Recently studies shows what happens in the human brain when a person loses patience and self-control.

Neuroscientist William Hedgecock said self-control is ‘running out’ when used regularly. And next time, faced with a stimulus, people are unlikely to show it. In stress situations the activity of the cerebral cortex is reduced and we realize that we need to control ourselves, but we can not do it.

Self-control is a finite resource that is spent with use. When used too continuously, it is harder for us to stay calm the next time we face a situation that requires control our impulses.

Hedgecock (2012) studied the brain by using fMRI images that scan people as they perform self-control tasks. The images show the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—the part of the brain that recognizes a situation in which self-control is needed and says, “Heads up, there are multiple responses to this situation and some might not be good”—fires with equal intensity throughout the task.

However, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)—the part of the brain that manages self-control and says, “I really want to do the dumb thing, but I should overcome that impulse and do the smart thing”—fires with less intensity after prior exertion of self-control. Neuroimaging techniques reveal that it is the lack of activity of neurons in this area which makes sometimes “situations get us out of our boxes” and not act sensibly.

Loss of activity in the DLPFC might be the person’s self-control draining away. The stable activity in the ACC suggests people have no problem recognizing a temptation. Although they keep fighting, they have a harder and harder time not giving in.

Hedgcock says that, according to the finding, self-control should be compared to a pool that can be drained by use then replenished through time in a lower conflict environment, away from temptations that require its use. HEDGCOCK, W. VOSH, K.D. & RAO, A.R (2012). Journal of Consumer Psychology. Reducing self-control depletion effects through enhanced sensitivity to implementation: Evidence from fMRI and behavioral studies. 22(4):486-495

Ruth Talavera Flores


Research Associate & IRIANS’s Representative for

the Iberian Peninsula and Mexico

IRIANS – The Neuroscience Institute


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