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Delayed Gratification

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Consistently choosing immediate reward over delayed gratification is a common problem for compulsive overeaters. Scientists call this intertemporal choice (IC), meaning choices that differ in the timing of their consequences. Many believe the inability to choose the larger, but delayed, reward of weight reduction over the immediate gratification of fatty foods evidences "poor self-control." It is not that simplistic. Biology wires our brains by observing our early-life experiences to determine how our world should be so that our brains are prepared to respond to life accordingly. [1]

This applies to how various neural systems inform intertemporal choices. IC is an issue of individual brain wiring responding to a specific situation at a specific point in time. [2] In addition, every one has chosen immediate gratification over delayed gratification, and vice versa, in his or her life. Therefore, IC is an episodic event, not a litmus test for determining character. This is important, because we become what we think we are. Stigmatizing ourselves because of our neuro-disposition is not useful. It is like a person believing they are incapable of mowing their lawn because he or she does not understand how their lawnmower works. They will never mow the lawn as long as they think believe that. However, if the person realizes that they just need to learn how to use the lawn mower, eventually they learn, and mow the lawn. The same is true for compulsive overeaters and intertemporal choice preferences. Our lawnmowers work, we just need to learn how to use them. Therefore, we must focus on understanding how intertemporal choice works in our brains, rather than judging ourselves for how it works.

Intertemporal choice is reward-based. [3] Primarily, we seek rewards for pleasure. Pleasure motivates humans, so it serves an evolutionary purpose. The evolutionary purpose of reward is to ensure behaviors that promote wellbeing. For example, controlling vegetative function and organizing goal-directed behavior, such as choosing delayed gratification for the greater good. [4] Controlling behavior, like IC, requires extracting reward-related information from a range of internal and external sources. To accomplish this, the brain: detects rewards, determines availability and accessibility, learns to predict future rewards based on past experience, establishes reward value, and uses reward information to learn, choose, prepare and execute goal-directed behaviors. [5] This involves many brain structures, systems, neuro-chemicals, and other factors. Thus, there are many opportunities for signal failures and compromised pathways to lessen desired outcomes. This compromise-potential increases exponentially when you consider compensatory brain wiring strategies by early life trauma survivors, or those with metabolic or endocrine concerns, which describes most compulsive overeaters. [6]

Take for example, the medial orbital frontal cortex (mOFC), which is the primary brain structure associated with intertemporal choice. [5] The mOFC establishes our preference for delayed gratification by calculating the value of immediate gratification versus delayed gratification, or by imagining the future reward of delayed gratification. [7]

Studies have also shown that anticipation of reward activates the mOFC. [2] [5] [8] Dopamine, the neurochemical that makes reward pleasurable, releases in the mOFC, although subcortical structures manufacture dopamine. [9] Subcortical events, such as habit formation, affect dopamine production. [10] This raises the question: How does the encoding of stimulus-response habit formation in subcortical regions of the reward system influence the representation of reward value in the mOFC? In turn, how does that representation influence intertemporal choice? The more familiar you are with the reward value of an event, the more likely you are to choose it over less familiar rewards. If eating in response to specific stressors has become a stimulus-response behavior encoded in your ventral striatum, does the mOFC really have the option of choosing between immediate and delayed gratification?

More importantly, stress negatively affects brain function, especially the neural components of the reward system. [11] Excessive or prolonged exposure to stress results in allostatic load. Allostatic load is when our body's protective mechanisms, designed to keep us healthy, begin making us sick from chronic over usage. [12] Eating is the body's fundamental self-protective mechanism. Compulsive overeating is the ultimate example of over usage of a protective mechanism making us sick.

Allostatic load lies at the root of most physical and behavioral health problems, intertemporal choice included. [13] [14] This is because allostatic load distorts, disrupts, and eventually extinguishes human biology. Maybe the issue is not chronic impulsivity impeaching our ability to choose delayed gratification over immediate lesser rewards. Maybe the issue is how endured stress reconstructs our perception of reward value. In addition, primary rewards, (such as food, drugs, alcohol, and sex) due their power to provide instant satisfaction, are discounted at a higher rate than secondary rewards such as monetary gains. [15] [16] Maybe the immediate dopamine release that instant gratification provides is actually more valuable when one is in allostatic load.

Metabolism is also a powerful determinant of intertemporal choice. Studies show that increasing blood glucose levels led to an increase in the value placed on future rewards; conversely, drinking a beverage without sugar led to an increase in the value placed on current rewards. [7] [17] The take-home message there: spikes in blood sugar probably promote impulsivity. Artificial sweeteners, refined sugars, complex carbs etc., cause spikes in blood sugar. [18]

Take home message: The less stress we endure, the more likely we are to make good intertemporal choices. Self-acceptance decreases stress, thereby promoting better intertemporal choices. [19] [20] So, love and accept yourself just as you are, and always remain Fabulous and Phenomenal!

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