Why then, do some people seem to be so good at it where others seem to fail so spectacularly? The reason lies in what is known as the pleasure center of the brain. It is located in what scientists call the “mid brain,” an ancient and primitive part of the central nervous system that controls vision, hearing, motor control, our sleeping and waking patterns, arousal (as in alertness to an external threat), and temperature regulation. Simply speaking, the pleasure center keeps us alive by rewarding us for doing things that keep us from not dying.
Calorie rich foods like cheesecake, for example, tend to be more pleasurable to ingest than, say, broccoli, because the fat and carbohydrates in cheesecake provide more fuel to the body than does a head of broccoli. Sex is pleasurable, too, because humans have a biological imperative to mate and reproduce. If fornication was a painful experience, the human race would have died off millennia ago. Fortunately for us, sex feels terrific. But what happens when the brain develops a “need” for harmful substances or behaviors and essentially confuses them with the things we actually need to survive, like air and water and food and shelter?
If there is such a thing as a direct opposite of willpower, surely it is addiction, a term which in Latin is derived from a word meaning “to enslave.” In addiction, there is a profound lack of self-control, which is evidenced by the presence of the following three characteristics:
- Obsession, meaning intrusive thoughts that you want to stop thinking about but can’t;
- Compulsion, meaning one engages in negative behaviors despite no longer wanting to;
- Adverse consequences, such as legal issues, relationship conflicts and/or socially unacceptable behaviors
Every time the pleasure center of the brain gets what it wants, it releases a chemical called dopamine that stimulates the mid brain and produces a sense of mild euphoria. Imagine if you will, that first bite of cheesecake, or the thrill of winning a scratch off ticket, or the rush you get from a first kiss. That’s all dopamine.
Dopamine is released as well when addicts use drugs or alcohol, except the brain receives a higher dose than it might normally get, which fools it into thinking that the drug or behavior in question is actually more important to survival than it actually is. For addicts, willpower simply does not exist, because the addict’s brain has been fooled into thinking that their drug of choice (or maladaptive behavior, such as gambling or compulsive sex) is as important as the air we breathe or the water we drink to stay alive. In this regard, addiction is no more a choice for the addict than is breathing for the rest of us.
The effects of dopamine are a huge physiological component of willpower, equal in importance to the psychological aspect that most people associate with self-control. The old saying “where there is a will, there is a way” unfortunately does not take into account the physiological aspect of willpower, especially with those who are addicted. In the United States, for example, approximately 23 million people suffer from the disease of addiction, a number which translates to roughly one out of every ten persons. Interestingly, this ratio is common to the rest of the world as well, and is not influenced by laws, cultural values, or religious beliefs.
In order to understand willpower, one must understand both the psychological and physiological forces at work. For many, it is simply not enough to make a decision to change a behavior or resist a temptation. For many, to do so requires that the neural pathways in the brain be rebuilt and reinvented, which takes time, education, support, and willingness on the part of the individual who wants to develop more self-control.
Willpower is not a universal construct. While it is true that many people – in fact, the overwhelming majority – can simply stop negative behaviors and replace them with positive ones, the fact remains that roughly 10% of the population suffer from the brain equivalent of a computer virus that in essence forces them to continue behaviors that they know are wrong and would otherwise stop. Any intelligent discussion about self-control must invariably address the physiology behind it. Those individuals who want to develop more self-control can certainly do so, but only with proper education and the correct understanding of the many factors that constitute what we refer to as willpower. It is naïve to think that it is simply a question of mind over manner. Willpower is a phenomenon that involves both the mind and the body. The two cannot be separated if one truly wants to affect true change.
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