Recently Wendy Dubas, Lower School Math Specialist, attended the Learning and the Brain Conference: The Science of Character. Here is her report on one of the sessions she attended.
For a long time success in school was believed to be primarily determined by a children’s cognitive skills. Psychology and Neuroscience research now shows that development of character strengths such as self-control, conscientiousness, empathy, resilience, grit, and social-emotional skills are linked to greater school and life success. Because of the brain’s neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability for neural pathways to change, we can nurture children to strengthen character skills. The conference immersed us in brain research and the science of character.
One of the sessions that interested me was by Walter Mischel who researched self-control. In his original 1960s marshmallow test study, preschool children had a choice to eat one marshmallow right away or if they waited fifteen minutes, they could eat two marshmallows. Preschoolers with higher self-control could wait the fifteen minutes and delay gratification.
Mischel followed up on many of these preschoolers in their teenage years. He discovered that the preschoolers who had waited longer on the marshmallow test grew to be adolescents who showed more self-control, planning skills, coping abilities, concentration, and had better grades in school than the preschoolers who waited a brief time. Mischel found similar results when he met with many of these preschoolers as adults in their forties.
Some adults underwent a study of brain patterns in relation to self-control. When they were shown an enticement, a functional MRI was used to look at brain activity. Those who demonstrated self-control had more brain activity in the pre-frontal cortex where executive function is controlled. Adults who showed less self-control showed more brain activity in the ventral striatum, the area that attends to people’s wants and immediate rewards.
Mischel explained the ability for self-control with “hot-and-cool” systems in the brain. The cool system is more of a thinking system, and the hot system is more emotional and impulsive. When certain triggers are present, the hot system takes over, and more impulsive behaviors occur with little thinking about consequences. The hot system has power because it is more in the immediate, whereas the cool system’s consequences and rewards are more abstract.
Mischel believes that “self-control can be nurtured in children and adults, so that the prefrontal cortex can be used deliberately to activate the cool system and regulate the hot system.” One strategy he discussed to alter the impact of a trigger is to change how one thinks of it. For example, in his marshmallow studies, if children were given suggestions to think of the marshmallow in a descriptive or “cool” way such as being a puffy, white cloud instead of a “hot” way as a sweet, tasty treat, they showed more self-control. Children also showed they could change the “hot” temptation of the marshmallow by thinking of it as a picture instead of the real thing; by using self-distraction, such as singing a song; or by physically distancing themselves from the temptation by moving the marshmallow away.
Mischel recently published a book titled The Marshmallow Test that expands on his research, suggests strategies to strengthen self-control, and offers implications of his research.