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Ego Depletion, Motivation and Attention: A New Model of Self-Control
Willpower is a limited resource easily drained by everyday activity.
The human brain is fickle when it comes to commitments. Between 60 and 80 percent of people don’t use their gym memberships. Most diets work at first but backfire in the long run. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman, about 88 percent of New Year’s resolutions end in failure.
Given how widespread our broken pledges are, it’s no surprise that psychologists study human willpower. Florida State University Professor of Psychology Roy Baumeister is one of the main figures in this area of study. His research on willpower began in the late 1990s with a few papers demonstrating that when people exert willpower, self-control, persistence and rationality founder. Willpower, he discovered, was a limited resource easily drained by everyday activity.
For example, in one study Baumeister and three colleagues deprived participants of food for several hours and then exposed them to the delectable smell and sight of chocolate chip cookies and chocolate candies. The sweet tease mattered. Participants not allowed to indulge (they ate radishes instead) quit faster on unsolvable puzzles than participants who devoured the tasty treats.
More recently, Baumeister teamed with Kathleen Vohs and other colleagues to investigate how decision-making impairs self-control. In a clever experiment they presented one group of participants with a table full of products - colored pens, scented candles, popular magazines, and colored t-shirts - and asked them to “indicate the extent to which they had used each product in the past.” The second group had their work cut out for them. The researchers gave them the same list of products but instructed them to carefully choose between two different versions of each product: a white t-shirt vs. a black t-shirt, a red pen vs. a purple pen, etc. Would all the choices deplete their willpower?
When both groups dipped their hands in frigid ice water Baumeister, Vohs and their research team found that the second group gave up sooner than the first. “Making all those choices,” Baumeister concludes in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, a recent book he co-authored with John Tierney that brings together over a decade of his research, “had apparently sapped their willpower, and the effect showed up again in other decision-making exercises.”
In other words, human willpower is exhaustible. Under this paradigm, exercising willpower in one instance reduces our ability to decide optimally, exert self-control or perform well on tasks in proceeding instances. Willpower is like a muscle, when it’s depleted – what Baumeister termed “ego depletion” – we suffer the consequences.
This might not be the whole picture, however. A brand new paper by Michael Inzlicht (University of Toronto) and Brandon J. Schmeichel (Texas A&M University) propose that, “[ego depletion] is not some mysterious result of lost self-control resources but rather the result of shifts in motivation, attention, and emotion.”
Inzlicht and Schmeichel outline several studies that hint at their new framework. In one conducted by Mark Muraven participants performed tasks designed to induce ego-depletion (a thought suppression task, memory task or puzzles). Here was the key: Muraven told half of the participants that the study was designed to provide scientific evidence for new therapies for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. He told the other condition to just try their best at the task. With the health of Alzheimer patients on the line, participants in the first condition outperformed the control condition. A simple motivational incentive eliminated ego depletion.
There are other reasons to believe that ego-depletion might not be about “resource depletion.” A few studies provide evidence that participants who work hard on an initial task feel justified in slacking off during subsequent tasks. Research from Veronika Job, Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton even found that participants who believed that willpower is unlimited showed fewer signs of ego depletion compared to participants who thought willpower is limited, suggesting that reduced self-control is a function of people’s folk psychological beliefs. Taken together, our struggles with willpower might be a struggle with motivation and perception.
Inzlicht and Schmeichel also theorize that previous models of depletion result from shifting attention. They explain it this way. We exert self-control when there is a gap between what we want (desired states) and what we are engaged in (current states). For instance, self-control kicks in when we want to keep drinking but realize that we have to drive home; this monitoring system is especially active when there are severe consequences between pursuing a desired state over a current state.
Since initial acts of control lead attention to wonder, participants in the lab who solve puzzles, decide between products or try not to think of white elephants will pay less attention to the need to control and more on what’s gratifying. It’s not that they cannot control themselves; it’s that they temporarily “forget” that they ought to focus their attention on self-control.
Motivation and attention are, of course, interdependent, “[The] shift in motivation away from restraint and towards gratification is accompanied by a parallel shift in attention away from cues signaling the need to control and towards cues signaling the possibility of reward.” However, it is unclear which way the casual arrows points.
What is apparent is that a decade worth of research on willpower is incomplete. Inzlicht and Schmeichel aren’t in the business of destroying paradigms. They emphasize that previous research by Baumeister and colleagues is valuable and state that they’ve contributed to it. But they advise psychologists to understand self-control and its depletion at a more mechanical level. “That self-control exertion at Time 1 affects self-control at Time 2 has been replicated over 100 separate times,” they affirm. “Now we need to gain a more precise understanding of why that is.”
Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A physicist creates an AI algorithm that predicts natural events and may prove the simulation hypothesis.
- Princeton physicist Hong Qin creates an AI algorithm that can predict planetary orbits.
- The scientist partially based his work on the hypothesis which believes reality is a simulation.
- The algorithm is being adapted to predict behavior of plasma and can be used on other natural phenomena.
Physicist Hong Qin with images of planetary orbits and computer code.
Credit: Elle Starkman
Are we living in a simulation? | Bill Nye, Joscha Bach, Donald Hoffman | Big Think<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4dbe18924f2f42eef5669e67f405b52e"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KDcNVZjaNSU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
How different people react to threats of violence.
Beyond making up 70% of the world's health workers, women researchers have been at the cutting edge of coronavirus research.