HEALTHY LIVING
05/03/2014 10:48 am ET Updated May 03, 2014

Scientists Can Predict Whether You Can Resist That Donut By Looking At Your Brain

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Scientists are able to tell whether you'll be able to resist temptation just by looking at where activity is occurring in your brain.

A person's ability to resist temptation -- food cravings, for instance -- can be predicted by looking at whether activity is occurring in regions of the brain linked with reward, or regions of the brain linked with self-control, in response to viewing tempting photos, found researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Cologne.

For the Psychological Science study, researchers first had 31 women undergo brain imaging as they completed two tasks. The first task involved having them look at different pictures of high-calorie foods, including desserts and fast food items, and say whether each image was set indoors or outdoors. The researchers had them do this task in order to see what activity was occurring in the nucleus accumbens part of the brain, in response to viewing the food images. (The nucleus accumbens is known to play a role in affect and reward.)

Then, in the second task, the researchers wanted to see how activity in the inferior frontal gyrus part of the brain -- which is associated with self-control -- was affected by viewing the food images. For this task, the participants were instructed to either press, or not press, a button in response to cues that were given with the food images.

After these two tasks, the researchers then had the women go through a week where they were signaled several times a day on their phones to report food cravings and eating behaviors. If they indicated they were experiencing a food desire, they were asked to say how strong that desire was and how resistant they were to giving in to it, as well as if they ended up giving into it. If they gave into it, they were also asked to report how much they ate of the desired food.

Researchers found that the women who had more activity in the nucleus accumbens part of the brain from the beginning of the study were the ones more likely to experience food cravings -- and to give in to said cravings and eat more of the food.

Meanwhile, the women who had more activity in the inferior frontal gyrus part of the brain were the ones least likely to give in to their food cravings, and had more control over their consumption of the craved food.

In fact, when researchers grouped the women by their interior frontal gyrus activity, the women with the lowest activity in this brain region were 8.2 times more likely to give in to cravings than the women with the highest activity.

So according to this study, self-control is vital to staving off temptations (or at least getting a better handle of them). Fortunately, there is some research on ways to boost self-control:

Get a quick exercise session in. Even little workout sessions can increase activity in the parts of the brain that regulate self-control, according to a 2013 review of studies in the British Medical Journal.

Surround yourself with good influences. If you struggle with temptation, surrounding yourself with other people who have good self-control can help you resist, a 2013 Psychological Science study showed.

Focus on the big picture. Especially in the context of weight loss, thinking of the big picture instead of the little steps you need to take along the way can help improve your self-control, says a 2012 study in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Pray. A 2013 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study showed that prayer can help you resist temptation. But non-religious types, don't worry -- the researchers of the study noted that it's likely the social connection experienced during prayer that helped to improve temptation resistance, which might mean that social connection to people could have similar effects.

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