Module 2: Introduction to The Prefrontal Cortex

 

 

Introduction to The Prefrontal Cortex

 

In the last module we had a look at the right focus for dealing with addiction. That is: The ability to take steps to self correct when we sense that our behavior will lead to problems, trouble or danger. We call this ability self-control. Other names are executive function, willpower or self regulation. In reality all these names refer to our ability to self correct –  that is: How to put yourself on a different path, when you sense that you are going in the wrong direction.The prefrontal cortex or the PFC is the seat of this self-control. What the prefrontal cortex can do, is to put a plan of action together and force feed the specified actions into our behavior.  Most of our behavior is automatic and uncontrolled. It happens, perhaps not without effort, but mostly without any mental effort. When we need to course correct, self-control steps in, it suppresses automatic behavior and lines up a series of planned actions instead. Over time this alternative behavior might become more habitual and less demanding in terms of self-control. But at the starting point you need to push for every small step.
You also need to put a halt to those things that you are currently doing because you like the behavior, like the result or like the idea behind it. So – to summarize a bit: The prefrontal cortex is what we use when something that is tempting might not be what we should do if we care about the long term results.The prefrontal cortex is what separates us from animals and lets us control our environment a lot more than any animal.
It also gives us more control over our health and prosperity. As we learn what is needed, we can shape our behavior in the interest in long term results. Like when we have great big corn fields instead of just finding things to eat in nature. It is the PFC that lets you, shape your behavior in the interest of later results. Like making tools, educating yourself or overcome your fears. And avoid behavior that gets you into trouble. If your PFC is working you can go early to bed, get the rest you need and get to work on time. And while you are there you can stay sober, talk polite and not cat-call the female manager there.This all depends on the function of the PFC! So the state, health, function and education of the PFC is limiting how much course correction that you can do. The use of the PFC is limited in terms or energy or fuel. Self-control is a complex and demanding task and your ability for self-control will fade as you use up the necessary resources. We all use self-control to get things done, but we all fail as our resources are used up. This is a daily experience of no longer being up for the task. You know the feeling in those late day situations where you did you level best and then went “#¤%&!!!… this is not going to work”. That is what happens when we go past a certain line as our resources are too depleted to make the PFC do all the necessary work. This is called depletion and is the limit of self-control.
Our task is to change the limits for the better.If you had no executive function at all, you would spend your day satisfying the most immediate urges and cravings with no thought for your long term needs and no preparation for your future. If you have a very strong PFC you spend more of your time preparing for a better future. If your PFC is weaker than average you will be in a constant battle for control over desires and cravings. And you will have a hard time disciplining yourself when that is necessary. This is a trait where we are all different and we all fit in somewhere between the extremes of low or high executive function. Important point: Very few people know why their self-control is high, low or average. Even fever know how to move toward better self-control and towards better prefrontal function.Partly this is because people underestimate the effects of having a weak self-control. It doesn’t seem so important. It is also because there are no quick benefits from having better self-control. So there is an amplifying effect of having high self-control: You are then more focus on long term results and the need for self-control. If you are mostly focused on getting your next drink or fix, improving your self-control does not seem very relevant. It is when you sense that drinking or drugs have become a problem, that you starting thinking that better self-control would be a great thing. Or when not having an education and being stuck in a shitty job starts to hurt you.This is the way to understand the PFC and self-control in daily life: It gives you the ability to keep you on track when things are a bit dicey. As when you don’t know if you are getting yourself into trouble. When you are faced with temptations that might lead to trouble, self-control is the only thing that will hold you back. Another point is: that the main effect of self-control is not in any one situation. It is the ffects of self-control as they add up over a longer period of time. In the long run, your life situation will depend on how you perform in a long row of situations and how much self-control you have in each of those. Over the years it really adds up and makes your life situation a lot better or a lot worse.

The PFC is also what determines if you can change your level of self-control. As in are you able to change behaviors that hurt the health of your brain? Are you able the change behaviors that are costly in terms of problems that will tax your self-control? Are you able to put a life together that will see you increase your level of self-control? As you need self-control to improve you self-control it would seem to be something really really hard to pull off. However most people waste a lot of their resources in situations that they can just avoid. And they hurt their level self-control in ways that are easily corrected. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit if you know where to look. For that reason, you can actually improve a lot if you make a serious and informed attempt. More on that later. The main point now is that having low self-control also makes self-control seem a lot less important to you. And so people don’t always care too much.

We are going discuss self-control as business problem. This is because self-control is a lot like money. You have to have money to get money. You need to invest in something that can make an income in the long run. The same is true for self-control. You need to shape your behavior, so that you have more resources and a higher level of self-control. So you need, to invest your self-control resources in something that will “pay off”, something that puts you in a better situation, long-term. In other words: You need to look at self-control in terms of economy:
You have a certain budget (your present levels of self-control)
You have a set of expenses, relations and situations that tax your self-control.
So what can you do to improve your income?
And what can you do to cut your expenses?
What would be the cheapest and most promising investments?
Where are you wasting resources in situations that bring you nothing?

Looking at self-control as economy is great in general, but it is vitally important to do so in the early stages because it will help you focus on targets that are easy to reach and that gives you big improvements.
Easy, rich targets is what we are looking for in the beginning.

The aim of these investments are:
A) To bring you the usual results in terms of money, sex and safety.
B) To make sure that your level of self-control is at least maintained and hopefully improved.

In a lot of cases A and B overlap, but there are many cases in which they don’t. Which also means that a lot of options for better self-control are not driven by your everyday appetites. These targets are often not done because there is no obvious reason to spend energy on those. Which means that you probably leave a lot on the table. More about this later.

Looking at your resource management you might ask:
How much energy do you need to spend on just staying on track?
How much energy do you start your day with?
How well did you sleep and how energized are you when you wake up?
How much energy is wasted on avoiding social situations that could blow up?
How much energy is wasted on avoiding things like overdue debts or just people that you have pissed off in some way.
How much energy is wasted on overcoming physical discomfort from injury, disease, hangovers or similar negative influence?
This kind of accounting is what will determine what your “budget” for self-control will be. AND THUS: What kind of changes and course corrections that you are strong enough to make a reality in your life!

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