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Science Says When Self-Control Is Hard, Try Empathizing With Your Future Self

Science Says When Self-Control Is Hard, Try Empathizing With Your Future Self

You are an achiever, working hard each day to realize your dreams. But what about those days when you hit the snooze button on your alarm or opt for watching an extra hour of TV? Later you might berate yourself for having poor self-control, but what really happens in those moments when you decide between short-term comfort and future goals? Researcher Alexandar Soutscheck at the University of Zurich has found evidence that the same part of the brain responsible for empathizing with others also plays a role in self-control. According to the results of Soutscheck’s study, another way to think of self-control is “empathy with your future self”[1].

The Science Behind Self-Control

People have been fascinated with the neuroscience of self-control since the famous “Marshmallow Test” of the 19060s[2]. In this test, children were given a marshmallow and told that if they avoided eating it for fifteen minutes, they would get a second one. Some were able to wait, while others ate the first marshmallow right away. Scientists assumed the frontal cortex of the brain played the biggest role in this ability to sacrifice short-term satisfaction for long-term fulfillment.

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Soutscheck’s study, however, reveals that

our impulse control is less based on an order from our executive command center, or frontal cortex, and more correlated with the empathic part of our brain. In other words, when we exercise self-control, we take on the perspective of our future self and empathize with that self’s perspectives, feelings, and motivations

From the perspective of our future self, we are able to make decisions that line up with our future goals. Instead of simply restraining themselves or telling themselves what to do, the most successful impulse controllers relate to their imagined future selves like a trusted mentor, allowing their future self to positively influence their current decisions.

The Important Role Empathy Plays

Soutscheck’s study also reveals what happens when we fail to exercise the empathic part of our brain. When Soutscheck interrupted the empathic center of the brain in 43 study volunteers, they were more likely to take a small amount of cash immediately over a larger amount in the future. They were also less inclined to share the money with a partner. Soutscheck’s study showed that the more people are stuck inside their own perspective, even just from having the empathic part of their brain disrupted, the more likely they are to behave selfishly and impulsively.

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When you think about it, impulsivity is often just acting unkindly toward your future self. Consider the previous examples of hitting the snooze button or watching an extra hour of TV. By engaging in these activities, you are hurting the joy and fulfillment of your future self. That’s right, self-control may be more aptly described as behaving altruistically toward your future self. So instead of thinking in terms of restraining your current impulses, think of giving your future self the tools and experiences you need in order to achieve your goals.

The Key to Empathizing with Yourself

Next time you find yourself caught between short-term pleasure and long-term goals, try these simple actions:

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  • Imagine your future self achieving your long-term goal.
  • Step into how good your future self feels about achieving the goal, for example feeling grateful for all the sacrifices that were made.
  • Consider what your future self, who has achieved the goal, might advise you to do in your current situation.

The important thing to do is to step outside your own perspective in the moment. The more we stay trapped in our immediate perspective, the more likely we are to behave in ways we’ll regret. So make stepping into other perspectives and practicing empathy a regular part of your day, even if just the perspective of your future self.

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Lindsay Shaffer

Freelance Writer, Artist, Photographer

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Last Updated on June 6, 2019

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

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     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.

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    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

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      A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

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      Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

      “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

      When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

      The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

      As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

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      “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

      Silence relieves stress and tension.

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        It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

        A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

        “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

        Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

        Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

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          The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

          Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

          But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]

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          Summation

          Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

          Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

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