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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.

Genetic Switch Prompts Brain Cell Growth

§ January 9th, 2009 § Filed under brain research, free will, neuroscience, plasticity § No Comments

Neuroscientists from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have identified one of the mechanisms at work in the process of new brain cell generation. They found that cell growth involves a change in gene expression (an epigenetic change).

Adult Neural Stem Cell Neurogenesis

Adult Neural Stem Cell Neurogenesis

Since an epigenetic change persists through cell division, the scientists believe that further unravelling of this mechanism may shed light on the processes by which memories are formed and behaviors and skills are learned.

“How is it that when you see someone you met ten years ago, you still recognize them? How do these transient events become long lasting in the brain, and what potential role does the birth of new neurons play in making these memories?” says Hongjun Song, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology and member of the Johns Hopkins Institute of Cell Engineering’s NeuroICE. “We really want to understand how daily life experiences trigger the birth and growth of new neurons, and make long-lasting changes in the brain.”

Watching And Learning – Mirror Neurons

§ December 20th, 2008 § Filed under brain research, free will, neuroscience, plasticity § No Comments

Scientists have been discovering the process by which we learn as we observe. By monitoring the firing of neurons as an animal watches an activity, they find that the neurons fire in the same pattern as they do when the animal performs the same activity.

That we learn by watching doesn’t seem so surprising. But the mechanism itself is intriguing.

I’m reading Norman Doidge’s book — The Brain That Changes Itself — in which he describes the parallels between doing and thinking of doing. Subjects imagining that they are stressing a muscle for a set period each day actually increase muscle strength. Likewise mental practice of a piece of music results in improved proficiency at playing the music.

As Doidge points out, the brain responds to our being in the physical world, but can also operate and send messages without direct stimulation from from the physical world.

With this in mind, visualization and imagination become powerful tools in learning and practicing skills and proficiencies.