Revealing the Subtle yet Drastic Limitations of our Biological Minds.

I always enjoy David McRaney’s blog “You Are Not So Smart” with its epic and lengthy posts about the very many subtle and powerful limitations of our all-too-human wet ware. The latest post concerns the phenomenon of Ego Depletion http://youarenotsosmart.com/2012/04/17/ego-depletion/, which is based around the core idea of one’s willpower being a finite resource, the repeated exertion of which becomes increasingly difficult. Some excerpts follow:

Taking control of the human mind includes making choices, avoiding temptation, suppressing emotions and thoughts, and acting in a way deemed appropriate by your culture. Saying no to every naughty impulse from raiding the refrigerator to skipping class requires a little bit of willpower fuel, and once you spend that fuel it becomes harder to say no the next time. All of Baumeister’s research suggests self-control is a strenuous act. As your ego depletes, your automatic processes get louder, and each successive attempt to take control of your impulses is less successful than the last.

The people who thought they got an energy boost tended to perform worse than those who actually got their glucose replenished. Thus, it seems as though you are more able to exert willpower and control, to make decisions and suppress naughtiness by eating and drinking beforehand, which sucks of course if the thing over which you need willpower are food and drink.

The current understanding of this is that all brain functions require fuel, but the executive functions seem to require the most. Or, if you prefer, the executive branch of the mind has the most expensive operating costs. Studies show that when low on glucose, those executive functions suffer, and the result is a state of mind called ego depletion.

It seems to me that this could well be one of the few low-hanging fruits that could be targeted to engender cognitive enhancement with little chance for deleterious side-effects. Such a system would simply consist of a glucose reservoir that responds to local glucose levels in the brain and is able to replenish glucose when the execution of will (via the employment of higher-order energy-hungry executive functions) depletes this resource.

By providing a consistent power-supply to our executive functions we would hope to engender better and more consistent concentration, decision making, pleasure delaying, distraction avoidance, and long-term goal acquisition.

I believe that this would be a serious enhancement to those who possessed it, sufficient for significant empowerment of such individuals to outcompete those who do not.
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