Over the years I’ve blogged on frustration tolerance and delaying gratification from the behavioral perspective. Now science tells us that specific parts of the brain influence our ability to defer pleasure (or not). In particular, research conclusions on spending versus saving tell us a lot about our eating patterns and their bio-psycho-social origins.

Science tells us that there are measurable differences in the brain between folks who save or spend (NEWSWEEK, November 7/14, 2011), “…particularly in the areas of the brain that predict consequences, process the sense of reward, spur motivation, and control memory.” So maybe the fact that you struggle with delaying gratification and have difficulty saying no to food while others don’t is as biological as it is learned behavior. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, it seems, calms down messages that we receive from our midbrain which scream, “I want it and I want it now!” But “…the number and strength of connections to the midbrain’s circuits…” can vary between savers and spenders. Scientists are now working on ways to increase these connections to enhance the midbrain’s calming abilities.

How well short-term memory works also impacts spending versus saving in that you have to be able to keep a goal in mind in order to reach it, what you might call sustaining motivation. Many disregulated eaters seem able to keep in mind their fitness and health goals only for several weeks or months (or, sadly, days). The more they can stay focused not on pleasure now, but on pleasure in the long-term, the more they’re retraining their brains to make the future more important than the present, that is, to think about consequence rather than immediate gratification.

Scientists are encouraging about upping the ability to delay gratification and tolerate frustration, what they call extending your short-time horizon to a long-time horizon. The way that happens is that you must teach your brain to respond differently. How does this occur? Through practice, of course. Each time you allow yourself to say yes to pleasure in the moment that will not bring you happiness in the future, you are maintaining the status quo in your brain. Each time you stop and think about what unwanted eating means to your future and don’t eat in spite of how good something tastes, you are pro-actively changing the circuitry of your brain. You are not powerless over your eating (or spending) even if you have biological tendencies toward reacting impulsively. Anyone or any group which tells you that you have no power is doing you a disservice. So, since you have the power, why not use it for your own long-term benefit?