The Neuroscience of Temptation: Are Our Brains to Blame When We Do Things We Regret?

The-Neuroscience-of-Temptation-Are-Our-Brains-to-Blame-When-We-Do-Things-We-RegretTemptation is as old as the human race, or so the archetypal story from Genesis goes. The familiar story line is this: The first man Adam and the first woman Eve are hanging out in a picturesque garden when along comes a sneaky snake; the snake tells Eve about a delicious apple; Eve eats the apple, and then shares it with Adam.

The rest is history.

The story of “The Fall” has inspired the work of some of the greatest human minds across the centuries, from theologians like Augustine to painters like Titian and writers like Dante and Milton. Giving in to temptation, in addition to ruining paradise, has been a source of great inspiration.

Finding the Red-Horned Devil

But, what if Adam and Eve had been hooked up to today’s latest brain imaging technology before their historic fall from grace? What if the latest developments in neuroscience could identify the metaphorical red-horned devil that shows up when temptation strikes? And, how might these breakthroughs, in the way of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example, offer hope to addicts and others seeking to conquer their temptations, rather than be conquered by them?

Now more than ever, science has the tools at its disposal to study what happens in the human brain when that box of empty, carb-laden Krispy Kreme donuts presents itself, or, when that suggestive 1-800 number pops up on your computer screen. Technologies like fMRI allow researchers to look at how specific regions of the brain respond to various stimuli. The results are revealing.

In his book The Compass of Pleasure, Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden catalogues some of the latest experiments using these technologies. One such experiment, conducted at Emory University, involved showing images with varying degrees of sexualized content to male and female test subjects. Highly sexualized content registered strong activation of elements of the brain’s so-called medial forebrain pleasure circuit, such as the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens/ventral striatum. This activation occurred in both males and females. In males, strong activation of the hypothalamus and amygdala (the brain’s emotion centers) also occurred.

Some Temptations Feel More Pleasurable

These findings, suggesting that temptation often activates the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits, have been confirmed elsewhere. An article in Discover, “I Didn’t Sin—It Was My Brain,” summarizes how brain research has now linked the allure of particular sins to particular (and in certain cases, many) regions of the brain. Indeed, the more “pleasurable” of the “deadly sins,” such as lust or gluttony, tend to light up key outposts along the brain’s pleasure circuit (such as the nucleus accumbens and hypothalamus). According to Northwestern University researcher Adam Safron, lust sets “nearly the whole brain abuzz.” In contrast, less pleasurable, “more disagreeable” sins, such as wrath or envy, set off activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC).

Is it possible, then, to say truthfully that when we give in to the proverbial “apple,” our brains made us do it? Yes – and no. If there is more and more neuroscientific evidence to reinforce the claim that human beings are neurobiologically wired – predetermined, in essence – for certain desires and behavioral propensities, it is also the case that there is also more available data in place to show how the more “virtuous” choices we make can actually change our brains over time.

Temptation Doesn’t Have to Win

Just because someone may be genetically and neurobiologically wired to find gambling or playing video games addictive, the latest science now demonstrates various therapies and forms of treatment, as well as virtuous habits like giving, exercising or eating well, have been shown to actually change the brain’s neurochemistry. In other words, the brain itself displays its own hard-wired capacity to resist temptation – one that is more developed evolutionarily than the less developed pleasure circuit that finds fatty foods and pornography so enticing.

For addicts on the path to recovery – and for all those who understand what Oscar Wilde meant when he said, in the voice of one of his characters, “I can resist anything except temptation” – this truth offers a fighting chance when it comes to duking it out with one’s demons. The brain can’t become totally immune to temptation, but it can become less susceptible. Developing healthy habits and taking advantage of therapeutic interventions like mindfulness meditation will build a brain that over time is more resilient to the sound of those siren calls.