+ Willpower and the Brain: Bad News and Good News

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Restrain your spending in these hard times?  You might gain weight.

The brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, write Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang in an op-ed piece in the NY Times.

Exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others.  But the good news is that practice increases willpower capacity [read on].  So with practice and persistence, buying less now may improve our ability to lose the ten pounds we gained, or achieve future goals.

 “The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals,” write Aamodt and Wang. 

Psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have found that people who successfully accomplish one task requiring self-control are less persistent on a second, seemingly unrelated, task.

Activities that deplete willpower might be resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams, or trying to impress someone.

Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.

What Limits Willpower?

It could be blood sugar, as some suggest.  Brain cells use it as their main energy source and cannot do without it for even a few minutes.

While most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations during the course of a day,  planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes.

Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control.  People who drink a glass of lemondade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks.  People who drink sugarless diet lemonade make more errors on the second task than the first.

So foods that persistently elevate blood sugar, like those containing protein or complex carbohydrates, might enhance willpower for longer periods.

In  the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely, write Aamodt and Wang.  For example, they suggest, if you don’t want to drink too much at a party, don’t deplete your willpower on the way to the festivities by window shopping for items you can’t afford.

On the other hand, if you need to study for a big exam, it might be smart to let the housecleaning slide to conserve your willpower for the more important work.  In addition, it would be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower can’t cover all the efforts that are required.

Concentrating your effort on one — or at most a few — goals at a time increases the odds of success.

The Good News

Focusing on success is important, because willpower can grow in the long term. 

Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use.  The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

Psychological studies have shown that something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity.  People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending as well as their junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking.

They also study more, watch less TV and do more housework.

Other forms of willpower training, such as money management classes work as well.

No one seems to know why willpower can grow with practice.  It must reflect some biological change in the brain.  Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex  (responsible for planning behavior) or in the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with cognitive control) use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges.

Or maybe one of the chemical messengers used by neurons to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been completely consumed repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.

Whatever the explanation, write Aamodt and Wang, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower.

And the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.

source: NY Times op-ed article on 4/2/08 by Sandra Aamodt, editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton.  They are the authors of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.”  Visit www.nytimes.com .

Tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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