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Stupid Brain Tricks: How to Increase Willpower and Self Control

July 11, 2013, 4:29 PM

It is remarkable how willpower can be exercised so that when you exercise something relatively silly like brushing your teeth with the wrong hand, this can increase things that might matter to you much more, like sticking with an exercise program. 

So the fact that a particular brain region can be responsible for self-restraint and such different activities is something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect just from the everyday experience of dental hygiene versus staying on the treadmill.  So that would be one example of a brain hack.  

Another example of a brain hack is that, again on the subject of willpower, that self-control is a resource that can be built up with practice.  And so whether it’s in children or in adults, the idea that we can somehow build up a mental capacity by practicing it, right?  The principle that brains do well with what they do often.  I think maybe the biggest thing that can affect people’s lives is physical exercise. 

So we think of physical exercise as a thing that we do for our bodies, if we think about it in a biological sense. We think perhaps in terms of exercis3e being good for our cardiovascular system or for our balance or for whatever athletic thing that we are trying to get out of the exercise.  But one unanticipated consequence of exercise is that exercise is also good for the brain.  And it’s probably good for the brain for many of the same reasons.  

So there is a general principle which is that what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain that when you improve your cardiovascular system, you’re also improving blood flow in your brain.  And this is a likely reason why exercise is good for mental function at any age, whether it’s in your 20’s or 30’s, in your 60’s or 70’s, whatever age you might be, physical exercise seems to have benefits, one of them being retained cognitive capacity when you get older.  And of course, it has other benefits such as improvements in mood.  It turns out that physical exercise is as affective for depression as taking an antidepressant.  So, physical exercise really has many good benefits for brain function.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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Stupid Brain Tricks: How to...

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