in Psychology, Science | Blog Posts


This blog post provides a layman’s understanding of the neurological basis for will power. The underlying knowledge is based on sound scientific reasoning but the conclusions are largely conjecture. As ever YMMV.

Fragmentation of thought

The idea of will power is incredibly strange. For example: consider someone who craves a cigarette but also wants not to smoke. Both the craving for and the will to stop are thoughts of a single brain. Their ability to resist the craving is an exercise of will power. This dichotomy – both wanting and not wanting something at the same time – hints at the unusual, fragmented nature of our brain.

Advanced structures in the human brain

To start with we need to understand the structure of the human brain. The majority of what we attribute to consciousness happens in our Frontal Lobe region. Among other things this provides us a sense of continuity of the self through the passage of time.

The frontal lobe makes up the largest part of our brain called the cerebral cortex and in humans is particularly large and dense. The Neocortex is the largest structure in the cerebral cortex and is largely believed to be responsible for conscious thought.

Conscious thought

From an evolutionary point of view these advanced structures are young. The prominence of the neocortex is likely to have evolved within the last half-million years. Much older structures are responsible for the actual things we are consciously aware of. This includes sensory capacity, memories and emotions.

We constantly process a vast amount of input from our senses. We are continuously experiencing past memories, present experiences and future speculation. A soup of neurotransmitters that influence mood saturate our brains. What happens when we become aware of a sound, memory or feeling? In a sense our conscious mind wrangles other brain structures to participate in the act of consciousness.

This is one aspect of “The Binding Problem” in neurology. How does our brain bind disparate neurological computations into coherent thoughts? For the binding of conscious thoughts there is an interesting hypothesis: a “wave” of firing neurons travels across the brain roughly 40 times a second (40hz). The neurons that are actively engaged in processing something at that same frequency enter into our conscious awareness. To become aware of something our conscious mind must influence assemblies of neurons to synchronise at this frequency.

Mayor of You-Town

Consciousness might be in the neocortex – and hence the newest, most advanced part of the brain. But in that sense it is the most powerful computer in a vast data center. However other (older) parts of the brain process inputs from our environment first.

The consequence of this is that some decisions you make happen before your conscious mind becomes aware of them. The classic example is road rage – acting aggressively to the person who cut you off. when that happens your conscious mind experiences a problem. I mentioned before that the Frontal Lobe is responsible for the continuity of self. Yet here was an action that happened independent of the self. You did not in fact choose to be aggressive.

Here the brain plays an elegant trick on itself. This is in contrast to the usual approach of your conscious mind wrangling other brain regions into awareness. Here the action that was already taken is absorbed by the conscious mind, which now takes credit for this outburst. Even though this wasn’t decided in the part of the brain that makes decisions it certainly feels like it was.

There’s an almost comical analogy of the conscious mind as an inept mayor. Let’s imagine the various parts of the brain as advisers to the Mayor. One of them walks into the Mayor’s office and hands them a plan about an initiative. A conversation ensues:

Mayor: What is this?
Aggression: We’re implementing a new initiative to tailgate that driver that just cut us off
Mayor: Hmm, I should probably think about this for a moment, is this really what we want to do?
Aggression: While you were thinking we’ve already started tailgating
Motor Cortex: Sir, we’ve calculated how closely we need to follow and implemented an action plan
Visual Cortex: Hey Motor, you might want to back off a bit
Mayor: Will everyone just slow down and let me think about this for a moment
Aggression: Of course sir
Temporal Lobe: If you sign the order now, we can implement it retroactively
Mayor: Yes, yes very good. I’ve decided that we are going to tailgate this jerk. Temporal Lobe, please retroactively implement my new policy.
Visual Cortex: Everyone might want to know that their brake lights just turned on
Motor Cortex: Already on it
Mayor: I issue an immediate order to stop the car!
Aggression: Who cares. That was half a second ago. I would like to table a motion that we get out of the car and beat this jerk up. All in favour?

This is what you’re craving

Something similar happens when it comes to cravings. It happens every time people feel a compulsion to smoke, eat more food, call an old ex, yell at someone, daydream instead of concentrate or any myriad of actions that we somehow know are “wrong”. Essentially some old (ancient even) part of the brain is dictating that we should do something.

Additionally there are reward centres in the brain that are firing up in anticipation. They promise your conscious mind that if this one little action is undertaken it will release a whole bunch of chemicals that will make you feel real good.

Meanwhile, the new up-and-comer that is the Neocortex decides that it knows better than millions of years of evolution. The powerful processing capability of the conscious mind is probably right. Unfortunately it can only do so much. It needs to wrestle control of your motor functions to prevent you from doing this activity on autopilot. If it doesn’t make it in time you’ll likely rationalise that you wanted to do that thing anyway.

But simply wrestling control away from the physical action isn’t enough. Some part of your brain has started running a simulation of what it’s going to be like to take a drag of that sweet sweet cigarette or how awesome it will be to yell at that idiot. You experience memories of what it was like last time you did this thing. And boy did it feel great.

Now you need to split the attention of your conscious mind. You try to prevent the memories of your craving entering your conscious thoughts. You try and quieten down the reward centre of your brain – telling it that you don’t need that sweet happy feeling right now. While you weren’t paying attention your left hand pulled the cigarette packet out of your pocket or your right hand moved onto the car horn.

Now your ability to handle other complex tasks fades. You stop paying attention to the person talking to you, your awareness of the road diminishes, your sense of the passage of time distorts. It feels like you are physically fighting the urge with every fibre of your being.

The victory over yourself

In the final chapter of George Orwell’s 1984, Winston’s conscious mind battles torture induced conditioning. His inquisitor told him that 2+2 is 5 if Big Brother wants it to be so. That 2+2=4 is an obvious fact becomes too fearful to even think. In the end the face of the ever present Big Brother looms over him and the book ends on a chilling tone:

“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

He had won the victory over himself. Such a dark concept reminds us that (much as we might not want to admit it) we are not at all times whole. Every day we do battle with different parts of our brain. But who wins?

The reason that addiction is so difficult for many has an additional complication. The reward centres of our brain are not wired into our will power. We don’t feel a surge of euphoria for overcoming a craving. In fact even after someone wins the battle over a craving the conscious mind has to continue to fight. Continue to resist. There is no reward for having a strong will – but there is a reward for caving to these impulses.

The silver lining is two fold.

First, it is possible to derive pleasure from self control. Just because the feeling of euphoria is not an automatic response to exercising will power, doesn’t mean that it can’t be learned. That is why reward systems for will power are often effective – it provides an immediate motivation to achieve a goal.

Second (and much more important) is that we can overcome our urge for instant gratification. The older parts of our brain might have first pass at processing a response but they aren’t necessarily in charge. We can consciously pursue delayed gratification.

The conscious mind is the only part of the brain that can think sufficiently long term. Our life will be better over the long run if we exercise self control. The primitive components of our brain are oblivious to these facts. But our conscious mind can do a very impressive feat. It can speculate on the future. It can extrapolate from existing data and predict outcomes. And with this knowledge can overcome our innate desires.

Have you got a comment, criticism or suggestion? Contact Rick on or