Self-control is generally accepted as being a good thing to have. It’s what ensures you don’t eat all 10 lbs. of bacon in one sitting just because you got a giant box intended for restaurant use. It is also what helps you push through the discomfort of exercise, hold your tongue when you want to tell your boss how you really feel about him, and avoid intentionally ramming into the car that just cut you off. Of course, a recent study into self-control shows it might actually have an intended consequence.
Over the years, researchers have actually delved into self-control on more than one occasion and due to this interest they have developed a somewhat standardized test. This test is called a “go/no-go” test (showing no shortage of creativity in the naming), and is actually pretty simple to administer. Typically, they give the subject being studied a button to push and they provide certain sensory input. The subject is instructed to push the button every time they receive the normal sensory input, but when they have something different they are supposed to refrain from pushing the button.
If you didn’t get that, don’t worry; it’s a bit confusing. To illustrate it, an example might be them sitting you in a room and handing you a button. They play different high pitched sounds but once in a while they play a low pitched one instead. You are supposed to press the button for the high pitch sounds and not for the low. Of course, this is a simplified example, but you get the idea.
Taking this go/no-go framework, a group of researchers at Duke University decided to go a step further. They theorized the same parts of the brain used for self-control might actually be linked to memory. To test this, they used the framework of the familiar test but added in a new variable: pictures. Specifically, they used images of faces and studied the results, finding that in those “no-go” instances people displayed a much foggier memory. After collecting these results, they went a step further, taking 24 additional participants and scanning their brains during the test. Not only were the results the same, but the scans seemed to confirm their theory as well, showing the signals activated in the brain to be overlapping.
Though additional testing will need to be done to really come to a full conclusion, these results seem to strongly indicate that self-control and memory encoding not only share similar structures, but actually utilize the same resources in the brain. In effect, those moments you really work to exhibit self-control might be the times you have the hardest time remembering. While you could infer all sorts of greater implications from this, on the surface it at least means there are times when control should be disregarded in favor of preserving a memory.
Do you think they will uncover more links between memory centers and self-control? Have you noticed that you often don’t have clear memories of those times you had to exercise that little bit of extra control?