Most of us feel we should make some effort to improve ourselves come January 1st. Others feel hopeless and have given in to apathy. A portion of you will make a commitment to change your style of life and, in six months, you will succeed even though you had many failed attempts. Research is clear, some do and most don’t. Why? What magic strength do they possess? How did they get free of the chains that bind me?
Lust, gluttony, greed, pride, rage, sloth, and envy are the “Seven Deadly Sins.” They seem to waltz in and out of my life at will. I feel like the little Dutch boy with all of my fingers in the dike. The moment I gain ground in one area I lose in another. I feel helpless against an adversary who snipes me from dark places, unwilling to face me and square off. Stealthy and powerful are the things that plague me. I would give a body part to get the chance to fight it out like Jacob all night until one of us taps out.
Sin is a military marksmen term that means the archer has missed their mark. What if I miss the bull’s eye because I couldn’t even find the target?
What goes on when we commit to a moral direction and seemingly out of nowhere we do a 180-degree turn? When you make a commitment to yourself and don’t keep it, you undermine your own self-trust. People spend about four hours a day resisting desires. The most common resisted urges were for: food, sleep, leisure behavior, and sex. The average person is successful only 50% of the time.
If love is the greatest fruit of the spirit and endures forever, I propose that self-control is the most utilitarian and functional. It is the steering wheel. I have never heard a sermon on self-control, other than I should have a kind of “mastery over” ability with my thoughts, feelings and behavior so I can be “good.”
“What is the function of self-control?” Sin management. I reject that notion and offer another view. I would like to address self-control from a neuroscience perspective and explain why it is so important and why you can learn it, but not teach it, and why it can be trained.
Sin management is a dead man’s goal, which is anything a corpse can do better than a live human being. A sin management approach suggests that the purpose of a spiritual life is to make a fallible human being into a perfectly immaculate human being, which is an oxymoron.
What if self-control, which is called “willpower” in science, is our strength to persevere? What if this is like a muscle that’s purpose is to direct my intentions so I can apply a value driven behavior? The ability to execute my objectives or fail to do so has a neurological center, the anterior cingulate cortex [ACC]. This part of the brain can detect errors between what I am doing and what I had planned to do. I can then engage a course correction so my behavior lines up with my values. It is a better predictor of success in life than intelligence.
Because willpower acts like a muscle it can be depleted by overuse. This fatigue results in slower brain circuitry and therefore makes the system sluggish. In this depleted state the effect on your behavior controls are significantly decreased and feelings and desires are intensified. So your willpower is diminished and your cravings increase. Just freakin great, right!?
When I trained as a boxer there were times when my muscles where so exhausted and my strength was so deteriorated that I could barely hold my toothbrush. So it is with mental activity, which also burns calories to the point where you fatigue and lose the capability to fend off temptations.
People often blame poor behavior on stress, but what really happens is stress depletes the willpower needed to control your behavior and emotions. Your brain is fueled by glucose (carbohydrates) that is converted into neurotransmitters. You only have a finite amount of willpower and it becomes depleted as you use it. Also you use the same amount of willpower for all kinds of tasks. Whether dealing with traffic, resisting tempting food or managing children, it all has the same cost to your ACC.
Willpower is designed for offense not defense. We humans use willpower for controlling thoughts and emotions, resisting temptation, and performance control. Performance control is when you focus your energy on a task, regulating the speed and accuracy while managing the time and overriding the impulses to quit.
A common problem is when you set more than one goal at a time and drain the tank dry, then become more prone to mistakes in the rest of your life. Change requires decision-making and battling the old autopilot habit urges. This mental activity burns calories in the brain and the goals begin to compete for the fuel necessary to power the ACC. One goal will reduce the capacity for all the other goals to access willpower. No glucose, no willpower. It seems that low glucose causes the brain to stop doing some things and start doing others, which is why you feel more intensely. Your brain works on an energy conservation system and loves to identify patterns to make habits of them to reduce decisions. A habit burns less calories than decision-making. Too many decisions can leave you with decision fatigue, which means your ACC is out of gas and you have very little self-control.
All is not lost, my friend, because willpower acts like muscle—you can strengthen and train it. You can be free of self-defeating habits. In Part 2 of Free to Be Me, I will report on what neuroscience has discovered that can help you start to train your willpower and develop new habits or return to an old one.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Ed Jeavons