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Why Physiology Is Key To Will-power

The popular view of will-power is that it's like a character trait: something you either have, or you don't. Something you were born with, or you weren't.

Research in psychology is proving this view naïve. Will-power is actually dependent on a wide range of conditions, including physiological. A useful and accurate analogy is that will-power is like a muscle: if you over-use it, it will become fatigued and eventually fail, but if you exercise it regularly without over-extending it, it becomes stronger.

What Is Will-power?

Will-power is the ability to hold to your plans, values and aspirations, maintaining the focus, motivation and energy needed to achieve your long term goals, in the face of short term distractions and temptations.

Why is will-power even an issue? Because we're not always of one mind. Different parts of us want different things, and these motivations can conflict at times. For example, you want to lose weight, look good and feel healthy, but you also want to eat cake and chocolate. Will-power failure typically happens when short term desires and impulses win out over your long term goals and values.

(In an earlier article I wrote about models for making sense of our inconsistent and contradictory natures.)

Physiology of Will-power

In the brain, the seat of will-power is the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which plays a key role in these functions:

  • Focus and concentration.
  • Emotional regulation and body regulation – balancing over-excitement and under-arousal.
  • Motivation and emotional drive – the ability to formulate values, goals and purposes.
  • Sense of self, and self-monitoring – being conscious of what you say and do, and knowing that it is appropriate.
  • Self-organisation – planning and decision-making.

The prefrontal cortex is the most truly human part of the brain. It's more evolved in humans than in other species. In a sense it sits at the top of the tree in the brain.

Hopefully you can see why the PFC is key to will-power: it must hold plans and intentions in mind while inhibiting the more “primitive” appetites and impulses which are usually responsible for will-power failures.

It stands to reason, then, that anything that suppresses PFC activation will undermine will-power, and anything that enhances PFC function will support will-power. I'm going to give some physiological examples, drawn from the work of Kelly McGonigal, and in particular her excellent book “Maximum Will-power” (see also her talk in the video below).

Sleep deprivation

Brain imaging studies show sleep deprivation depresses the PFC, and research shows it correlates to more will-power failures. The clear implication if you are will-power challenged is make sure you're getting the right amount of good quality sleep (I can help with that, by the way).

Blood sugar regulation

For most of us, the brain depends on glucose delivered by the bloodstream for fuel. Eating a high glycaemic diet (lots of sugar and refined carbohydrates) is known to cause instability (peaks and troughs) in blood glucose. The PFC is very sensitive to swings, in fact the brain monitors blood sugar and predicts falls, which might herald times of scarcity, and on the basis of this it prioritizes its resources. Full PFC function is not deemed a top priority, so falling blood sugar (it doesn't even have to go particularly low) can suppress PFC function and thus self-control.

If you want to maximize your will-power, eat a healthy diet, particularly one that is low glycaemic or even low carbohydrate.

Mindfulness meditation

Meditation practice strengthens PFC function (this has been demonstrated by brain imaging studies) not surprisingly given that it trains and exercises the functions of the PFC listed above.

Mindfulness also develops a mindset of acceptance, which, perhaps surprisingly, has a beneficial effect on will-power. Dr McGonigal quotes research showing that being self-accepting and self-forgiving after a will-power failure makes subsequent failures significantly less likely than feeling guilty and being harsh on yourself.

HRV: A Biomarker For Will-power

Dr McGonigal believes that Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is the best biomarker available for will-power, or will-power reserve. There's also a correlation between HRV and PFC activation.

HRV also happens to be a powerful biofeedback parameter.

How Biofeedback Can Train Will-power

Biofeedback can help you train and develop the physiological conditions that support will-power, and thus can boost will-power.

Here's the video of Kelly McGonigal I mentioned.

Or if you prefer, a longer one with better sound quality:>

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