions by focusing at the conflict recognition stage and then encouraging the person to avoid situations that are related to the conflict. Hedgcock states that his new study could help develop new therapies based on the implementation stage, where participants would have to deal with a penalty associated with real consequences. He hopes that this kind of treatment would possibly inspire patients to choose healthier alternatives.

The paper, titled “Reducing self-control depletion effects through enhanced sensitivity to implementation: Evidence from fMRI and behavioral studies,” will be published in the January 2013 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.