Our urges and impulses are always in a stop-go relationship with our self-control. And some of us are not as good at at inhibiting our urges as others. For instance, most people stop at one slice of cake, but others simply can't, and just keep going.
In this vein, the researchers behind a new study wanted to understand the brain connectivity in overweight and obese children: they especially were interested in how the areas involved with inhibition, impulsivity, and reward were connected.
So they scanned the brains of 38 children, 8-13 years old, 11 of whom were overweight or obese. The team was particularly interested in the inferior parietal lobe, which is linked to inhibition; the frontal pole, which is associated with impulsivity; and the nucleus accumbens, which plays a role in reward. The kids also filled out the Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire, which tries to capture people's eating habits.
It turned out that in kids who tended to overeat, there were more connections in the region of the brain associated with impulsivity, relative to the part of the brain linked to inhibition. Not surprisingly, the reverse was true for kids who did not tend to overeat.
The authors suggest that because of these differences in brain connectivity, mindfulness training might be a helpful strategy, since it's well known to rewire the brain, particularly in the way of boosting inhibition. Some studies in adults have also found that mindfulness training may help overweight adults lose weight by reducing their tendency to binge eat. If mindfulness were taught to kids at an early age, it might also help improve self-control over the course of a lifetime.
And almost everyone has a tendency to overeat sometimes - our brains are wired to crave food, seek it out, and scarf it down when we find it. The problem is that, while our ancestors needed to do that, we don't, since food is everywhere.
"Adults, and especially children, are primed towards eating more," said study author Kevin Niswender. "This is great from an evolutionary perspective - they need food to grow and survive. But in today's world, full of readily available, highly advertised, energy dense foods, it is putting children at risk of obesity."
In other words, we may need some more powerful tricks to help us overcome our hardwired habits - tricks that can help us rewire.
More work needs to be done here, but the idea that mindfulness training may help us, and our children, in the area of self-control, is really exciting. And given all the other benefits of mindfulness - reduction in depression, anxiety, and "monkey mind" - it's a pretty good investment whether you have issues with self-control or not.