Cognitive Daily has just published a great write-up and demonstration of a study that illustrates how self-control is an energy intensive process that puts a big drain on the body’s glucose levels.
The researchers also found that initial glucose levels can predict how well people do on these tasks and that self-control can be temporarily boosted by giving people a sugary drink.
Cognitive Daily’s have recreated one of the lab tasks. Go and check it out, it’s an excellent demonstration. It makes the task wonderfully clear but also illustrates how even such simple self-control tasks are so difficult.
This sort of ‘self-control’ is heavily linked to attention – in part, the ability to focus yourself on one particular thing and not get drawn into perceptual or emotional distractions.
This study doesn’t tackle brain function, but another recent paper by Gailliot [pdf] does link these findings to what we know about the neuropsychology of ‘self-control’.
This ability is particularly associated with the frontal lobes, which are known to play a key role in inhibiting inappropriate responses.
You can see control break down in interesting ways after frontal lobe damage, which can often lead to a range of impulsive behaviours.
For example, patients with damage to this area might display utilisation behaviour, where they are unable to resist carrying out actions presented by their environment.
The affected person might be unable to walk past a door without trying to open it or sit in front of a coffee cup without sipping it, even when they know it’s too hot to drink.
What’s interesting, is that as the CogDaily article illustrates, we seem to have a mild form of this when we are low on energy or fatigued.
It’s interesting to speculate that the reason we get ‘snappy’ when tired is because we’re less able to control the emotions sparked by small annoyances.
Link to great CogDaily article on self control (try the demo!).