The Angels and Demons of Self Control

Posted 6 May 2009 at 18:12 UTC by steve Share This

In fiction, we like to characterize the problem of self control in terms of little angels and demons appearing on our shoulders, advocating one path or a tempting us down another. In reality, the question of how humans choose between a less appealing high value option and a more tempting low value option has been a subject of interest to scientists for some time. Now researchers at the California Institute of Technology have pinpointed the two brain regions responsible for managing self control. In people with poor self-control, a single brain region, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) seems to decide based solely on the short term appeal of a choice, such as picking the tastier of two foods. In people with better self control the vmPFC interacts with another brain region, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which appears to add balance by incorporating long term considerations, such as the health consequences of the two foods. Colin Camerer, one of the authors of the research notes, "After centuries of debate in social sciences we are finally making big strides in understanding self-control from watching the brain resist temptation directly". The full research results were published in the May issue of Science. Only an abstract is available online but a 26 page document of supporting material (PDF format) is available.

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