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31 October 2012
You only have so much self-control. Once you’ve used up those resources of self-control, well you can’t be expected to resist everything. As Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation”. If you find yourself agreeing with the idea that your capacity for self-control has defined limitations, somewhat like your fitness capacity, then new research might make you think again.
Resisting a sweet treat might be regarded as something that would tax your capacity for self-control. There is a theory though that sweets, or carbohydrates, themselves are what give you a capacity for self-control or self-discipline. Under this theory, the more you exert self-control the more you deplete your brain’s glucose supplies and so a waning sense of control goes along with a declining glucose supply. If this is true then topping up your glucose levels should also renew your resistance.
To test whether this is the case researchers measured participant’s blood sugar levels before giving them tasks that required self control. In this study no relationship was found between glucose metabolism and capacity for self-control. However, another study did find something interesting.
In the second study it was found that subjects who rinsed their mouth with a glucose solution did better than other people on self-control tasks. This was despite the fact that the glucose was only gargled and there was not enough time for the glucose to be metabolised. So rather than glucose fuelling self-control in a literal sense it might be that the activation of sweet receptors in the mouth could activate parts of the brain that are involved in selecting and also stopping, or controlling, actions.
Rather than needing sugar in your blood stream then to maintain willpower, you might just need to be expecting sugar via stimulation of the sweet receptors in your mouth. So if you need to exert a little willpower you might just need to rinse and not swallow which is a good enough principle to live by really.