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Balancing Our Brain's Self-Control Seesaw

New research reveals why our self-control seesaw is often lopsided.

Imagine a seesaw in your brain. On one side is your desire system, the network of brain areas related to seeking pleasure and reward. On the other side is your self-control system, the network of brain areas that throw up red flags before you engage in risky behavior. The tough questions facing scientific explorers of behavior are what makes the seesaw too heavy on either side, and why is it so difficult to achieve balance?

new study from University of Texas-Austin, Yale, and UCLA researchers suggests that for many of us, the issue is not that we’re too heavy on desire, but rather that we’re too light on self-control.

Researchers asked study participants hooked up to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to play a video game designed to simulate risk-taking. The game is called Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), which past research has shown correlates well with self-reported risk-taking such as drug and alcohol use, smoking, gambling, driving without a seatbelt, stealing, and engaging in unprotected sex.

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The research team used specialized software to look for patterns of activity across the brain that preceded someone making a risky or safe decision while playing the game.The software was then used to predict what other subjects would choose during the game based solely on their brain activity.

The results: the software accurately predicted people's choices 71 percent of the time.

What this means is that there’s a predictable pattern of brain activity associated with choosing to take or not take risks.

"These patterns are reliable enough that not only can we predict what will happen in an additional test on the same person, but on people we haven't seen before," said Russ Poldrack, director of UT Austin's Imaging Research Center and professor of psychology and neuroscience.

The especially intriguing part of this study is that the researchers were able to “train” the software to identify specific brain regions associated with risk-taking. The results fell within what’s commonly known as the “executive control” regions of the brain that encompass things like mental focus, working memory, and attention. The patterns identified by the software suggest a decrease in intensity across the executive control regions when someone opts for risk, or is simply thinking about doing something risky.

"We all have these desires, but whether we act on them is a function of control," says Sarah Helfinstein, a postdoctoral researcher at UT Austin and lead author of the study.

Coming back to the seesaw analogy, this research suggests that even if our desire system is level, our self-control system appears to slow down in the face of risk; less intensity on that side of the seesaw naturally elevates intensity on the other side.

And that’s under normal conditions. Add variables like peer pressure, sleep deprivation, and drug and alcohol use to the equation—all of which further handicap self-control—and the imbalance can only become more pronounced.

That’s what the next phase of this research will focus on, says Helfinstein. "If we can figure out the factors in the world that influence the brain, we can draw conclusions about what actions are best at helping people resist risks.”

Ideally, we'd be able to balance the seesaw—enabling consistently healthy discretion as to which risks are worth taking. While it's evident that too much exposure to risk is dangerous, it's equally true that too little exposure to risk leads to stagnation.

We are, after all, an adaptive species. If we're never challenged to adapt to new risks, we stop learning and developing, and eventually sink into boredom, which, ironically, sets us up to take ever more radical risks. And that way, to quote the Bard, madness lies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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