10/24/2013 09:07 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Ability To Delay Gratification Linked With Brain's Hippocampus


The reason why some people are better able to delay gratification could have something to do with the brain's hippocampus, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris found that activity in the hippocampus is linked with the ability to imagine future rewards, which then enable humans to stave off the need for instant gratification.

"This is because the hippocampus is necessary for imagining future situations with a richness of details that make them attractive enough," study researcher Mathias Pessiglione said in a statement. "Indeed, this structure has long been considered as essential for storing past episodes, but scientists have recently discovered that it is also involved in simulating future situations."

For the study, published in the journal PLoS Biology, participants were given a choice between beer today (which was offered in the form of a picture), or champagne a week from now (which was offered verbally). Researchers found that activity in the hippocampus was linked with the ability to hold off on the beer and pick the greater reward -- the champagne -- for later.

Researchers also conducted the same test in people with Alzheimer's -- whose hippocampuses were damaged because of their condition -- as well as people with frontotemporal dementia (which involves damage of a different part of the brain). They found that participants with Alzheimer's experienced more impulsivity in their choices, choosing the immediate reward more often over the longer-term reward, than those with frontotemporal dementia.

The findings show that "patients with hippocampus damage suffer not only from memory deficits but also from a difficulty in imagining goals that would counter the attraction of immediate rewards and motivate their actions on the long run," Pessiglione said in the statement.

Of course, other factors besides physiology play into the ability to delay gratification. A University of Colorado, Boulder, study published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology showed that the perceived trustworthiness of the giver affects whether a person is able to delay gratification.

"If you don’t trust someone, it's rational not to wait for them to give you $20 in a month instead of $15 now," study researcher Alejandro de la Vega, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the university, explained in a statement.