Temptation in the Neurons

Lack of self-control is at the root of many personal and social ills, from alcoholism to obesity. Even when we are well aware of the costs, many of us are simply unable to curb our desires and control our impulses. Indeed, so daunting is this psychological challenge that an estimate four in every ten American deaths is attributed to self-control failure of one kind or another.

Yet many other people do succeed at self-regulation, all the time and seemingly with ease. Why is that? Why, in the face of everyday temptation, do some individuals fail miserably while others coast by unscathed?

Psychological scientists have been puzzling over this problem for years, but the answer remains elusive. Recently, researchers in the U.S. and Europe have been taking a different approach. They have been trying to integrate different disciplines, and different investigative strategies, to see if this approach might illuminate the dynamics of desire and self-control. Among those scientists is the University of Cologne’s Wilhelm Hofmann, who with colleagues has been combining neuroimaging and experience sampling, searching for brain markers that predict whether people give in to their desires (or resist) in daily life. Hofmann discussed some of this ongoing work this week in Amsterdam, at the first International Convention of Psychological Science, a meeting organized specifically to share such innovative cross-disciplinary research.

It’s difficult to study individual desire and self-discipline, because many self-reports are biased and unreliable. To get around this obstacle, Hofmann and his colleagues used an fMRI scanner to observe subjects’ brains as they viewed appetizing foods–desserts, fast foods, and so forth. Specifically, they recorded neural activity in the volunteers’ nucleus accumbens, or NAcc, a region of the forebrain associated with pleasure and reward. They also recorded neural activity in the inferior frontal gyrus, or IFG, while volunteers were performing a self-control —> Read More