The Common Neural Basis of Exerting Self-Control in Multiple Domains
People regularly exert control over impulsive thoughts and behaviors in order to make appropriate decisions and take appropriate actions even when they are more difficult or less pleasant than alternative choices. A common theme in mental illnesses characterized by impulsivity, such as ADHD and substance abuse, is an impaired self-control mechanism. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms underlying an intact control mechanism can not only shed light on how healthy people exert self-control over their thoughts and behaviors, but help us to understand what is impaired in patient populations as well. The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) is a region in the brain that is commonly activated when people are exerting many different forms of self-control. It is noted that other prefrontal regions also consistently activated when one exerts self-control, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and medial prefrontal cortex, may be recruited for other task demands and not self-control specifically. Although the right VLPFC has been linked to other functions as well, this review will focus on the hypothesized general role that it plays during acts of self-control. There are infinite manners in which one can exert self-control. We limit our discussion to six forms of conscious, explicit control that are commonly addressed in the literature: motor response inhibition, suppressing risky behavior, delaying gratification, regulating emotion, memory inhibition, and thought suppression. First, we review the literature exploring the involvement of the right VLPFC in each type of self-control separately. Next, we explore the small amount of literature comparing different forms of self-control to each other and discuss the possibility that these forms of self-control are related constructs. We also discuss the anatomical positioning of the right VLPFC and point out that it is well suited to serving a key role in exerting self-control. Finally, we conclude that although more direct research must be conducted before firm conclusions can be made, there is evidence that the right VLPFC is utilized when exerting self-control regardless of the specific domain of control.
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