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Engage Brain

We do need to talk some more about the prefrontal cortex, and the neuropsychology of Plato’s charioteer, who must hold the reins and guide the horses of our otherwise unruly emotional life. Call it the “ego,” if you must, but it is really about the self-regulation that makes us, in Kant’s terms, something other than slaves to our impulses. We’ve seen that in our understanding that the deeper nuclei that govern the “reward” system (which produce the relevant neurotransmitter dopamine) are active in proportion to the size of the reward rather than it’s likelihood (see my blog “Anticipation"). We saw that it was the prefrontal cortex that has to provide the mitigation of response, the reins pulled by lower or even nonexistent likelihoods.

It is a commonplace of human neuropsychology that we are the only mammal that actually has input to the subcortical structures responsible for powering our emotional responses, the limbic system. I almost said that these structures were what drives the emotional system but, while drives in psych-lingo refer to motivations, we have to understand the driving to also require the charioteer with his reins, if it is to get us anywhere, however powerful the horses. Horses, for anyone that has been around them knows, have the temperament of deer, and will readily bolt or rear without a firm, if loving hand. The inputs that higher cognitive centers in the cortex provide to the limbic system are what make it possible for us to get excited about, angry about, or fearful of ideas and imaginations in lieu of external events that can give pleasure or pain. In some ways thoughts and ideas, our imagination, our memories and anticipations that are the “early warning system” for pleasure or pain, which in turn alert us to potentially life affirming, reproduction enhancing activities, or to those that we should steer clear of, that may produce crippling damage or death. This is a topic that probably deserves a whole blog.

The problem is, of course, that we need to learn how to use the reins, how to control and direct the horses, whose energy, whose beating hearts and pounding hooves get us to where we want to be. While we may know the dangers of a horse that’s been “rode hard and put up wet,” and we can imagine the white slather of such a horse drying on its long neck, it can take a long time between knowing the horse and being able to use the reins. One of the problems with psychotherapy, as the delusions of Hollywood would have us believe, is that the insight into a problem does not make the problem go away. Anyone who has been the victim of an addiction, or an unrequited love for that matter, understands this all too well. You know with every cycle what is going to happen, and continue to act the same way, over and over and over. You need, finally, to make a decision to behave otherwise, and act on it, despite powerful motivations otherwise. What is the old folk wisdom, that insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, expecting the result to be different?

The human ability to inhibit a behavior to forego an immediate reward for better outcomes later, to delay gratification, is one of our greatest super-powers. Put two chimpanzees on either side of a table, where one of the chimps has been taught how to figure out which box contains the reward, and then start giving the chosen box to the other chimp. Chimps can be pretty smart in finding the reward, but they are unable to inhibit the choice which will give the reward to the other chimp. You can put two toddlers in this situation and the toddler who knows how to get the reward will very quickly learn to point to the wrong box when pointing to the right one means the other kid gets it. Chimps will screech and howl at the frustration of continuing to point to the box they know has the desired reward when the other chimp continues to get it.

Yes, human beings can and do learn to delay gratification, to forego an immediate reward for something better. But it is a long process. I’m always frustrated with journalists, and sometimes even the neuroscientists themselves, who talk as if the problem with adolescence is that the part of the brain responsible for some of this delay-of-gratification are still “maturing.’ In a sense that is true, but that isn’t an autonomous process separate from learning how to do it, as I suspect the growth in these areas (like the cingulate gyrus) is not just an automatic process taking much of adolescence to occur, but that these are some of the things adolescents need to learn. We all have a repertoire of tricks. Don’t put the easy reward in full view, give yourself small rewards on route, keep thinking about the bigger reward for later. Now, if you are a kid with unreliable parents, it may make sense to take the immediate reward because the bigger reward promised for later never comes. That’s not immaturity, that’s rationality.

It always amazed me to see some poor kid tossing a basketball at a hoop over and over a zillion times and mostly not making it. But if he makes it once in a while, or he’s seen his older brother make it, or if he is getting social rewards along the way for continuing to try, he’s gonna keep shooting. Why don’t we give kids the same lessons about their homework, show them the end-products, show them the advantage of the intellectual skills they are developing. Kids on a team will take endless abuse from a coach, because they know they are getting better. That’s how to develop mastery motivation rather than mere performance motivation, learning to understand how one learns from failure rather than just how to show off skills you already have. But that’s also another blog.

Some of the lessons are simple. I love cheese curls, but I know they aren’t especially good for me. I know that if I go without them for a while, I have less of a taste for them. I know if they are around, sitting on the counter when I come back from a stressful day in the outside world, I will eat them, no matter what imprecations I throw at myself, or how much I beat myself up for doing it. If I hide them, and they are not readily available, I’m less likely to eat them. Even better, I’d sometimes have my kids hide them from me. Of course, sometimes this works too well, as they hide them from me in their stomachs.

Delayed gratification is like hiding things from yourself. I’m s