Home»Teaching»Willpower at New Year’s – and questions about the brain science behind it

More evidence that brain science is scattered everywhere these days.

It’s fitting that on New Year’s Day I read a review of Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, which was Kelly McGonigalpublished in January 2014. The review distilled 15 tips from the book, such as understand that willpower is strongest in the morning and diminishes through the day, so schedule yourself accordingly.

What I’m most interested in finding out is the science behind the statements. After all, our world is full of assertions that x is “clinically proven.”

I’d like to know if, say, item six is backed up by research or if it’s just the reviewer’s translation of what’s in the text:

Sleep deprivation (less than six hours a night) makes it so that the prefrontal cortex loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings. Science shows that getting just one more hour of sleep each night (eight hours is ideal) helps recovering drug addicts avoid a relapse. So it can certainly help you resist a doughnut or a cigarette.”

Sleep is obviously important and more is being found out about it all the time, but how would it impact the prefrontal cortex’s ability to control the regions where cravings come from?

This past semester I helped my freshmen students learn about the various “executive functions” that take place in the prefrontal cortex, like time management and the inhibition of inappropriate behavior. We also went over the role of the brain’s reward center, the nucleus accumbens, in such things as addiction and curiosity, but I’m at a loss as to how being tired would allow regions creating cravings to dominate. It’s one thing to say that it happens and another to be able to cite the neurochemical actions at play (assuming, of course, that they’ve even been uncovered yet).

The fact remains that for the average reader knowing that willpower arises from the gray matter that covers the front quarter of your brain to the thickness of six dimes may not be terribly important. I think, though, that it’s valuable to know deeper.

We take what happens in our brains for granted – and how could we do otherwise, up until now? Until not long ago, it was all a mystery. Now we can understand how it functions and where things like craving doughnuts and wanting to make New Year’s resolutions come from. I think we can better resist the one and better fulfill the other now that we no longer have to accept the not-knowing as the way it must be.

I’m looking forward to the time when instead of merely making assertions about “scientifically proven,” articles and book reviews regularly include references to things like dopamine and the nucleus accumbens.


Yes, I will be following up on what McGonigal has to say. If you want to do the same you can listen to her podcast, view the video on the review page or even take her online course (for $355) when it’s next offered by Stanford’s Continuing Studies program.


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