The Science Behind Self-Control

Uploaded by UniversityRochester on 09.04.2012

I think all of us have a very intuitive sense about what self control is.
We’re faced with temptations throughout the day and we have to resist those temptations
and overcome them in order to choose the best possible path forward for ourselves.
I think back to the Middle Ages when you would have this idea of an angel on one shoulder
and a devil on the other shoulder, and they would fight it out.
And the angel was kind of representing your desire for self control
and if the angel won you would succeed, and if the devil won you would fail.
Neuroscientists are really just starting to understand exactly how these battles are fought in the brain.
'We see the corpus callosum before the ventricle'
There are certain regions of the brain or maybe certain subsets of neurons
in certain regions that represent the desire to do something bad, to eat those cookies, to eat the doughnuts.
And then there are other regions in the brain that represent the other desire,
the desire to abstain, the desire to not eat them and be healthy.
And these parts of the brain literally seem to battle, they seem to try to inhibit each other.
We’re interested in figuring out what these regions are and how that battle proceeds.
We can bring people into our laboratory, record their brain activity with electrodes placed on their scalp,
and then we have them do a really simple self control task,
where they’re choosing between tempting foods like cookies and unappealing but probably better-for-you foods like carrots.
We process their brain signals and display their activity in a very simplified way on a computer monitor.
There’s maybe a red bar on the side of the screen that grows as the self-control regions are more engaged in the task.
What they’re doing by doing that is actually causing exercise in their self control regions of the brain.
And, so when you let them go back into their daily lives, you find that when they’ve
exercised this part of the brain, they just naturally have more self control.
They go to the cafeteria and they choose the healthier option.
They exercise more. They don’t even know why they’re doing it exactly.
The reason this is so exciting is that we can actually start using our understanding
of the way the brain deals with self control to start helping people with problems.
Obesity for example – people, if people could be helped to make better food choices consistently,
then we could reduce the incidences of obesity, which is a major problem in this country.
Gambling addiction is something that my lab is very, very interested in.
We’ve found a lot of techniques that we can use to help people decrease the desire to gamble and alleviate that problem.
And then another disease that’s actually a very major disease that affects a lot of people is obsessive compulsive disorder.
You might not think of this as a self control problem but I really do.
You have people come in and come to their doctors, and they have this desire, for example, to wash their hands thirty or forty times.
These are really intense urges that they feel and if they could have more control over those urges they’d be a lot happier.