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Exerting self control with a reluctant prefrontal cortex

Mar 20, 2016

When I was younger, I was late more often than not.   During the week before graduating college, my research advisor invited students who had worked in his lab to a barbecue at his house. After we ate he handed us little graduation gifts. Mine was a Mickey Mouse watch to remind me what time it is. I felt bad that he saw my lateness as one of my salient characteristics. He wasn't an uptight guy either.  He was laid-back, with a dog named Pavlov that would roam the psychology department hall outside his office. The next year, when I went to grad school at UC, Santa Barbara, I was determined that this would not be how my new advisor viewed me. It wasn't.

In order to be on time, you need to recruit the prefrontal cortex, a brain area necessary for many of the functions that make punctuality possible.  First, the prefrontal cortex allows us to envision the consequences of our actions.  People with damage to this area are guided largely by immediate circumstances, with little consideration of the future. Second, the prefrontal cortex is important in planning out sequences of actions to achieve a goal.  Without prefrontal involvement, actions become disorganized rather than goal-oriented. Third, the prefrontal cortex is one of several brain areas critical to time perception, judging how much time has passed during a particular interval.

But being on time requires more than envisioning the future, considering the steps you need to take as you prepare for appointments, and estimating the time it will take to arrive to your destination.  It also requires self discipline. To be on time we need to stop doing what we're doing at the moment -- even if we're enjoying it. The prefrontal cortex is important for impulse control, also called 'inhibitory' control, the ability to inhibit our own behavior.

The prefrontal cortex doesn't become fully developed until after adolescence. So it's not surprising that when we're young we're not very good at stopping whatever we're doing in order to arrive on time for our next appointment. I was graduating college when I received the  Mickey Mouse watch, and I'm  happy to know that I had a good excuse --  the 20-year-old brain lacks a fully developed prefrontal cortex.

On the other hand, I don't remember arriving late to many movies, or often arriving late for a date.  That may be because prefrontal self-control circuits aren't needed when we are doing what we expect to be most pleasurable at the moment.  Brain imaging shows that the prefrontal cortex is most active  when we do the things that we do not expect to be most pleasurable at the moment. The area's strongly engaged when we need to do things now in order to gain  pleasure (or avoid pain) far in the future. That's the kind of control  I was lacking in college, and to some degree lacking today as well.

Then again, self control isn't everything, and, as you can see in the images above, the prefrontal cortex isn't the only brain area. It's just one tool in our mental toolbox.

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