Willpower and the ‘Slacker’ Brain

A new friend at RIT shared this very interesting story with me the other day.  I highly recommend listening to the recording describing this study that looked into why we make certain food choices.


“The brain is anatomically organized into different systems…..  You have a rational deliberative system which is sort of more to the front of the brain….  Then deeper in the brain you have an emotional unconscious system.  These two systems are often at war. Especially when you have a tough choice ..like cake versus fruit.”


The emotional brain wants cake. The rational brain considers which is the healthiest choice. When you add stress to your life, the rational brain has too many things going on to fight the emotional brain.

The article states that 88% of all resolutions are unsuccessful.  How many times have you made a plan (Starting today, I am going to the gym everyday….not eating anymore cookies….eating vegetables everyday…), and then just didn’t do it?  The bottom line is that the weak “willpower” part of the brain has a very hard time overpowering “raw sensual appetite.” The brain has to work hard to make a good rational choice.  This is why after a long hard day, you’re more likely to just grab pizza and ice cream than to eat the salad in your fridge.

I’m going to keep researching because the clip does not tell us what to do about this dilemma!  However, the biggest takeaway point I really got from it was that when you make an emotional choice about food you can stop beating yourself up for it—it’s a brain thing!  You don’t have a character flaw that makes you have pathetic willpower.  You just need to find strategies to help you deal with it—and maybe that’s the hard part.  Or maybe it’s just the part that takes ongoing planning and effort.  Either way, it’s worth trying.  Don’t you think?

16 thoughts on “Willpower and the ‘Slacker’ Brain”

  1. Does this have some similarity to What the Bleep Do We know? where they discuss how to break the neural pathways that are connected to the habits we have each established?

  2. Hi Morgan,
    I think it does. Ultimately, it looks like the two issues working against us (for the purpose of improving habits/behavior) are (1) that our emotion center of the brain (unconscious mind) is stronger than the rational center of the brain, and (2) that we have created the neural pathways enhancing the pleasure response related to the emotion center (i.e. we know and keep reinforcing that we feel good as we eat junk).
    Of course, it relates to everything in life—–you can have a “resolution” to do anything (keep your house clean, take better notes in class, be more organized, be nicer to your little brother…etc.), and you have the same brain struggle going on.
    I don’t know if there’s a shortcut to addressing it, but I do know that there are ways to address it if you put the effort in. It’s easier in the short-run to maintain status quo than to put effort into something and change a habit… I think one of the keys to being able to muster the effort continuously is to keep reminding ourselves of why the change is important in the long-run.
    Thanks for bringing up What the Bleep. I hadn’t thought about that, but it seems there is a definite relationship!

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