Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Let me see if I’ve got this straight. According to an article in TIME magazine this past week entitled “Getting to NO: The Science of Building Willpower” by Jeffrey Kluger (5 March 2012), the reasons you do the things you do can be summed up pretty tidily by simple reference to your prefrontal cortex, “the CEO and chief justice of the bedlam that is your brain.” Turns out, it’s the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of your decision-making apparatus all wrapped into one. Nice.
So here’s how it works: your midbrain is the adolescent who only knows “Yes.” I guess the functional equivalent of your id. It is responsible for your most “decadent appetites — for drinking, gambling, eating, smoking, sloth, sex…”
Fascinating that eating and sex are “decadent appetites” right up there with gambling and smoking. Who would’ve thunk?
And apparently, in our highly developed brains, the midbrain has a distinct advantage over our prefrontal cortex (so much for your prefrontal cortex being CEO and chief justice): “The battle between your noble lobes and ignoble ones isn’t even close. Eating, having sex and sleeping are vital for the survival of the species, so evolution arranged for them to be irresistibly pleasurable.”
Now eating, having sex and sleeping are considered “ignoble”? Who wrote this piece? Some lapsed Nazarene? Turns out, the same guy who wrote “Too Many One-night Stands? Blame Your Genes” and “Spend Too Much for those Shoes? Blame Your Genes” in past issues of TIME magazine. Is Mr. Kluger suffering from an over-weaned guilty conscience and needs to find scapegoats for his unsavory appetites? My genes made me do it! Hey, at least he’s aptly named… (see my post on “Kluges, Klans, and Chocolate Kake”)
And since when did evolution *arrange* anything? I thought it was a blind process, dependent on random mutation and natural selection? At least that’s what I learned in school. Has the definition of evolution changed?
But I digress. So the front part of your brain and the middle part of your brain are in a pitched battle for your allegiance. One generally says “yes!” and the other says “no!” But now I’m confused. If, as Kluger claims, “Eating, having sex and sleeping are vital for the survival of the species, so evolution arranged for them to be irresistibly pleasurable” explains why the middle part of your brain wins over your prefrontal cortex (it’s a biological matter of necessity!), then why are smoking, drinking, and taking drugs, also urges regulated in our midbrain region, so irresistibly pleasurable, too? Clearly they’re not essential for our survival — quite to the contrary. Turns out, according to Kluger, these urges “sidestep evolution and pick the chemical locks of the brain’s pleasure centers directly.”
Now evolution can be sidestepped? How the hell do you do that? I mean, even mutations are merely another one of the causes of evolution, along with genetic drift and natural selection. But sidestepping evolution? That’s about as ludicrous a notion as evolution *arranging* something. And this guy is TIME’s science editor? Did he have a bad day when he wrote this article? ‘Cuz he’s written a lot of really interesting articles, too. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
And now we get to the part of the article that deals with the title’s theme: willpower. Your front brain, turns out, has an ally, and it’s a muscle. No, wait… it isn’t a muscle. Or is it? Kluger states, “We work that willpower muscle every day — and like any muscle, it often goes weak,” and again, “Most folks trying to strengthen their willpower muscles…” But then he also says, “Of course, the brain is not actually a muscle, apt as the analogy seems.” So I guess it’s not a muscle. But then, where does the willpower part of the brain reside? In the frontal part, right? Well, not exactly. Apparently willpower is a matter of balance between the front and middle parts of the brain. But then, who regulates the balance? I mean, where’s the mind when you need it? According to the article, the midbrain “regulates desire; the prefrontal cortex governs control.” But who governs the midbrain and prefrontal cortex? The cerebellum?!? Kluger says that there are ways to strengthen your willpower through a series of mental calisthenics. But that still leaves the question unanswered: who controls willpower– who strengthens it, in other words — and where does it reside?
One theory is that glucose regulates willpower. The more glucose, the more willpower. But apparently not all scientists agree. Bummer, because if it all came down to glucose, then recovering addicts could just suck sugar cubes all day. Or tic-tacs, since willpower “requires the sugar equivalent of less than half a Tic Tac per minute.” So here’s a tip: want to remain chaste on your next hot date? Just bring about 60 Tic Tacs, which should give you about 2 hours of willpower. You’re on your own after that.
But wait, it gets better. We find out that willpower is “elusive” and yet “trainable and cultivatable.” Apparently not that elusive. Bigfoot is elusive. The Shepherd’s Beak whale is elusive. My dog is trainable (though maybe not quite cultivatable). But you can’t be both. We then learn, “The simple truth is that the brain evolved from the back to the front . . . . The back is the wanting part, the front is the restraint part, and they’re both with us all the time.” So the wanting part came first. Why is it, then, that of all the animals in the animal kingdom, we suffer the most from lack of restraint? I mean, we have the advantage of a really developed prefrontal cortex, right? Then why are we the only species that takes more than we need? Dogs and cats don’t. Elephants don’t. Bees do, okay, but that’s only so when the inevitable bear comes along and steals the honeycomb, the colony doesn’t implode. Even our closest relatives the Great Apes don’t take more than they need. I don’t know about you, but I’m becoming less and less impressed with my prefrontal cortex.
Once again, Kluger “kluges” (can I use that as a verb?) when he writes, “… the lower brain may be trouble now, but it was not designed with moderation in mind.” Wait a minute, the lower brain wasn’t designed at all, remember? It just evolved that way. (Sorry, but I just had to straighten that out.) The article goes on, “Human beings emerged in a world in which resources were highly limited and there was no percentage in reflecting too much on whether and when we availed ourselves of them.” So apparently there was no advantage to restraint. But then, why did our prefrontal cortex develop in the first place? Did our world, over the course of millennia, become less dangerous, and resources become less limited? That would have to be the case, since our midbrains would have been in control the whole time, and midbrains don’t like to be restrained. Kind of like legislators voting for their own term limits. Just doesn’t happen (even with our prefrontal cortexes intact!)
The article only manages to get more convoluted if you happen to be paying attention. Kluger writes, “As with all studies, it’s difficult to tease out whether a malfunction in the brain led to the compulsive behavior or the compulsive behavior changed the brain.” Compulsive behavior — the very thing our midbrains are wired to encourage — is now related to a malfunctioning brain? But I thought we evolved that way? First there’s no advantage to restraint. Then we find that doing only what you want is a malfunction. But which is it? The article concedes, “It’s even harder to know exactly where on the spectrum (of compulsive behavior) problem gambling becomes addictive . . . . Still, the behaviors (of non-problem gamblers and problem gamblers) have similar roots. ‘In both cases there is an imbalance between the restraint and indulgent systems’ . . . . ‘Indeed, when you look at true addiction, compared to a moment of giving in, it doesn’t even look all that different in the brain.'”
Well that’s interesting, because it sure as hell is different in this thing called real life.
In the end, the article never really answers some of the most obvious questions, at least in any coherent manner. Questions like, Why are our desires strongest for things that harm us? And why does evolution include systems that sabotage each other? At many points along the way, the article concedes to ignorance: “Not everyone agrees that this is how neural metabolism works” and “If it’s clear that we all occupy different spots on the willpower continuum, it’s much less clear why.” And yet another question arises: wouldn’t it make sense that those who are low on the willpower continuum would eventually be sampled out by evolution? But it seems like the exact opposite is happening in the evolution of culture. Self-restraint is as low on the collective continuum as it’s ever been. We’re giving our Cro-Magnon ancestors a run for their money in the immediate gratification department. But the article doesn’t address any of these things.
Kluger ends where his other articles (the My-Genes-Made-Me-Do-It! articles referred to earlier) began: it’s not my fault. He writes, “You’re on a diet, you have a bit of ice cream, and then — what the hell, the day’s a loss anyway — you might as well finish the whole pint. There’s a lot of what passes for thinking in this, which makes it hard not to blame yourself after a binge is done. But you may be less responsible than you think.” But of course.
More and more, neuro-psychology and evolutionary biology are going the way of Freudian psychology. They are becoming pseudo-sciences obsessed with conclusions that are not, in principle, falsifiable. They can explain anything by simply being fluid enough in their definitions. If something doesn’t fit the evolutionary model, then it must be “side-stepping” evolution. If a particular mutation doesn’t have the requisite causes to explain its existence, then its environment of origin is tweaked to account for its presence (one minute our ancestors’ environment was hostile, wherein the mid-brain was sufficient for our purposes, then the next geological minute, our environment is safe enough to account for the development of a prefrontal cortex; whence the change?)
This article is but yet another clear example of the evolutionary hypothesis dictating from behind. It adjusts its definitions to fit its findings. But then, isn’t that the scientific method? Of course it is, and that’s perfectly fine. But at what point are we going to wake up and admit that the evolutionary hypothesis by itself cannot account for itself? I’m not advocating creationism here, mind you. Far from it. But I mean… evolution has so many holes the more we scrutinize it, it’s beginning to look like a mosquito net.
The article ends with studies and their attendant “findings” that don’t even pass the “no shit” test. I’ll spare you the details, but if you do happen to read it, do yourself a favor and ask yourself, after reading the conclusions of some of these scientific studies, if your mom didn’t tell you the same thing when you were 5. Or Aesop didn’t write about it 2,500 years ago. Or the Bible doesn’t say the same thing in a much deeper and more clever way. The article ends with this bit of cookie-cutter wisdom:
None of this is easy — and the fact is, none of it is fun, at least in the very short term. But if there’s a happy side to all the new research, it’s that the muscle analogy works both ways. It’s true enough that exercising willpower can lead to a kind of psychic ache, and it’s true too that that can lead to a short-term failure of resolve. But over time, incrementally, fatigue becomes strength and ache becomes commitment. Your lower brain may always have the fun, but your higher brain, with practice, can still say how much.
Isn’t that called growing up?