Study: Training Brains for Self-Control May Not Help in the Real World

Researchers saw changes in the brain after training exercises, but only for specific tasks. 
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Problem: A lack of self-control is the impetus behind many New Year’s resolutions—to quit smoking, or exercise more, or any number of other classic discipline-based promises we make ourselves during this arbitrary period of rebirth. It would be helpful, certainly, if we could train our brains to be better at self-control. Lord knows I’d love to be able to buy a bag of Starbursts without eating the whole thing in one sitting, but I also know that’s just not going to happen.

Previous studies have shown that attention and working memory can be improved with training, but in a recent study, researchers at the University of Oregon looked into the possibility of training the brain to be better at self-control.

Methodology: The researchers used neuroimaging to look at 60 participants’ brains before and after they did a task designed to improve performance on inhibitory control. The training consisted of what is called a “stop signal task”—at a “go” signal, participants pushed an arrow key as fast as they could. During some of these trials, a “stop” signal played. If the participants heard that sound, they were supposed to stop pressing the button. Depending on how well subjects performed, researchers adjusted the task to make it easier or harder, allowing each person to train at his or her own level.

Results: The training did improve participants’ inhibitory control, when compared to people who did the same task without ever incorporating the stop signal. “Improvement [on the task] followed a linear
pattern at least through the first 10 sessions,” the study reads. The researchers also saw changes in neural activation in the brain, not only during the task, but while participants were preparing for it, too.

Implications: Previous research on training for inhibitory control has not found it to work very well. This study suggests that you can train your brain to be better at self-control during a specific task, but the researchers theorize that the problem with inhibitory control training is that it doesn’t transfer well to other tasks. Because they saw changes in the brain “in response to cues that predict the upcoming need for control,” they suggest that the improved inhibitory control is associated with those cues.

So it seems you can train the brain to have more self-control for a specific task, but your training gains may not apply in a different situation, where you don’t have the cues you’re used to. It seems not all brain training is created equal. We may just have to try our best on our own to keep the promises we make ourselves.


The study, "Training-Induced Changes in Inhibitory Control Network Activity," appeared in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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