Scientists May Have Found Brain’s Center For Self-Control

Intelligence offers some protection against succumbing to immediate gratification, but psychologists have been unsure why. Yale University researchers report that they may have found the first clue to the mystery in an area of the brain that governs abstract problem solving and goal management.

“How do you juggle what you desperately want to do right now versus what you know to be best for yourself long term? Its not easy for anyone,” said Jeremy Gray, assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “We found that a part of prefrontal cortex that helps integrate goals and values appears to contribute to both self-control and to performance on tests of abstract reasoning and problem solving, helping to explain why self-control and intelligence are related.”

“How do you juggle what you desperately want to do right now versus what you know to be best for yourself long term? Its not easy for anyone.” — Jeremy Gray

The findings were reported online Sept. 9 in the journal Psychological Science.

The loss of self-control can lead to violent or self-destructive behaviors such as addiction, making it a crucial area to understand, the authors said. Gray, along with Ph.D. student Noah A. Shamosh and colleagues, wanted to understand why people with better self-control also tended to score higher on intelligence tests. So they conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging tests on 103 participants undergoing working memory tests. They also measured “delay discounting,’’ or the strength of the desire to take a smaller award immediately when a greater award could be obtained by waiting.

Participants who showed greater resistance during the reward tests also had better performance and greater activation of working memory, especially in an area of the brain called the anterior prefrontal cortex, which helps integrate many types of information and manage complex problems. These subjects also tended to score higher on intelligence tests. However, there was no difference in activity in other areas of the brain between those who waited for the higher reward and those who preferred to take lesser rewards immediately.

The work suggests that exercises aimed at improving one’s ability to process complex information might also help people increase their self-control.

“Understanding the factors that support better self-control, including the subjective value of immediate gratification, is relevant to a host of important behaviors, ranging from saving for retirement to maintaining physical and mental health,’’ the authors concluded.

Other Yale researchers contributing to the study were Colin G. DeYoung, Adam E. Green, Deirdre L. Reis, and Matthew R. Johnson. Researchers from Princeton University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Washington University contributed to the study

Citation: Psychological Science, Sept. 9, 2008

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Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322