What’s “Willpower?” Maybe It’s Chemical

*Introducing Quote of the Day, a value-adding Muse Machine feature for 2009.

Quote of the Day: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”*


 As Dylan once yowled, “I’ve got a headful of ideas that are drivin’ me insane.”

 In my case I’ve got several folders full of ideas, bits and pieces and fragments and notes that are drivin’ me insane.  I’ve been trying to thin  out and consolidate these folders  as part of that New Year’s purging and recharging that’s been the subject of recent posts.  As Organizational Guru David Allen says of all clutter, you can’t organize anything until you ask of it, “What does this thing mean to me?”

Pruning these folders, I’ve been asking that question of dozens of intellectual seedlings that  might become sections of books,  magazine articles, radio pieces or future blog entries. And others, if history is any judge, will simply sit there until some distant day when I pick up the file and say, “Now why did I ever care about the shrinkage of foreign reporting, the fall of Alphonso Jackson, Cuba loosening cell-phone restrictions, some book called Dear American Airlines, A-Rod’s philandering with Madonna, etc. etc.?” It’s the price you pay for a mild case of attention deficit disorder an overly broad set of interests.

Anyhow, dredged up from one of those folders was an article I meant to blog about last spring but probably forgot as I was trying to figure out why two of my tomato plants inexplicably died. It’s from the authors of a  book called Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.”

The authors ask, among other good questions,  why don’t we stay with things? How is it that so often we don’t do at 10 AM what we fully intended to do at 8 AM? One answer, they believe, may be found in the chemistry of the brain:

What limits willpower? Some have suggested that it is blood sugar, which brain cells use as their main energy source and cannot do without for even a few minutes. Most cognitive functions are unaffected by minor blood sugar fluctuations over the course of a day, but planning and self-control are sensitive to such small changes. Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control.

Now there’s something to mull. The authors posit a fixed sum of will-energy; every time we make ourselves do anything, we use up some of the will-stuff. If we go into a task while we’re low on will-stuff, we’re not likely to stay with it:

In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford. Taking an alternative route to avoid passing the store would be a better strategy.

I like this notion because it roots “will” in something concrete rather than making it seem a ghostly, shadowy essence that Bob simply “has” but Tom doesn’t. I also like the fact that the authors seem to lend scientific weight to something I’ve long believed: Any successful change strengthens you for the next change:

In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.

No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.

The link to the full piece is here. And now,  back to those idea folders.  

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