“Angel” and “Devil” parts of brain always in constant struggle for control
People have “angel” and “devil” parts of the brain that are in constant battle over their self control, a study has shown.
Researchers discovered the different parts of the brain become active when they are tempted by unhealthy food.
The angel section leads a person to weigh abstract considerations such as “healthiness” against the basic desires of the devil part when craving rich food.
The “angel” area is strong in individuals with good self control but less pronounced in the weak-willed.
Dr Antonio Rangel, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), whose research appears in the journal Science, said: “A very basic question in economics, psychology, and even religion, is why some people can exercise self-control but others cannot.
“From the perspective of modern neuroscience, the question becomes, ‘what is special about the circuitry of brains that can exercise good behavioural self-control?’ This paper studies this question in the context of dieting decisions and provides an important insight.”
Dr Rangel’s team showed a group of dieting volunteers photos of 50 foods ranging from chocolate bars to cauliflower. Participants were then asked to rate each food according to its taste and healthiness.
A “reference” food was then picked for each person which he or she regarded as neutral with respect to taste and health.
Volunteers were then asked to make choices between their reference foods and other dishes, while their brain activity was scanned.
A pattern emerged which related to the “angel” and “devil” brain regions.
Participants with strong self control signals were able to balance health and taste in their minds and opt for healthier foods. Those whose “angels” did not speak loudly enough chose the tastier foods, regardless of nutritional value.
“After centuries of debate in social sciences we are finally making big strides in understanding self-control from watching the brain resist temptation directly,” said co-author Professor Colin Camerer, also from Caltech. “This study, and many more to come, will eventually lead to much better theories about how self-control develops and how it works for different kinds of temptations.”
The “angel” centre’s technical name is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) while the “devil” region is known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).
The researchers now hope to find ways to engage the DLPFC under normal conditions in people with poor self control.