Why did I do that?

Psychology professor helps students understand the science behind self-control

The “self” part of self-control can be a new concept for many college students. For years, they had parents and teachers to keep them on track. Then college comes, with its many demands and distractions, and students find themselves baffled by their own dumb mistakes.

“We ask ourselves, ‘Why did I do that?’” said Todd Braver, professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “That question is the holy grail of the mind and brain — how does the brain control itself? What part of the brain is the controller and what parts are the ones being  controlled?”

Braver introduced incoming first-year students to “The Brain Basis for Self-Control” during the summer SOAR program.  It’s a topic he cares about a lot. He is, after all, a neuroscientist, a faculty fellow for Brookings Residential College, a parent of two adolescent daughters, and – oh yeah – a human.

Todd Braver photo
Braver

“There is a saying that we all end up studying our own pathologies,” Braver said with a laugh. “I’m not good at self-control either, but I am fascinated by the mystery of our brains. On one hand, humans’ ability to engage in self-control is one of our most cherished abilities and has led to all the advances that  human society has  been able to create. On the other, our lack of self-control is the root source, in my mind, of many of our greatest societal problems — climate change, racism, poverty.”

As well as more common college-student problems such as bad study habits and binge drinking. The developing prefrontal cortex gets much of the blame for bad adolescent behavior, but Braver explained the neuroscience is more complicated than that. Different regions of the brain work in concert to control different types of behaviors. The process that stops you from yelling at your roommate for playing music too loud is different from the process that chooses the library over Netflix. And both of those processes are different from the decision to speed on the highway.

“It would be incorrect to say that young people without self-control are getting bad information from their brains,” Braver said. “One part of their brain tells them it will feel good to drive 100 miles per hour. Another part tells them it’s dangerous. Both messages are correct. The problem is how they weigh those messages. It’s also that these are abstract concepts. It may be the brain has not been given enough information and time to process properly. We are still learning how these bits of information get integrated and where that happens.”

Another common failure of self-control is mind wandering. And no wonder. With text alerts and status updates constantly demanding our attention, it is hard to stay focused. Even worse, Braver noted, is our minds tend to fill with negative thoughts when they wander.

“We aren’t daydreaming, but worrying about things that stress us out,” Braver said.

Braver said one effective strategy is to establish a mindfulness practice. Braver teaches a mindfulness seminar for first-year students. Numerous apps and programs also are available.

“Mindfulness is an exciting area with practical benefits,” Braver said. “Essentially, mindfulness is noticing when your attention has wandered off and bringing it back. It’s not really different from doing reps on a weight machine. As you practice, you find you can keep your attention for longer periods of time.”

Braver recommended that students who would like to improve their self-control approach the challenge like any lab experiment: observe, analyze, test.

“We oftentimes take our self-control for granted and don’t understand our strengths and limitations,” Braver said. “The first step is to ask yourself, ‘Are there areas where I am consistently disappointed or surprised by my own behavior?’ If so, what is the cause? What is the effect? And then try different strategies. Mindfulness is promising, but exercise, eating and sleep also play roles. And, if that doesn’t work, seek help and resources.”

And don’t beat yourself up.

“That just leads to self-defeating actions,” Braver said. “You’re not a failure if you struggle with self-control. You’re just human.”

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