April 14, 2010
Brain Circuit Resists Instant Gratification

There are at least two parts of the brain that influence whether you go for instant gratification.

New research reveals a brain circuit that seems to underlie the ability of humans to resist instant gratification and delay reward for months, or even years, in order to earn a better payoff. The study, published by Cell Press in the April 15 issue of the journal Neuron, provides insight into the capacity for "mental time travel," also known as episodic future thought, that enables humans to make choices with high long-term benefits.

If the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) influences how we trade off between instant gratification and larger long term reward then will offspring be genetically engineered in the future to make future generations more future oriented and with larger instinctive desires to save and accumulate wealth? Will you opt for a treatment that increases the link between your ACC and hippocampus in a way that increases your motive to save?

Imagining the future causes a shift in emphasis away from immediate gratification and toward longer term bigger rewards. So it stands to reason that reading and writing FuturePundit makes us all more prone to save.

Human subjects had to make a series of choices between smaller immediate and larger delayed rewards while brain activity was measured with fMRI. Importantly, in addition to this standard control condition, the participants were presented with "cues" that referred to real subject-specific future events planned for the respective day of reward delivery. The researchers observed that the more the cues induced spontaneous episodic imagery, the more subjects changed their preferences toward patient, future-minded choice behavior.

Further, the neuroimaging data revealed that signals in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain implicated in reward-based decision making, and functional coupling of this region with the hippocampus, linked with imagining the future, predicted the degree to which forward thinking modulated individual preference functions.

"Taken together, our results reveal that vividly imagining the future reduced impulsive choice," concludes Dr. Peters. "Our data suggest that the ACC, based on episodic predictions involving the hippocampus, supports the dynamic adjustment of preference functions that enable us to make choices that maximize future payoffs."

I'm changing your time preference.

For example: If you spend less and save lots of money every year for rejuvenation therapies you'll be able to afford to buy the earliest life extending and rejuvenating therapies. You might need to travel to China or perhaps a Caribbean country to buy new treatments before they are approved in more developed and regulated countries. So think more about your future sexy, smarter, rejuvenated self and spend less today.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 April 14 10:52 PM  Brain Economics

Mthson said at April 15, 2010 12:28 AM:

I wonder if folks who seek out futurist perspectives tend to naturally have more brain tissue in this area. It's a privilege; appreciate it :)

Folks who continually seek out night clubs etc. probably tend to be on the left side of the bell curve for this neural circuit.

LAG said at April 15, 2010 7:45 AM:

So, what if you're a saddle-point gratifier? (That would be the maximum gratification available in a reasonable but not instantaneous or infinite amount of time.)

Lono said at April 15, 2010 8:13 AM:


Agreed - that would be an interesting area of investigation - for if that is the case we might not be the one's who really need the benefit of future persectives - although we still profit from it.

As far as the regular clubbing crowd - I have often found them to be rediculously compulsive - with very little concern or interest in long term planning - despite their respective level of intelligence or education.


I guess such a person would be more prone to habitually "fall off the wagon"?


random said at April 15, 2010 10:51 AM:

Right now I would bet that short-term instant gratification is out-selecting long-term. Long-term planning would be to wait until you are more financially stable and able to provide for your one or two children, but if you wait too long you may not even be fertile enough to have your own (biological) children. Short-term gratification would be to have unprotected sex as much and often as possible and then end up raising the brood in near-poverty.

My guess is that long-term planners are good for society as a whole, and may carry the gene pool through a crisis. In times of stability however, the short-term thinkers are more likely to out-reproduce.

Mthson said at April 15, 2010 1:39 PM:

Right, it seems like there are plenty of intelligent people who nonetheless seem unlikely to look beyond even modest time horizons.

It seems like our modern world is already the result of that dysgenic trend. How long have intellectuals been complaining about the rapid fecundity of thinkers who are less economic? 100 years? Was it present in Britain & Europe before US independence? Was it even present in ancient Rome?

Randall Parker said at April 15, 2010 6:53 PM:


Historian Gregory Clark says the more productive and affluent English left more descendants than the poor. So for centuries the selective pressures were for brains. That's reversed at this point. That this is a problem is beyond the pale of mainstream media. Yet the problem is glaring.


Looks like both low IQ and impulsiveness are getting selected for.

Once genetic variants that control IQ and assorted cognitive traits are identified (and the flood of discoveries will start this year) then smarter people will select for smarter embryos when reproducing. This will do something to reverse the current dysgenesis. But I expect it will also create a more stratified society as the most together people embrace IVF with genetic testing and embryo selection and therefore the gap between the smarter and dumber opens up.

random said at April 15, 2010 8:51 PM:

Does a tendency toward short-term gratification necessarily equal lower IQ? Seems likely, but I do know more than a few very intelligent people that "live in the moment".

PacRim Jim said at April 15, 2010 10:31 PM:

I wonder if AI will not be able to resist instant gratification. (Whatever would gratify artificial intelligence?)

REN said at April 16, 2010 10:06 PM:

Already our society is stratifying by IQ at college. Higher IQ types at colleges assortively mate due to selection. While, the lower IQ proletariat, who tend not to go to college, are forced into a different gene pool of available mates.

In the past, the mating pool was about 5 miles, the distance a man could comfortably walk. Our ancestors tended to mate within their familial gene pool due to proximity, hence marriage among first and second cousins through much of history.

Familial matings accelerate evolutionary adaptations, as that gene cluster is reinforced. Long Range planning likely first evolved under ice age pressures, and those genes seem to be present in the descendants of those tribes (North Europeans, and North Asians). The ice age tribal groups all exhibit long range planning behaviors as demonstrated by the societies they have produced.

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