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.