Neuroscientists have successfully used a new type of brain stimulation to act on a mental braking system located in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain above the eyes.
The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, gave participants a simple test of self-control (Wessel et al., 2013).
This involved them trying to stop themselves from routinely pressing a button when suddenly given an unexpected auditory command.
Participants had electrodes attached to their heads to deliver the electrical stimulation to the precise area of their brain which has an inhibitory effect on behaviour.
The electrical current passing through the brain was relatively small, and so imperceptible to participants.
The part of the brain targeted, in the prefrontal cortex, is a crucial component in the network that slows down and stops some behaviour.
Sometimes participants were given help to inhibit the button pressing behaviours by having the electrical current delivered.
The results showed that the electrical stimulation helped inhibit their button pressing.
One of the study’s authors, Nitin Tandon, M.D., explained:
“There is a circuit in the brain for inhibiting or braking responses. We believe we are the first to show that we can enhance this braking system with brain stimulation.”
Although the research is a long way from being able to improve human self-control at a general level, it does show that it is possible to affect the brain’s braking system with the application of electrical currents in certain circumstances.
It’s particularly interesting because usually electrical brain stimulation disrupts brain activity.
In this case, though, the stimulation had a coherent, positive effect on behaviour.
And this from such low electrical currents that participants in the study could not feel it.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Krischan Schallenberger
→ This post is part of a series on self-control:
- How to Improve Your Self-Control
- Self-Control Instantly Replenished by Self-Affirmation
- The Merest Thought of Money Replenishes Self-Control
- How to Increase Your Self-Control Without Really Trying
- How TV Can Boost Your Self-Control
- What Can Self-Control Do For You? 10 New Studies Provide Surprising Answers
- License to Sin: How to Dodge a Devilish Self-Control Loophole
- Electrical Brain Stimulation Can Instantly Improve Self-Control