How the brain commands self-control

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

hungry kid
When you’ve decided to eat healthy, it seems like junk food suddenly starts calling your name! Don’t give in to temptation. Instead, clear the fridge and pantries of any junk food.

Say you’ve decided to turn over a new leaf and eat only healthy meals. For a week or two, it’s kind of easy to pass up the chips and soda. However, somewhere down the line, it becomes very tempting to pig out on every pizza slice, doughnut, and cupcake you can get your hands on! It takes a lot of self-control and willpower to ignore the temptation. How exactly does this tough decision-making work in the brain?

A research study on dietary habits from the University of Zurich offers a few clues. Individuals who found it easier to refuse junk food didn’t see the items as tasty treats, but rather as unhealthy options. On the other hand, dieters with low self-control were more focused on the sugary goodness they were missing out on, instead of thinking about the nutritional value.

While test subjects made these difficult choices, researchers scanned their brains and identified two important regions related to willpower and self-control. The first one is called the “ventral medial prefrontal cortex,” which is a relatively small area involved in making choices about money. The second area is called the “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” which is responsible for short-term and long-term decisions. It turns out that people who had a stronger interaction between the two areas have more self-control and willpower! “They’re working together to shape the way you’re going to make your choices,” said Todd Hare from the University of Zurich.

However, just knowing what parts of the brain control our behavior doesn’t magically make us self-disciplined. So, what are some practical techniques that will ease our temptation? According to research from the University of Cambridge, the best thing to do is make a “precommitment” – remove access to temptation. When trying to stick to a healthy diet, this means keeping all junk food far away from reach at all times. However, precommitment can be applied to other areas of life as well. Have a huge test to study for and feel the itch to watch TV? Go to a quiet library and forget the urge altogether. Trying to go to sleep early but can’t stop browsing the internet on your phone? Put it in another room before you hit the hay to get a good night’s rest. Want to save money but can’t seem to stop buying worthless junk while you’re out and about at the mall? Leave your cash at home.

So, while there’s no easy on and off switch in our brains to activate self-control, we can still take smart steps to ensure bad influences don’t enter our life. Remember, half the battle is just staying away from situations that’ll drag us down from reaching our true potential!

Featured image courtesy of Nicole Hanusek on Flickr. Image of hungry child courtesy of David Goehring on Flickr