Self-control, or the ability to control impulses and delay gratification, underlies many human behaviours. A longitudinal study, known as the Dunedin study, which has been following 1000 people from birth, recently showed that childhood self-control predicts physical and mental health, the risk of substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending in adulthood.
David Bilkey and Kristin Hillman, at the University of Otago's psychology department received a Marsden grant this year to examine what happens in the brain when we exercise self-control. The focus is on one of the brain mechanisms involved in self-control, particularly when access to an easily available reward is rejected in favour of a more valuable option that requires effort and patience to attain. Building on earlier research that investigated competitive behaviour, the team is monitoring brain activity in rats as they perform certain tasks that involve decisions between instant and delayed rewards. Preliminary data shows that a communication link between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus plays an important role.