Rhyme and Reason

Ever feel like your willpower lets you down?

Wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you when act in the heat of the moment?

Perhaps you have goals but your actions are not always in alignment with these

Your brain really is wired with different pathways – read on to discover how

I was chatting with our digital humanist in the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change this week. She has young children and, as part of the impetus at the Centre to sustain creativity and innovation, decided to share a story that was current household favourite (she writes about it here). In the book, ‘Oh No, GEORGE!’ by Chrish Haughton, George (a dog) fails to keep his doggy drives – such as a fondness for cake and chasing cats – in check while Harris his human is away. Harris expresses his disappointment on his return, and this spurs George’s resolve to resist such temptations in the future. As the story reaches its climax, George faces his greatest test: a rubbish bin. What will George do?

George’s doggy difficulties illustrate a widely described battle in the human condition. Plato likened it to two horses pulling in opposite directions. Conceptualised then as the conflict between the forces of passion and reason, this struggle, in various guises, has become a pervasive theme in human endeavour. In psychodynamics, the struggle is evident in Freud’s triad of self: the fundamental drives of the unconscious (essentially the quest for nourishment, warmth and procreation) contradict the higher moral authority of the superego, which must constantly be managed by the ego. The economist Daniel Kahneman refers to the two ‘foes’ as System 1 (intuitive and responsible for fast, heuristic judgements) and System 2 (more reasoned and responsible for slower serial calculations).

There are numerous formulations of this dual system in psychology. In a classic experiment, children were left alone in a room with a treat in front of them. They were offered a choice: eat the first treat, or wait until the experimenter comes back into the room and receive a second treat. It turns out that children waited on average only 1 minute before consuming the first treat! Metcalfe and Mischel suggest that this is evidence of the conflict between two distinct neural networks in the brain, which they termed ‘hot’ and ‘cool’, and that the difficulty children experience with such delayed gratification occurs because children’s cool system is not yet well developed.

With modern technological developments, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), neuroscience has been able to look for possible neural underpinnings of the hot and cool networks. And evidence appears to support the theory. In a ‘grown up’ version of the marshmallow study, McClure and colleagues used functional MRI to explore regions of brain activation whilst participants made decisions about monetary rewards. Choices that involved immediate gratification appeared to activate parts of the limbic system. This system is a collection of structures deep in the brain, considered to be evolutionarily ‘old’, and implicated in emotion, behaviour, motivation and long-term memory. In contrast, delayed gratification choices generated greater activity in the cortex (the ‘newer’, outer layer of the brain), particularly in regions responsible for thought processes.

Thus it seems we have structurally distinct neural pathways for information processing. One, the ‘hot’ one, may be characterised as emotional, simple, reflexive, fast and stimulus driven. The other, the ‘cool’ one, is more cognitive, complex, reflective, slower and self-controlled. How people process information has tremendous implications, especially in the context of behaviour change, so this seems a good place for us to start our forays into neuropsychology this year. Decision-making, learning, beliefs, habits and many other aspects that define us are determined by information processing, and I hope to discuss several of these in the light of the dual process theory in coming instalments.

Best wishes for the new year

– The neuropsyguy –


Haughton, C. (2013). Oh no, George!

Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin.

McClure, S. M., Laibson, D. I., Loewenstein, G., & Cohen, J. D. (2004). Separate neural systems value immediate and delayed monetary rewards. Science, 306(5695), 503–507.

Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106(1), 3.

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