Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Working Out your Willpower: The Long-Suffering Science of Lent and Self-Deprivation

In quite a few of our previous adventures into the realm of science we have touched on the fact that modern research often delegitimizes religious ideas (read Adam and Eve: The Snake-Free Version That Actually Happened). We have also used science to offer explanations for misinterpretations of real things (ex. Supernovae: The Possibly True Story of the Christmas Star). However, one thing we haven’t explored is what science can learn from religious practices. Today is the first of 40 days of deprivation that several of the world’s major religions call lent, so what better time to start? 

As far as religious events go, lent may have the fewest redeeming qualities. You don’t get presents, there is no chocolate or fanciful characters that monitor your behaviour (unless you count God), and you don’t even get a day off work/school until it is over. With all of these elements working against it, why should any of us bother to give lent the time of day? As it turns out, the practice of self-denial may have some serious benefits to bestow on our weary brains. 

Dr. Roy Baumeister is a psychologist at Florida State University who has devoted his research to the study of willpower. He has even gone so far as to write book entitled just that. Through his research, Baumeister has uncovered evidence that suggests willpower is more like a muscle than a character trait. He split people into two groups: one that practiced willpower for 2 weeks by following random rules at home (no swearing, use your non-dominant hand to open doors, etc.) and another that just lived their lives as normal. At the beginning and end of the experiment, participants in both groups came into the Baumeister lab to undertake a number of uncomfortable tasks like holding their hands in ice water or squeezing an exercise ball. Results showed that people in the “practice willpower” condition performed better on the uncomfortable activities than the other “control” subjects. So, next time you hear someone say “I couldn’t possibly resist ______” make sure you call them out for being lazy. 

Though the research on willpower does not yet identify structural changes to the brain that come with exercise, studies of people who meditate (a form of self-control) regularly have shown via fMRI scans that connections in the prefrontal cortex become denser and more active. The prefrontal cortex is the area of your brain that allows you to make reasoned, rational decisions and solve problems; so if you want to bulk up any neural-area, it is certainly one to consider. 

Further supporting the willpower as a muscle hypothesis are studies done on the fatiguing effects of willpower by a team of scientists (including none other than Dr. Roy “Willpower” Baumeister). His research into the physiological effects of exerting will power have shown that people who are required to participate in activities that require restraint (Stroop Test, thought suppression, emotional control) actually use up their body’s reserves of the brain-fueling compound called glucose (commonly known as sugar)(Gailliot, Baumeister, DeWall, et al., 2007). Yet another study gave two groups of people either lemonade with sugar or lemonade with artificial sweetener and found that participants who received the real stuff (i.e. glucose) were better able to ignore distractions when performing complex mental tasks (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2008). 

Aside from the benefits of sugar, these are not findings that we are very likely to embrace in our current “give-it-to-me-now” culture. Psychologists call your inner impulse-freak your id, and in 2014 we pretty much let it run the show. However, a number of society’s greatest minds have instinctively understood that mental power is much the same as physical power. Famously, Steve Jobs wore the same clothes (black turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance running shoes) almost every day so he didn’t have to waste mental energy organizing outfits. Einstein is reported to have owned a closet full of the same grey-suit, presumably for the same reason. Apparently Barack Obama does the same thing

Clearly there is something to this whole “exercising our minds” thing; and what better way to get started than to undertake some Lenten deprivation? Try to pick something in your life that you will notice living without and go for it. The tougher the challenge, the stronger you will be at the end. Be careful though, some research into deprivation has shown that there is such thing as too much of a good thing. Otherwise sane people in situations of total sensory deprivation (sitting in a completely silent, totally darkened room) can start to have hallucinations in as little as 15 minutes (Mason & Brady, 2009). Presumably, those were ordinary id-controlled people though, so by the end of lent you and your brawny willpower may be able to hold out for at least 20.