Resisting temptation when it’s right in front of us

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

dollar temptation
Would you want to have $300 tomorrow, or wait 4 months for $1,500?

Have you ever had to ignore something you really wanted now, in order to get something better later? It’s a tough place to be, and according to researchers from Paris, the reason we have the strength to wait is because of the memory-related structure in our brain known as the hippocampus!

When it comes to deciding between something good right away versus something better in the future (like $10 today vs. $11 tomorrow) the struggle is all too real. “However, these [examples] miss an [important] feature of the… conflicts we have to face in everyday life,” says study leader Mathias Pessiglione: “…immediate rewards can be perceived through our senses, whereas future rewards must be represented in our imagination.”

In other words, it’s tough to wait because we can see the immediate rewards right in front of us, but the future… well, it’s not real yet! So, how does the brain work when it has to imagine a future reward?

In order to find out, the researchers tested a group of participants. Some of the volunteers suffered from a memory-impairment condition known as Alzheimer’s disease, which is caused in part by the hippocampus breaking down. Other participants suffered from a condition known as “behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia” (bvFTD), which is caused by weakening of the brain’s frontal lobe (area right behind forehead) and temporal lobes (sections behind the ears).

The researchers really put the participants’ imaginations to the test, because immediate rewards were represented as pictures while future rewards were represented either as printed words (boring) or images. Apparently, the individuals who suffered from bvFTD were very impulsive most of the time, while the participants with Alzheimer’s picked the immediate reward when the future option was represented with text.

“This is because the hippocampus is necessary for imagining future situations with a richness of details that make them attractive enough,” says Dr Pessiglione. “The consequence is that patients with hippocampus damage suffer not only from memory deficits but also from a difficulty in imagining goals that would counter the attraction of immediate rewards and motivate their actions on the long run.”

Based on these results, researchers are concerned that Alzheimer’s patients and other individuals may have trouble forming life-long goals, and they hope to develop a drug to help them out.

Featured image courtesy of Patrix99 on Flickr. Image of money courtesy of construct on Flickr.