Will Power and Your Brain!

It’s the second week of January and how it’s going with all those New Year Resolutions?

If like millions of us the answer is not very well, don’t despair. Just blame it on the brain!

Recent Research

There is some interesting research about will power which suggests that if we try to focus on making too many changes at once the prefrontal cortex, (the part of the brain responsible for willpower), becomes overloaded. And so we give into temptation. This part of the brain is also responsible for short term memory and problem solving, among other things, so it’s pretty busy most of the time!

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, U.S.A., several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were offered either a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

The students with seven numbers to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it harder to resist a fattening dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

That’s an amazing piece of information and seems to suggest that strength of character and positive thinking has little to do with losing weight! (And this was an experiment about food choices). But, suggests, Jonah Lehrer, this is not so different from simply thinking about the brain as a muscle like any other. Your leg muscles get tired after a lot of activity and so does your brain. It too needs a bit of rest and recuperation!

Catch 22?

Other experiments have also shown that exerting willpower successfully requires energy, which is… er… food in some form or another! And as losing weight is often one of the most common resolutions across the western world for both health and vanity, and that requires us to eat less, a vicious circle seems to be emerging here!

But don’t despair yet. There are tactics you can employ. One is the art of distraction. For example, do you remember hearing about the marshmallow experiment some time ago?

The Marshmallow Tale

Research by Walter Mischel at Columbia University et al, has demonstrated that people who are better at delaying gratification don’t necessarily have more restraint. Instead, they seem to be better at finding ways to get tempting thoughts out of their minds.

Prof. Mischel  found that four-year-old children who are better at resisting the temptation of eating a marshmallow—(they get a second marshmallow if they can wait for 20 minutes)—are the ones who sing songs, play with their shoelaces or pretend the marshmallow is a cloud. In other words, they’re able to temporarily clear the temptation from their mind. They seem to instinctively know that will power is weak and so focus on something else as a distraction.

And you can practise self control in other areas of your life and strengthen your will power muscle!

Do let me know how you’re getting on with any new goals for 2010 and any tips you might share.

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Posted on January 11th, 2010 by

2 Responses to “Will Power and Your Brain!”

  1. I have no willpower (hence I am a smoker with a weight problem!) .. I have discovered that if I am concentrating then I tend not to want to nibble or smoke .. my plan (which is underway!) is to learn crochetting in the evening .. my thoughts being that if I am busy then I won’t think about food/cigarettes.. I will let you know how I get on (do you want a hat?) LOL

    • Jane says:

      A hat would be LOVELY! I knit a lot and it certainly stops that mindless picking as it makes the wool all sticky! However, it is possible to put it down….
      Keep us posted on your progress – both the crocheting and the weight loss/tobacco management!
      Jane

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