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    'Self-Control' Is To 'Sudoku;' Can You End Addiction With Analogies?
    By Matthew Brown | September 9th 2008 05:17 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Better self-control is linked to higher intelligence. But until now psychologists have been unsure exactly why. Now, researchers at Yale University are the first to report a clue that's helping to understanding why there is a tendency for more intelligent individuals to resist smaller, sooner rewards, while the preference for immediate rewards is associated with lower intelligence (IQ). The study, reported in the Sept. 9th issue of the journal 'Psychological Science,' is the first to investigate--and identify--the neural mechanisms that account for this relationship. The idea is relevant to areas such as personal financial planning and mental health, including massive credit card debt, substance abuse, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and excessive gambling or online gaming. The work suggests that understanding such a relationship could even lead to interventions for enhancing self-control. If a mentally challenging task like a Sudoku improves your IQ, could it help you quit smoking? Gray Matter; Professor Gray’s lab is the first to show the neural mechanisms that account for the relationship between intelligence and self control. This fMRI shows an association between activity in the left anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC) and both self control and working memory. Credit: Noah A. Shamosh. Jeremy Gray, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale, along with Dr. Noah A. Shamosh and colleagues, thinks the idea isn't too far off. "We're trying to explain not just self-control," says Professor Gray, "but to also understand what part of the brain supports the relationship between self-control and intelligence." So in order to affect self-control by improving intelligence, you would have to first figure out the areas of the brain that correlate intelligence to self-control. Check. In this case, it's the anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC), a region of the brain that's involved in processing and integrating complex information. Professor Gray told ScientificBlogging, "The aPFC seems to be involved in keeping track of the big picture, and maintaining sub-goals along the way. If there's a big piece of cake or an alcoholic drink in front of you, a lot of people associate a reward with it--it can make you feel good or have fun. But having it all the time, and sometimes having way too much of it, can ruin your life. "And if you're doing this, you may have difficulty seeing the long term cost if you're only focused on the local and immediate rewards. So the aPFC helps you to integrate information to see the big picture." Since this area has now been implicated in the relationship between intelligence and self-control, the next step in applying it to addiction, excessive spending, or ADHD, would be to figure out some of the other tasks that the aPFC integrates--you might not be able to do just any mentally difficult task like a crossword or a Sudoku to overcome your addiction, even if the task does improve intelligence. The good news is that some of the tasks that affect the aPFC have already been described: analogies, which can improve intelligence, also activate the aPFC. Professor Gray explains, "In the past, researchers have given certain memory exercises to people and they've gotten better on intelligence tests. So it may be possible and even very exciting to come up with a brain exercise that people could use to increase their self-control capacity. We'd love to figure that out." So yes, exercises aimed at improving one's ability to process certain kinds of information might also help people increase their self-control, but researchers haven't quite figured out how--or whether it's even actually possible. The memory tests to which Professor Gray refers are "working memory" tests. Working memory (WM) played a big role in helping the Yale researchers to find the neural correlation between intelligence and self-control. WM is "the ability to maintain active representations of goal-relevant information despite interference from competing or irrelevant information;" it's like your ability to keep certain instructions actively in your mind even when you're doing something else, and to be able to apply those instructions at the same time. It’s important for reasoning and problem solving, and goal-directed behavior in general. In the past, working memory has been related to intelligence, and it's also been related to self-control. "We wanted to test whether working memory could be the relating factor between intelligence and self control," says Gray. And to find this relationship, they conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests on 103 participants undergoing working memory tests. They also measured the strength of the desire to take a smaller reward immediately when a greater reward could be obtained by waiting. Previous research by Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences also identified a brain region that may be involved in self-control. This research considered the more fundamental process of selecting whether or not to take a certain action--linked to the philosophical concept of "free will." In contrast to Gray's work, their paper discussed voluntary action and self-control, rather than the relationship between self-control and intelligence. Brass noted that "there is a clear distinction between intending to hit someone and actually hitting them. Many human societies acknowledge this distinction by requiring both physical action (the actus reus of Roman Law) and conscious intention (mens rea) to attribute legal and moral responsibility." Their research found that inhibition of intentional actions--more like "free won't," according to Dr. Martha Farah--involves an area of the brain between the eyes, the fronto-median cortex. Interestingly, this area is different from the areas of the brain that help to select between alternatives, generate intentional actions, or attend to intentions. So if really smart people figure out how all this neuroscience relates, maybe they can figure out how to use it to defer their gratification. Then again, they probably wouldn't need to--they're smart!

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    So what does it mean when scores of people line up outside a store waiting for it to open to acquire their latest game or gadget? Hmmmmm.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Becky Jungbauer
    What happens if I eat a delicious piece of chocolate cake while working on Sudoku? Does the cake become less delicious with every correct answer? Very interesting article, Matt, as always. I particularly like the "free won't" idea. Just out of curiosity - did Dr. Gray or the Max Planck researchers mention OCD? You included ADHD in the list of possible interventions; I know a number of highly intelligent people who also have OCD. Also, the idea of genius and madness has long been a topic of interest (see A Beautiful Mind) - would the research, then, be self-defeating? Just throwing out some rambling thoughts.
    Matthew
    Becky--thanks for the interesting questions! One of the things I specifically talked to Dr. Gray about was "externalizing behaviors"--when you act out in a way that's disruptive to others. People with ADHD or conduct disorders tend to exhibit some of these behaviors, but I'm not sure if any of the OCD behavior would fall under this category. Neither Dr. Gray nor Brass at Max Planck specifically mentioned OCD in the papers, but it would be interesting--and plausible--to see some of the same structural abnormalities or cognitive reorganization in OCD patients. Interestingly, people who exhibit externalizing behaviors tend to score less well when taking tests. It might just be because they get distracted during the test, but what if one of the regions affected in their brain is the aPFC? I could see how some of the working memory function in these people might be affected by an abnormality in the aPFC. Anyway, isn't the brain amazing? I love the brain because it's so complex. I'll be the first to admit that I am VERY far from understanding the brain, and that becomes more the case the more I learn about it--and I still love to learn about it! But I think even cognitive neuroscientists (which I am certainly not), if they're being honest, would say the same thing. Even with a study like this, there is probably a LOT more going on than just what's happening in the aPFC. The brain lends itself nicely to a lot of "why?" questions, doesn't it? I guess I'm a little jealous of the neuroscientists who get to try to answer them!
    I was an addict for 12 years and i was powerless over it and after 12 years now i am sober through Acceptance and little AA program.I think Acceptance is a good medicine to quit Addiction.Thank you.

    Sudoku? Really? I play the game for fun but never thought it might help me in so many ways. Perhaps I'll start playing it instead of smoking. Who knows, maybe it will work and I'll quit.