The Neuroscience of Self and Self-Regulation

Todd F. Heatherton Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 03766 The Annual Review of Psychology (psych.annualreviews.org).   (full text)

Todd F. Heatherton

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 03766

The Annual Review of Psychology (psych.annualreviews.org).  

(full text)


Why Self-Regulation?

As a social species, our survival depends on our ability to form and maintain relationships with groups of other humans.  Being part of a group, however, creates situations in which there is a tension between the group's interest and our own individual impulses/self-interest.  The process of being able to change thoughts, feelings, or actions in order to navigate and satisfy both personal and society's goals and standards is called "self-regulation".

The Psychological Components of Self-Regulation

There are four components necessary for successful functioning in the social world:

1. Self-Awareness

Being able to reflect on our behavior and experience is the first step in self-regulation.  Through a process of self-reflection we are able to gauge our behavior in the context of social norms.

2. Mentalizing

Knowing that others will have judgments about our behaviors is the second step in self-regulation.  "Mentalizing" refers to our ability to infer the mental states of others so that we can predict their behavior.

3. Threat Detection

This step refers to our organism's inner alarm bell that goes off when we realize that our behavior is being perceived as negative by the group we wish to belong to.  Feeling socially anxious and worried is what motivates us (implicitly and explicitly) to take corrective action.

4. Self-Regulation

Once we are aware that our actions are being negatively evaluated by the group and feel "threatened", we are motivated to take corrective action.  From a neurological standpoint this corrective action also includes forming memories that will motivate us towards pro-active behavior modification and not just retroactive/corrective behaviors.

The Neuroscience of Self-Regulation

Image from 3D Brain, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Image from 3D Brain, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that the brain has evolved distinct mechanisms to process our sense of self, inferring how others feel about us, detecting social threats and how to regulate our emotions and actions.  All of these studies have shown heightened activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC).  While the  MPFC appears to be activated in some capacity in all four of the steps of self-regulation, it would not be appropriate to claim that the "self" resides in the MPFC.

Much of what is known about the neuroscience of self-regulation comes from observing what happens when people damage the MPFC.  The most famous case was Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman, who in 1848 survived an accident in which a tamping iron penetrated his skull.  Although he survived, he experienced significant damage to his PFC and therefore his self-regulatory functions.  Case after case of MPFC damage, from Phineas Gage through today, show patients who are unable to regulate their social and emotional processes.  Such patents become aggressive, anti-social and "socially inappropriate."

Self-Regulation is a Limited Resource

Van Horn, J.D.; Irimia, A.; Torgerson, C.M.; Chambers, M.C.; Kikinis, R.; Toga, A.W. (2012). "Mapping Connectivity Damage in the Case of Phineas Gage". 

Van Horn, J.D.; Irimia, A.; Torgerson, C.M.; Chambers, M.C.; Kikinis, R.; Toga, A.W. (2012). "Mapping Connectivity Damage in the Case of Phineas Gage". 

One of the more "practical" conclusions derived from research in this domain is the understanding that the capacity for regulating behavior relies on neurobiological resources that can be depleted by situational demands.  Put simply, self-regulation gets harder if we are stressed.  The opposite holds true as well - if we spend a lot of energy self-regulating our emotions and behavior, other tasks that require attention and focus are diminished.  The conclusion from this research suggests that while we are to some extent at the mercy of our neurobiology, we can actively participate in optimizing our self-regulation capacity but setting up optimal (reduced or even stress free) environments as well as training our self-awareness and empathic (mentalizing) skills.

This article summary is written by EXLI's Oli Mittermaier.