How the Brain Uses Glucose to Fuel Self-Control

Posted on December 17, 2014

Steam power sets massive, clunky turbines into motion. Horsepower involves explosions of work, with engines hurtling cars down a freeway. Solar power taps the awesome might of the sun itself and may someday light entire cities.

But willpower seems different. For one thing, it more often describes disciplined inactivity, such as resisting a temptation, than some observable action.While metaphorical horses produce horsepower and the sun solar power, it's not easy to frame "wills" in an equivalent way. It won't work to say, "The candy store was soon occupied by thousands of frenzied wills, displaying their formidable willpower by refusing to buy anything."

It turns out, however, that the power part of "willpower" is no mere figure of speech. The brain is as real a blood-and-guts biological entity as… your blood and guts. The brain requires tons of energy - at rest, it consumes about 25% of your circulating glucose, despite constituting only about 3% of your body weight.

As you carry out a particular behavior, the rate of glucose consumption jumps in the pertinent brain region. If you listen to a symphony, your auditory cortex elevates the metabolic rate. If you learn something new, it’s the hippocampus that fires up. Tap dancing sparks the motor cortex. And when you're displaying willpower, thinking, "Don't do it, don't do it, you'll regret it…." it's your frontal cortex that kicks into gear.

Work by numerous scientists, most notably Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, shows how literal the power behind willpower is.

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Category(s):Control Issues

Source material from Wall Street Journal