Willpower – All In The Mind; But Where?

§ May 14th, 2009 § Filed under brain research, free will § No Comments

salad-and-cakeIn a study of dieters, scientists found that everyone used a part of their brains called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a region behind the forehead) BUT, those who exercised restraint also used the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a smaller part of the brain further back. This region has been previously associated with working memory and meeting goals.

“This is the first time people have looked at the mechanism of self-control in people who are making real-life decisions,” said Todd Hare, a Caltech neuroscientist and leader of the study.

Hare and his colleagues scanned the brains of 37 people who considered themselves dieters while they rated over 50 different foods according to taste and healthiness.

Scientists then showed each volunteer a food that they had labeled “neutral” and asked them to choose between it and each of 49 other foods.

Based on the brain scan results scientists identified two distinct groups: those who chose the healthy food and those who didn’t.

Choosing healthy foods over tasty foods involved the activation of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The results were detailed in the May 1 issue of the journal Science.

“It’s unlikely that self-control is just one little nodule in the brain,” cautioned Scott Huettel, neuroscience professor at Duke University who was not involved in the study. “There are undoubtedly many things that contribute to the way people make decisions.” However, Huettel added, the regions Hare’s team studied seemed to correspond to the decisions people make.

This reminds me of a similar study in which researchers asked participants to choose between unhealthy (cake) and healthy food (salad). Most chose the healthy option. But when the researchers deliberately overloaded participants’ working memory by asking them to remember specific words, they overwhelmingly chose cake.

This leads to a conclusion that working memory itself is involved in willpower. Certainly in our experience with customers of Brain Fitness Pro, this is one benefit of the training that keeps coming up — willpower, task completion, reduction of procrastination.

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