From Impulsivity to Self-Control
Saturday, June 25, 2016 23 Comments
Self-Control increases as the brain develops
(but science isn’t exactly sure HOW)
© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Self-control is a developmental process.
Self Control — none of us are born with it, and very few of us are able to banish acting on impulse completely. A percentage of us struggle to manage our faster-than-a-speeding-bullet emotional responses for our entire lives: those who retain high levels of what is termed impulsivity.
Not surprisingly, some of the most comprehensive understanding of impulsivity comes from the study of children and teens.
Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, the neuroscientist who led the team testifying during the Supreme Court case that abolished the death penalty for juveniles [Roper v. Simmons], is well known for his research that has illuminated some of the underlying causes of reckless behavior in teens and young adults.
He explains impulsivity as an imbalance in the development of two linked brain systems that he describes in the following manner:
- the incentive processing system, regulating the anticipation and processing of rewards and punishments, as well as the emotional processing of society’s behavioral expectations, and
- the cognitive control system, orchestrating logical reasoning and impulse regulation – two important skills that make up what is termed our Executive Functions, which depend on neurotypical development of the PreFrontal Cortex [PFC]
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Impulsive by nature
We are all impulsive as youngsters. It seems like practically anything can happen if you turn your attention away from a young child in your charge for even a moment.
Almost any mom or dad could regale you with tales of broken bones, near-misses when a toddler ran into the street, and other behavioral mishaps in the first ten or twelve years of their children’s lives.
As time goes by, young children learn to govern their adventurous natures by what they have been taught are “the rules,” more than an authentic understanding of the benefits of self-control. Depending on their temperaments, they are either eager to please or eager to avoid the consequences of punishment for getting caught breaking the rules.
Gradually, and through different ways and means, most children begin to see the cause-and-effect rationale behind some of those rules, beginning to develop what adults call common sense.
It takes TIME as well as teaching
Without adult supervision, the development of the ability to self-monitor and self-supervise would be severely delayed.
Parenting books galore are filled with information about developmental stages: what kind of behavioral control to expect at what age. Those are composite statistics, however. Individual children develop different skills at different rates, regardless of how attentively they are parented.
Cognitive control develops slowly and steadily as the PFC matures, a process that continues well into the twenties (and into the early thirties in some individuals). Without the development of effective Executive Functions, many of the skills we tend to take for granted will need to be compensated for in other ways.
And THEN you have a teenager!
As puberty approaches, the incentive processing system enters what you might think of as a growth spurt.
It changes rapidly, quickly outpacing expected improvements in impulse control, reasoning and consequence prediction, because the steady growth of the PFC (regulating cognitive control) can’t keep pace with the suddenly rapid development of the incentive processing, or “SEEKING” system.
As Steinberg puts it, “the accelerator is activated
before a good braking system is in place”
The ages between 14–17 are a time when disparity between the two systems seems to be the greatest. As a result, teens become relatively more aware of immediate rewards, which generally means a strong preference for rapid feedback, increased sensation seeking, and a frustration with, if not active dislike for, the idea of delayed gratification.
We can see this most clearly in the study and test-taking habits of intelligent teens who under-perform in school, and in teens who fuss when text returns are not immediate.
Scientific research has also indicated that the “Peer Effect” seems to have a positive correlation with teen impulsive behavior, while impulsive adults are less likely to jump from impulse to action under peer observation (without the influence of alcohol, or the effect of what is often referred to as “mob mentality”). This effect appears more moderate in young adults (19–22 years old), although it is still evident.
In other words, the presence of same-sex, same-age friends tend to prompt
an increase in risk-taking behavior until the PFC comes fully on-board.
But WAIT, there’s more . . .
As an excellent article on brain development and learning found HERE puts it, there is a “back story” as well. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health describes it this way:
“The cerebellum, in the back of the brain, is the part of the brain that changes most during the teen years and does not finish growing well into the early 20s. The cerebellum used to be thought to be involved in the coordination of our muscles. So if your cerebellum is working well, you were graceful, a good dancer, a good athlete.
“But we now know it is also involved in coordination of our cognitive processes, our thinking processes. Just like one can be physically clumsy, one can be mentally clumsy. And this ability to smooth out all the different intellectual processes to navigate the complicated social life of the teen and to get through these things smoothly and gracefully instead of lurching seems to be a function of the cerebellum.” [Giedd, PBS Frontline, 2002]
Executive Functioning Dysregulations
We don’t need research to tell us that a high degree of Impulsivity is seen in certain disorders, although it does corroborate our observations.
- Sheri L. Johnson of the University of California, one of the experts on bipolar disorder, has noted that impulsivity is strongly connected to reward responsivity. She discloses that, compared with controls, the brains of those with BP-II show an elevated, a-typical reward responsiveness.
In other words, her research indicates that there is an increased tendency to respond to positive mood states with rapid changes in behavior — usually seen in sensation-seeking activities and/or rash decisions without little to no consideration of consequences.
It was also noted that, in bipolar individuals, attaining one’s goals tends to trigger manic symptoms, which further increase impulsivity.
- Among others, Timothy J. Trull of the University of Missouri, examined both impulsivity in people with bipolar disorder and affective instability (mood swings) and impulsivity in borderline personality disorder (BPD), and found a similar brain-based increase in those symptoms. He particularly noted problematic behaviors like an inability to get along with others, to habitual conflict, and a high likelihood of substance abuse.
- The majority of long-term experts in ADD/ADHD, EFD (Executive Functioning Disorders) and prefrontal cortex dysfunction consider impulsivity among their key symptoms.
- Individuals who have experienced concussions and brain injuries [TBI/ABI] frequently report that they seem to have lost emotional or physical self-control in one or more arenas, often for the first time in their lives.
It only makes sense when you think about the necessity of balance between the two systems described above. If one area has not developed in a neurotypical manner, or has been damaged subsequently, the balance is disrupted.
Since the cognitive control system is located primarily in the cortex, the brain’s outer layer, it is most likely to have suffered the most damage.
The PFC, the front portion of the the cortex (right behind the forehead), is not only the area where atypical development is seen in EFD, ADD/ADHD, BP-II, etc., it is also the area most vulnerable to damage.
Kludgy Executive Functioning, unreliable disinhibitory control.
The primary areas of responsibility for the emotional incentive processing system are located more deeply, in the older and primarily unconscious parts of the brain – less likely to have sustained damage.
VOILA – instant teenage-like impulsive behavior!
But-but-BUT . . .
You don’t have to have a formal diagnosis of ANY type to struggle with impulsivity.
None of us seem to be immune from its siren call at certain times and in certain situations. We struggle unsuccessfully with all sorts of bad habits that we sometimes can’t seem to resist, despite effective willpower at other times.
A prior article in my Impulsivity Series offers two lists of behaviors that many of us struggle to contain, to our chagrin, despite the obvious negative effect in our lives.
Click to read: Low-grade Impulsivity Ruins Lives Too.
Looking for help with Self-Control
An internet search for “self control” returns page upon page of articles, some claiming to have found solutions, others explaining why it’s so difficult to develop, and still others imploring us to work on it, since it’s so important, doncha’ know.
Many of them seem to imply that diligence and willingness “to pay the price” are behind their own success with staying the course, along with that of others they profile.
Not so many seem to be interested in really investigating why there seems to be such a wide gap between individuals who are able to develop rather effective self-control and those with life-long struggles with impulsivity.
Surely they can’t believe that ALL of us of us whose lives are less successful than we would like are simply lazy, uninformed, or looking for an excuse or an escape hatch!
Help & understanding are on the way?
Christopher J. Patrick of Florida State University believes that individual differences in arenas like defensive reactivity and inhibitory control can be measured using physiological (body-based) measures, including a close look at what’s going on in the brain.
His research hopes to discover the neurobiological mechanisms of action that correlate with psychological vulnerabilities and the development of trait resilience.
“More specifically,” he says, “my research applies cognitive and affective neuroscience methods to the study of psychopathy, impulse control (“externalizing”) problems, and anxiety and mood (“internalizing”) disorders.”
“My work focuses on understanding these disorders in terms of individual difference characteristics such as inhibitory control and defensive reactivity that are directly linked to neurobiological systems.”
According to his FSU webpage, his recent research has also incorporated behavioral and molecular genetic techniques to look at questions about the causes of impulse disorders and the vulnerability to the traits that accompany them.
He believes (and looks at, through the results of an inventory he has developed) that they are a “heritable vulnerability that is expressed in differing ways (e.g., as impulsive aggression, alcohol dependence, or drug problems) depending on other environmental and genetic influences.”
More research is needed, clearly, which may eventually lead to effective treatment options – perhaps even methods of prevention. Meanwhile we must look to ways of developing work-arounds that will help us get where we want to go despite the tractor-beam of impulsivity.
Make sure you make some time to check out Peer Coaching Basic Training to find out how to set up a fee-free type of accountability coaching that will shore up your willpower reserves and help you stay on task despite the siren-call of impulsivity.
AND STAY TUNED – Future articles from the Impulsivity articles of The Challenges Inventory™ Series will explore more of the “back-stage and under-the-hood” dynamics, along with ways to manage the various presentations of several types of impulsivity — articles that will help you figure out how to deal with your very own life more effectively.
BY THE WAY, if you will let me know where your struggles with impulsivity lie (in the comments section below), even if I don’t have time to respond to each comment comprehensively, I will make it a point to include suggestions targeted specifically for YOUR challenges with impulsivity in the upcoming series.
That amounts to free Professional Coaching
if you’ll make the time advantage of it!!
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There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
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Related articles right here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com
(Some repeated – in case you missed them above)
- Brain-based Coaching with Madelyn Griffith-Haynie
- ABOUT Impulsivity
- Working with Impulsivity – Peeping at the Gap between Impulse and Action
- Low-grade Impulsivity Ruins Lives Too
- Executive Functioning, Focus and Attentional Bias
- Distinguishing Distractibility
- Body Doubles for Activation & Accountability
- ABOUT Activation
- Priorities-101:Yes means No
- Intentionality CAN be a Trap
- The Challenges Inventory™ Series LinkList
Related articles ’round the ‘net
- How Does Mindfulness Improve Self-Control?
- The Teenage Brain: Research Highlights
- Development of the Young Brain (NIMH: YouTube)
- Study: Teens brains’ may predispose them to drug abuse, impulsive behavior [CBS News]
- How to Deal with an Impulsive Child
- The Teen Brain: Primed to Learn, Primed to Take Risks [DANA Foundation]
- Behavioral Issues (Broken Brain/Brilliant Mind: TBI)
- The Problem with Impulsiveness (TBI)
BY THE WAY: Since ADDandSoMuchMore.com is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.